Finally, the debate over troubled public schools has emerged on the national stage, where both sides say they are waging the civil rights battle of our time.
To one side stand reformers as politically diverse as Governor Rick Perry of Texas, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, President Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. By moving aggressively to close schools with low standardized test scores, they promise to improve education through competition.
To the other side stand parents, students, and teachers joining together in defense of their neighborhood public schools. From Philadelphia, where 37 schools are on the target list, to Detroit, New Orleans, New York, Chicago, Texas, and California, demonstrators hope to save institutions crucial to the kids left behind in the rush to alternative educational choices.
After years of isolated skirmishes, their movement is finding its voice in a series of federal civil rights complaints, public rallies, and even a march on Washington, where the demonstrators won an audience of top officials of the Department of Education in January.
“This is decimating our communities, and it can no longer be allowed to happen,” said Joel Velasquez, a father of three who attended the meeting, according to The Washington Post.
By framing the debate as a matter of civil rights, these demonstrators are illuminating a deeper issue at the heart of the debate over education reform. Unlike any of the alternatives – private, charter or otherwise—public schools have the unique ability to transcend education, serving as the vital center of a neighborhood, a place of tradition, continuity, mentorship, inclusion, and inspiration.
For evidence, look no farther than the original civil rights movement. A generation ago, progressive reformers campaigned to integrate public schools. Eventually, the courts supported their cause, ordering districts to show racially balanced enrollment figures. In response, many education officials simply shut down the schools serving black and Latino neighborhoods.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that cynical approach did not produce an equitable system to serve all the country’s children. Here in Austin, for example, the district shut down L.C. Anderson High School, the pride of the black Eastside, in the early 1970s. The toll of the loss, which began with the stress inflicted on the student body at the time, has extended for generations.
In the archives of the Austin Citizen, I found a contemporaneous account from the school’s last principal, who described how one student “walked into class and told the teacher, ‘Let’s not talk about English today — let’s talk about what’s going to happen at Anderson.’”
Forty years later, I watched Reagan High School, which had replaced Anderson as the pride of the Eastside, struggle under the intense pressure of competition-based education policy. In 2009, a new principal faced a one-year deadline to raise scores, with the threat of closure looming.
The principal, an extraordinarily driven woman named Anabel Garza, did not prevail by means of soft cuddliness. To the contrary, I watched her impose strict discipline, chase away bad teachers, and even drive around the neighborhood rousting kids out of bed. She was determined to make the numbers, even if that meant “teaching to the test.”
But Anabel’s masterstroke—what set her apart from every run-of-the-mill hard-ass charging down the halls of an American high school with the soundtrack to “Lean on Me” in his head—was her decision to draw in the community.
It wasn’t easy. Here was a Latina woman from a border town stepping in to lead the withering yet beloved centerpiece of a traditionally black neighborhood. Over time, she managed to win over parents, teachers, preachers and civic leaders by embracing the proud history of Reagan High.
“There’s a heartbeat in the school,” Anabel once told me. “There’s a heartbeat, and it’s not too late to save.”
Recognizing that a myopic focus on test scores would only produce an annually recurring scramble, Anabel nurtured the spirit that makes families want to embrace their neighborhood school.
On her watch, the Raiders basketball team, coached by a big-hearted alum named Derrick Davis, made an inspiring playoff run behind a gifted four-sport athlete named JaQuarius Daniels. The band won competitions with funky show-stoppers. Drama and arts clubs came back to life. Devoted young teachers reached deep into their imaginations and pocketbooks to inspire their students. Pretty soon, the school became a place kids wanted to go.
And, oh yeah, they made the numbers.
Since 2010, when Reagan High cast off the state’s rating of “academically unacceptable,” Anabel has made steady progress, raising test scores, lowering dropout rates and offering more college-level courses.
But again, numbers alone don’t tell the whole story.
A month or so ago, in the bleachers at Reagan High, I caught up with JaQuarius Daniels, who was back from college at Iowa State. We watched his younger brother on the court, following his example, playing for the Raiders.
At halftime, I met the new football coach, Keith Carey. He had fielded a stellar freshman squad, a vivid sign of renewed interest in the school. And he was spending this post-football season Friday night cheering for the basketball team, pitching in to run errands for the ticket sales booth and jawing at his students about homework.
Most importantly, the kids were there, at the school on a Friday night, open to the message of getting their schoolwork done. Just a few years ago, that would have been unthinkable. When the school was stuck in the downward spiral of high-stakes standardized testing, Anabel had to beg parents to send their kids to Reagan High. The ones who showed up—those 900 kids—mostly had no other choice.
Is school closure a civil rights issue, as the demonstrators say? Are the potential rewards of more competition-based reform worthwhile, as the politicians say?
These are complex issues.
But this much is clear. My neighborhood came within a percentage point or so of losing Reagan High. Now, for as long as it lasts, the words of the school fight song will ring more true than ever:
“Not without honor
We shall always be
True to our colors
Symbols of our unity”
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Michael Brick, a former New York Times reporter and sportswriter, is the author of “Saving the School: The True Story of a Principal, a Teacher, a Coach, a Bunch of Kids and a Year in the Crosshairs of Education Reform.” Facebook | @BrickMichael | Takepart.com