Posted by: bewhatwedo | June 16, 2010

Guest Blog: Lessons from working in a High School (Elizabeth)

The following is a guest blog from my friend Elizabeth, who has been working at Reagan High School in Austin, running an after-school program.

I think bookends are interesting.  There are a lot of parallels I can draw between where I am now and where I was when I moved to Austin nine-months ago.

Example.  It’s hot outside between the hours of 11:00AM and 6:00PM in a way that makes hot weather start to seem pretty dangerous.  It was hot like that last August.  Last August, after I’d been living/roosting in Austin for a week or so, my car’s clutch switch went out and left me stranded.  Today, my car is back in the shop (same shop) because it’s overheating.  Coincidence?  Maybe.

So, I moved to Austin last August with no job and now, in about a month, I’ll be leaving my job and Texas(!) and going to graduate school in Boston. Boston rhymes with Austin. In Austin, I got a job at a high school where the mascot is a Raider.  Before this, I worked at a high school in Brownsville, on the border, where the mascot is also a Raider.  The Reagan Raider in Austin looks to have been modeled on a Confederate general and rides a horse.  The Rivera Raider of Brownsville Texas fame, on-the-border-by-the-sea, is a well-armed pirate. I keep up with a lot of my students from Brownsville including several who just finished their first year at UT, one who finished his second.  With only a few exceptions, I miss everything about the border. The border generally and Brownsville in particular. All of my graduate school essays were on the border. I can wax nostalgic for fifteen solid minutes about Rivera and teaching and Brownsville and the border before I realize what I’m doing or who I’m boring.

Instead of doing that, I’m writing about my current job at Reagan.  First point of clarification: John H. Reagan, not Ronald. John H. was a Confederate cabinet member (Postmaster!) and then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas’ first district, then a U.S. Senator from Texas.  The guy went from living in the Republic of Texas to being in the Confederate President’s cabinet to serving in the U.S. Congress.  We think we live in crazy times because of the Tea Party.

I’d never heard of him either, but the part that stuck with me is that he was a Confederate leader and now an almost entirely minority high school in Austin is named after him. And, beyond a doubt, Reagan kids love Reagan.  Granted a lot are apathetic, but a lot aren’t.  Parents and community, in pockets, are much invested. My co-worker who directed the on-site Boys and Girls Club and I were invested in our jobs which was after-school programming at Reagan. No one is sweating anything that John H. might have once supported.

I found the posting for my job on Craigslist where, in a week, I also found my apartment and furniture. The funny thing about finding my job on Craigslist was that it was a job with the school district that was also posted on the school district’s site. I’m not sure how many people they interviewed (my grant director, Shirlene Justice, told me she’d looked at hundreds of resumes) but they hired me about three weeks before this large, federal-grant-driven, state-implemented after-school program is supposed to be up and running at this campus.  This particular campus Shirlene suggested I should explore via the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) annual report card, which I did before the interview.  Here are some things I learned:

  • In 2009, 48% of Reagan’s 11th graders passed all four of their exit-level TAKS, the state mandated tests needed to graduate high school, on the first try.
  • In 2009, 19% of Reagan’s 10th grades passed all four of their 10th grade TAKS during that same week of testing.
  • The annual drop out rate at Reagan in 2009 was 7.0% compared to Texas’ 3.2%.
  • Out of the class of 2008, 28% dropped out, 47.2% graduated, 23.4% didn’t finish on-time and continued in high school. A few earned GEDs.
  • In the City of Austin in 2009, fully 33.3% of students were commended on their Reading/ELA TAKS as compared to 7% at Reagan.
  • 17% of Austin’s kiddos were commended on all of their TAKS as compared to 2% at Reagan.

Average Daily Attendance (an important phrase in administration-land), was about 10% points below the state average in 2009 at 84%.  So, one in six kids was missing school at Reagan on any given day.

Also, not from TEA, I learned that it had been a national football powerhouse of a high school in the 1970s and that a female student had been murdered in one of the halls in 2003.  It’s an absolutely awful story, maybe could’ve happened anywhere.  Except that there seemed, as it came out in the trial, to have been a pattern of negligence towards security at the campus and poor communication. Some things have changed.

Reagan kids love Reagan, though.  A student, Devonte, told me yesterday he’d been telling people all year, “C’mon and pass your TAKS.  I do not want to go do some other school for my senior year.” He said that because Reagan’s academic scores had put it, at the start of this year, at risk of state closure. Demographically, Reagan is 69.5% Hispanic, 28.2% African-American, and 2% white. I think I got my job because I can sort of speak Spanish and I’d taught in a high school before.

Job: Create and run an after-school program for these high school students using $200,000 of federal grant money.  Serve 233 students for 30-days or more and 25 parents. Serve students in ten or twelve different categories: math/science enrichment, health and fitness, tutoring, fine arts, leadership, etc… I did something like that between last-August and now, with some successes. There are some things I learned, though I don’t know if they’re all applicable outside of Reagan High School.

Taking the kids on a Grafitti Tour, part of the Urban Arts group, which also teaches hip hop arts, MCing, DJing and break-dancing, with the aim of encouraging expression and empowerment.

1.  It’s hard to get kids to try new things. Especially the kids I met at Reagan who have so much toughness to project every day.  We had filmmaking, Capoeira (a Brazilian martial art), an environmental club, digital SLR photography, hip hop programs to teach DJing and MCing and graffiti art, cooking classes, leadership activities, Girls Rock Camp, and more.  We had basically the same instructors all year long and they were some of the most interesting and diverse and positive intentioned people I’ve met in Austin. They talked to the kids, texted the kids, met the kids in school and at outside activities, played games with the kids. And wow is it hard to get kids to try new things. Every program struggled throughout the year with student apathy and every program had attendance dip into the zeros.  We could get students in for a snack or to play a game of ping pong or pool or the inexplicably popular Uno (the Boys and Girls Club has a room stocked with well-used games).  Sometimes something would coalesce that could pull in a bigger group –pancakes, graham cracker gingerbread house contest, dodge ball.  Most of the time most of the kids told our staff what they weren’t going to do (anything) and then proceeded to not do it. Even asking kids to participate in an icebreaker or try an activity for fifteen minutes was demanding too much.  Most would rather walk out than do what I suggested, so we waged a year long war over the participation issue. It’s now ended in a draw. In the end, though there were lots of positive moments (not as many as I would’ve thought $200,000 should buy us), I could probably count the number of kids who were often interested in what we had to offer on two hands.

Girls Rock Camp, which teaches the girls about music and empowerment.

2. If you want to have any hope of enticing participants, you need food or competition or both. Food works best or food that can be won, but this runs the risk of making the kids who didn’t win food really angry.  Especially tall, highly caffeinated, diabetic kids.  You’ve got to have free food and a lot of it and good food, preferably pizza.  Apparently my predecessor got in trouble for spending huge quantities of the budget last year on pizzas (and massages for the faculty and staff, that’s another story), but I do see his point.  Kids will do things for pizza. Not a lot of things, but some things. It’d be helpful to have pizza that required some assembly so you could run a program that way.  “Well, I wish I had someone who could help me put these pizzas together… then we could eat them!” I think that program would be successful.  Unfortunately, having the pizza just sitting there when it’s inconveniently delivered early by an overzealous pizza delivery guy translates into students calculating what is the least amount of X that they can do to get the most amount of Y.  X could be robotics, drawing, or gardening.  Y is pizza.  So I advocate for food that requires assembly, competition, or is integrated as part of the project.  Our environmental club leader brought the kids strawberries and bananas to eat and a worm composter they could compost their organic waste in.  Of course the kids didn’t stick around much after eating their strawberries and pitching their tops to the worms, but long enough to explain back why we were doing it. Our Capoeira instructor ended up bringing pizzas every day the second semester and thus earned himself a loyal following of two to three.

Motivating with food: making pancakes

Another use of food: gingerbread houses

3.  Working within a bureaucracy and beating your head against a brick wall have several important differences. Most obviously, beating your head against a brick wall will produce predictable results while a bureaucracy will inevitably spit up new challenges, most often involving paperwork.  Brick wall = little/no paperwork.  Apparently the most successful out of school time programs take place in community buildings, not schools, because operating within the framework of a school can be another take-it-to-the-dome kind of showdown. Rooms are available and then not.  Keys can be hard to get.  Reagan regularly hosts adult classes after school in computers, defensive driving (?), ESL… so space after school was at a premium.  Our librarian dislikes sharing the library with the tutoring groups and held fast for an entire semester before the library was surrendered to us every day for two hours after school.  Our College Forward program was assigned no room and met against orders in a computer lab all semester that would’ve otherwise been vacant at that hour. We can only store things upstairs and host programs downstairs and we didn’t manage to procure an elevator key until February.  Being in a room requires a building request.  Hanging something on a wall requires a work order.  Buying supplies requires a purchase order which may or may not be filled in the next two months if I did the paperwork correctly – which I probably didn’t.

A tower built in an impromptu design/construction competition, the winners of which get cake. But everyone ended up getting cake, to avoid aforementioned hunger issues.

4.  High standards are important but when they don’t carry the day it’s good to have backup standards.
Ideally we try to model polite behavior for our kids.  For example, when they sign in to get a snack I’d ask their name if I didn’t know it, introduce myself, remind them to print neatly, tell them thank you, call them sir or ma’am as I handed the snack over.  A lot started to say thank you.  Some still threw their trash on the ground so we had to implement a rule that throwing trash on the ground suspended snacks until things were picked up.  These are high schoolers, remember.  I saw kids stomp on unopened snacks, also. Reagan has two on-campus daycares and in talking to the teen moms at our after school program I constantly found myself wondering if we were helping these young women or helping to institutionalize teen pregnancy and this cyclical poverty. Did these girls need a place away from home two evenings a week, a tutor, a mother’s day party or a serious and genuine talking to about their options and choices before kids two and three?  I sent pizza over to the daycare after school a few times and then stopped by to find the babies eating it as their snack, or gumming the cheese off.  We tried to send over healthy snacks after that, offer a curriculum that had socializing and substance. I consider this an okay backup standard though it didn’t always go off as planned. We also had an instructor throw the usual standards out the window by instigating/escalating a fight with a student. Instructor and student argue, student insults instructor, instructor tells student to get out before she gets taken care of. The instructor was an alum and next thing we’ve got the students sister, also an alum, up at the school wanting to fight.  There are threats and chairs pushed and after a few days of meeting regarding the incident, this instructor lost her job.  So, in after school you can’t threaten a student and/or attempt to fight a student’s sister or you will get fired.  Backup standards.

Teaching kids to knit. Some people got into it for a while, but it seems to have fizzled out since then.

5.  The only thing that will get you anywhere in the long run is building relationships. I probably introduced myself thirty times a day for the first several weeks of the program and I learned most of the kids’ names pretty quickly from doing the attendance.  I think it’s absolutely essential to know kids names.  A kid acting like an asshole in the hallway will pause if you call him out by name. Even better than knowing names is knowing something more, what they like, what they’re good at.  Compliments go a long way.  Not talking more than they do goes far too. Most kids that age respect a calm, rational explanation.  We’ve even gotten to the point where some will do an activity they don’t want to saying, “But I’ll do it for you.”  If that’s what I’m going to get, Jameisha folding origami with me because she feels badly watching me do it by myself, I’ll take it.  Their credit definitely comes through earning it, not asserting it.  Earning it requires being tirelessly fair, patient, polite, firm, and friendly. Some days I manage this more successfully than others.  A lot of the time it doesn’t matter what I manage because what they’ve got going on in their lives has caused such a state of crisis that our fledgling relationship isn’t on their radar.

Participants in the Gs to Gents program for young men. It's part of a national curriculum called "Passport to Manhood", but we renamed it because we thought the kids would think it was a dumb name.

That’s more than enough to have said, but I have one more thought. I never expected working in Austin to make me such Republican. By that I just mean that entitlement culture is broken in a lot of ways.  Those tutoring groups vying for space in the library?  They’re the result of a part of No Child Left Behind that, through TEA, creates Supplementary Educational Services (SES) groups.  These groups make money per student that they tutor for twenty hours or more. Enough money that some of them give away “educational tools” i.e. laptops or an iPod Touch. Students at Reagan who signed up this year could do a second twenty hours if they wanted and get a second electronic.  And there was no pre- or post-test, no standard they had to meet or even specific topic they had to study.  Students often signed in to log their hours and then left the library to go play games. They also had the option of doing the hours from home on a computer program where students showed me they could access the code of the program and copy in the right answers.

Because absenteeism and class failures are such systemic problems, students get access to free summer school, free credit-by-exam, and free credit recovery programs –free to them and largely free to their parents, I mean. Boys and Girls Club gave out free dinner three nights a week, free snacks the other days.  We began the year giving out free bus passes for students who participated in programs to use to get home, but that became a constant game of seeing through the con, so we quit.  It was easier than trying to figure out who was lying about getting a bus pass today for a program they’d do tomorrow. Everyone always had an emergency. Someone had always just stolen their bus money.

Reagan raised most of its scores by a lot this year on the TAKS. The restructuring that may occur is still to-be-determined as of my writing this. I spoke a lot about my work this year during the interview for the Brandeis where I ultimately decided to go study Sustainable International Development next year. I talked about how working at Reagan  has made me something of a development practitioner already, trying to design and implement a program, hire, train, and effectively use staff, plan a budget, build community relationships, etc…

It was undoubtedly a tough environment to work in for the year, but all toughness is relative.  I learned this after I hired someone who taught as a New York Teaching Fellow in the Bronx and she couldn’t say enough about how polite and well-informed our kids are.  Our kids who work on a drawing for five minutes and then scribble across it and crumple it up.  The same kids who swear with impunity and spit on the floor.  The same kids who can be reliably counted on to egg on a fight and shove their fists in each others faces as a game. Toughness is relative –Reagan was tough for me and I’m tougher now because of it.

And the good fight goes on.



  1. Stephens, intrigued? I am, always.(: I grant you much success in all your adventures, and of course, much strength as well.

  2. I had some thoughts about republicanism yesterday on the way home after my loooong talk with the mother that resulted in the revelation of tears and her daughter’s lack of a ping pong table at home. It has definitely been a transformative year, for worse and for a lot better.

  3. What a hard year, but that’s how we learn new things about ourselves and others (unfortunately! — the hard part, not the learning)

  4. Hello to all. Found your site searching for stats on Reagan HS for a teen who fears attending Reagan. I must have been one of those 100’s of resumes discarded because I still do not have a teaching job. About the tutors…SES gets $1300 per student per 20 hours. Tutor 10 students for 20 hours and you get $13,000. The tutors are only paid about $10 an hour. With no pre or post testing, how does anyone know if tutoring was successful? Somebody is getting rich. Much success in your endeavors.

  5. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your weblog posts.
    After all I’ll be subscribing for your rss feed and I hope you write again soon!

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