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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

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Inside the race to save a great American high school, where making the numbers is only the beginning

Being principal was never her dream. Anabel Garza, the young widow of a young cop, got by teaching English to immigrant children, taking college classes at night and raising her son.

And Reagan High was no dream assignment. Once famous for its state football championships, educational achievements and award-winning design, the school was a ...

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Saving the School: One Woman's Fight for the Kids That Education Reform Left Behind

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Overview

Inside the race to save a great American high school, where making the numbers is only the beginning

Being principal was never her dream. Anabel Garza, the young widow of a young cop, got by teaching English to immigrant children, taking college classes at night and raising her son.

And Reagan High was no dream assignment. Once famous for its state football championships, educational achievements and award-winning design, the school was a shadow of its former self. “Identified for improvement,” said the federal government. “Academically unacceptable,” said the state. Promising students were fleeing. Test scores were plunging. The education commissioner set a deadline of one year, threatening to close the school for good.

But when Anabel took the job - cruising the mall for dropouts, tailoring lessons to the tests, firing a few lazy teachers and supporting the rest – she started something no one expected. As the numbers rose, she set out to re-create the high school she remembered, with plays and dances, yearbooks and clubs, crowded bleachers and teachers who brought books alive.

And soon she was not alone. There was Derrick Davis, a star player on the basketball team in the early 1990s, coaching the Raiders toward a chance at the playoffs. There was Candice Kaiser, a science teacher who had left hard partying behind for Christ, drilling her students on chemistry while she drove them to games, tutoring sessions, Bible studies and sometimes even doctors’ appointments. There were JaQuarius Daniels, Ashley Brown and 900 other kids trying to pass the exams, escape the streets and restore the pride of a neighborhood, all while still growing up.

Across the country, public schools face the threat of extinction in the numerically ordained churn of the accountability movement. Now, for the first time, we can tally the human cost of rankings and scores. In this powerful rejoinder to the prevailing winds of American education policy, Michael Brick takes us inside the high-pressure world of a school on the brink. Compelling, character-driven narrative journalism, Saving the School pays overdue tribute to the great American high school, and to the people inside.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Former New York Times reporter Brick presents a well-researched look at John H. Reagan High School in Texas, which was on the verge of being shut down until an unlikely principal—a widowed mother named Anabel Garza—came along. While the topic is indisputably timely and important, and the book offers a concrete, story-driven look into U.S. education policy, the prose and characterization fall short. Scenes that could be compelling often read like dialogue from a television script. “‘People used to pick on me too. If you let them get the better of you, they’ll just keep doing it. You need to turn away,” says a “school improvement facilitator” who looks “like he’d stepped out of a buddy cop movie.” The reader may question whether the school, with its high dropout rate, teen pregnancies, and academic failures, should be allotted the resources to be “saved,” which speaks to Brick’s decision to let the story speak for itself rather than tackling larger questions. He focuses on Garza’s and others’ efforts and involvements in ensuring a future for Reagan High. Despite the project’s high stakes, Brick’s reliance on trite quotation and magazine-style storytelling may interfere with the book’s ability to reach a wide audience. Agent: Elyse Cheney, Elyse Cheney Literary Associates. (Aug.)
Library Journal
Brick recounts the near-death of John H. Reagan High School, where students were failing standardized tests even as truancy and teenage pregnancy rates soared. Then Anabel Garza, pregnant at 16, widowed at 25, and an English teacher to Mexican immigrants, agreed to be principal. She hunted down dropouts, fired slack teachers, and individualized tutoring efforts while bringing back the old-fashioned aspects of high school, like plays, dances, and yearbooks. Inspiring reading.
Library Journal
The phrases "saving schools" and "education reform," in the context of public education today, are ominous, now synonymous with mass firings, corporate takeovers, and contentious teacher unions. But former New York Times reporter Brick introduces reform-minded readers to the students, teachers, and administrators of Reagan High School in Austin, TX, the kind of people who remain mostly anonymous in the debates about and heavy-handed changes made on behalf of school reform. The book tells the story of a few key individuals who have become the face of Reagan High School, which, like many underperforming schools, is plagued by poverty, social ills, and lack of resources. In spite of seemingly insurmountable odds and students who face numerous obstacles, however, the people of Reagan High managed to persevere and experience personal growth. VERDICT Recommended for anyone interested in an inspirational story of a school beating the odds, and especially those readers looking for different perspectives on the debate about education reform. [See Prepub Alert, 3/1/12.]—Tamela Chambers, Chicago Public Schs.
Kirkus Reviews
The lively journalistic account of a troubled Austin, Texas, school that endured a year of tough medicine while facing shutdown. Opened in 1965 to great fanfare and team spirit, lauded by national leaders for its two state football championships in the late-'60s, John H. Reagan High School was beset by the classic concerns troubling much of the rest of the country's public schools from the 1990s onward. A huge increase in English language learners, rotating teaching staff, a spike in school violence and dropout rates and alarming slumps in test scores branded Reagan with "the stigma of failure." During the school year of 2009-2010, when Reagan was given one more chance to bring up test scores or face closure as part of the national get-tough approach to school reform headed by the new president, former New York Times reporter Brick immersed himself in the lives of the teachers and students at Reagan. He focuses especially on the formidable task faced by the school's principal, Anabel Garza. Arriving onboard in 2008, Garza worked tirelessly to try to restore some of the lost luster to the neighborhood school. Raised in Brownsville, having struggled herself to build a career from hardscrabble beginnings, Garza employed a combination of hands-on mothering, hectoring and toughness, inspiring teachers to expect all of their students to pass the standardized tests. Overall, instilling a sense of personal responsibility within the larger student body seemed to be the heartening key to this school's amazing success. This nondidactic journalist's record of one school's journey through the confounding stakes of recent reform makes for instructive reading.
The Washington Post
Michael Brick's Saving the School is a compelling, enlightening account of a school community rising to save itself in the unforgiving, data-driven, often nonsensical world bequeathed to public education by No Child Left Behind.
—Patrick Welsh
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594203442
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 8/16/2012
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.58 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 1.02 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Brick, a former The New York Times reporter and sportswriter, has written feature stories from Alaska to Brooklyn to Mexico, including contributions for the Pulitzer Prize-winning project Portraits of Grief. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Stacy, and their children. Inspired by Anabel Garza and the teachers at Reagan High, they've started a scholarship fund for students at the school. Information is available at www.savingtheschool.com.
 

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