MUCH OF AMERICA HAS LOST FAITH IN PUBLIC EDUCATION, but at Carl C. Waitz elementary school north of Mission, cynicism and doubt are luxuries that no one can afford. Five-year-old Waitz sits in the middle of the poorest neighborhood in one of the poorest communities in Texas: Of the state’s 1,058 school districts, Mission ranks seventeenth from the bottom in property values per child. That grim statistic doesn’t even begin to tell the story, though. From the front door of Waitz, the view across Mile Four Road is of a mishmash of unthinkable housing—aging trailers, clapboard shacks, unfinished cinder-block additions, corrugated-metal walls, the telltale signs of a colonia. A third of Waitz’s eight-hundred-plus students are the children of migrant farm workers; they leave town in April and don’t return until October. When I asked principal J. D. Villa-rreal what percentage of his students start school using English, he answered, “Zero.” Ninety-four percent of the students qualify as disadvantaged. If ever a school had an excuse for failure, it is Waitz.
And yet, improbably, miraculously, it succeeds. Last year 93.5 percent of its students passed the English portion of the TAAS test, 96.5 passed in math, 98.3 passed in writing—scores that would be the envy of many a wealthy suburban school.
What is Waitz’s secret? Much of what Villarreal cites—believing that every child can learn, improving self-esteem, rewarding success, getting parents involved—is the same litany one hears from educators everywhere. The difference at Waitz is will. Villarreal and his teachers attack the TAAS test as if it were a cross between the game of the year (“Beat the TAAS” reads a banner in the cafeteria) and a matter of survival (which, for these children, it is).