ELLIE MCCLAIN IS EXACTLY the kind of student George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act is supposed to rescue, a kid who was left behind from the get-go. Ellie’s father went to prison soon after she was born and died of AIDS in 1994, when she was eight. One of her two half brothers is in prison and the other may be headed there. Her senior year at Garza Independence High School, in East Austin, an alternative school designed for students who do not function well in traditional academic settings, was a series of calamities, most of them products of fate. She has been in and out of school all year, suffering the physical and emotional battering of an abortion, a family death, a recurring struggle with bronchitis, and a car wreck that gave her several bruised ribs and a shoulder sprain. Ellie is among the brightest students not just in her school but in the entire Austin Independent School District: She was one of only 145 students to qualify for National Merit Scholarship honors. Nevertheless, she missed too much time to graduate with her class in May.
Considering what she has been through, and the promise she has shown, you might think that Ellie is a prime example of what No Child Left Behind is designed to accomplish. Instead, the law regards her as a failure. It requires that every school show “adequate yearly progress” (called AYP by education administrators), which is based largely on students’ test scores and four-year graduation rates. Because of Garza’s unique role as a rescuer of lost souls, its graduation rate is nowhere near the benchmark set by Texas’s education officials of 75 percent of each entering class. The law makes no allowance for alternative schools. Ellie, who is eighteen, will beat the clock if she passes the second half of Geometry, Algebra II, and Government this summer and graduates in August. Otherwise, she will be recorded as failing to graduate with her class; even if she graduates next year, she will count against Garza’s AYP score. Schools that fall short of AYP targets face a range of sanctions that get progressively more severe until, after five years, a school can be shut down. The possibility that a school whose purpose is to ensure that no child is left behind could be permanently closed by the No Child Left Behind Act goes against everything the law ought to stand for. Any other school would have blown Ellie off years ago.
Garza has attracted national attention from Harvard’s Principals’ Center and many educational reform associations. Opened by the AISD six years ago, it was designed to salvage adolescents who for various reasons get sidetracked on the perilous road to a public education. Its students range from undisciplined to gifted, but the best way to describe it is as a magnet school for misfits, a place for students who haven’t functioned well under the regimented routine of a normal high school. Garza doesn’t have a football team, but it does have a mascot: a griffin, the legendary creature whose features are a combination of an eagle and a lion. Griffins are guardians of hidden treasure.
What makes Garza so different is that students can come and go at times of their own choosing and proceed at their own pace. Any AISD student with ten high school credits can apply—nearly all of Garza’s students are eleventh or twelfth graders—and they come for a variety of reasons. Ellie wanted to accelerate her education, graduate in three years, and go to college, but obviously, those plans had to be revised. Mark Sprinkle transferred to the school because of severe rheumatoid arthritis in his back. Just climbing out of bed is excruciatingly difficult for him, but Garza’s flexible curriculum allowed Mark to get to class when he was physically able. He was there often enough this year to create a marvelous Styrofoam dinosaur that reaches to the ceiling of a Garza hallway—and to graduate. Michelle Powers, an eighteen-year-old who graduated in May, was an honor student at Anderson High until she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder; her social anxiety got so intense that she was afraid to walk down the hall. She transferred to Garza, where she served on the Student Advisory Council and received the Spirit of Garza award.
With only 350 students, Garza is about one fifth the size of a traditional high school. Its ratio of counselors to students is four to five times higher than the typical school’s, and its ambience is more down-home casual and nurturing. Many of its students need five or six years to finish high school. But they do finish, at least a large percentage of them do, and more than 75 percent of its graduates go on to college. Against staggering odds, kids who would otherwise be street litter stay in school and keep trying. Schools like Garza should be rewarded rather than punished, but that’s not the way things work under No Child Left Behind’s one-size-fits-all policy.
The clock starts ticking when students enter the ninth grade. But by the time Garza gets them, many are already hopelessly behind their graduating class. The school’s four-year graduation rate, at its accounting by the Department of Education for 2002, was 22.4 percent, with 4.8 percent of students dropping out, 67.3 percent continuing high school, and the remainder opting for a GED. Schools that fail to meet the 75 percent goal for a second straight year face sanctions: They must notify parents of their subpar performance, and students in those schools have the right to transfer to another school in the district. This sanction would have no practical effect at Garza, of course, because its students are free to come and go as they wish. In subsequent years, a school can be forced to redirect its federal funds to achieve AYP goals. The ultimate punishment of closing down the school is reminiscent of the Vietnam-era saying that in order to liberate a village, we first