texasmonthly.com: What was your initial reaction when senior editor Gary Cartwright approached you about doing a story on Garza High School?
Vicki Baldwin: I wasn’t sure what direction the story would take and hoped Gary would be able to see the merit in doing a story on Garza. As the principal, I am the chief advocate for this school that constantly defies the odds. Getting the story out to a wider audience is a service to others who may want to follow our lead and to the general public, which thinks all public schools are horrible.
texasmonthly.com: How does Garza differ from other high schools, both in Texas and around the country?
VB: Garza High School differs from your traditional comprehensive high schools in almost every way. The similarities are easier to describe. Our students look like students in other schools, and our students must meet all local and state standards in order to graduate. Everything else [is different]—smaller school and class size, flexible schedule, curriculum, technology access, the strong emphasis on an authentic tie to school and career, the absence of violent behavior and discipline problems, more personalization and individualization, a high percentage (75 percent minimum) of graduates going on to college, universities, and advanced training (which is especially amazing when you consider that many of these students wanted to quit high school or had previously dropped out), and a very diverse population. We can be flexible, creative, and innovative. We have the ability to personally know all of our students, thus building a positive relationship and a strong sense of community with them. We have a philosophy that maintains every student can and will be successful—build on the positive not the negative. Another advantage is that we are the only school in the Austin Independent School District that is year-round. In the eyes of some, we are so small that we are considered insignificant, which has its advantages.
texasmonthly.com: Are there similar programs around the state or the country?
VB: There are other variations like Garza in both Texas and the U.S. These types of schools are growing, although many are regarded as stepchildren because they are not the “norm,” and therefore the resources provided are often minimal.
texasmonthly.com: How did you first get involved with the founding of Garza? What steps did you go through to get it established?
VB: In early June 1997, I was the principal of Fulmore Middle School in Austin and had been for ten years. The then superintendent of the district summoned me to meet with him. He painted a picture of a high school for juniors and seniors that removed the traditional barriers that often contributed to students dropping out of school. I replied that I knew nothing about high school, and he said, “Good!” Starting in July, with a small staff of four, we began our journey. In five months we, with district support, were able to renovate and furnish an abandoned elementary school, hire staff, and recruit students for an opening on January 3, 1998. We opened with one hundred students who didn’t really know what they were getting into but were brave enough to come. We graduated 49 at the end of June.
texasmonthly.com: What did your role as principal-in-residence for President Bill Clinton’s Department of Education entail?
VB: I traveled the nation, often with then secretary Richard Riley, studying educational issues and topics, providing a practitioner’s opinion and experienced guidance to federal policy makers, meeting and interacting with administrative practitioners, and counseling educational decision makers. I also worked closely with the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. As a liaison to national administrative groups such as the National Association for Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary School Principals, I facilitated their being at the table when needed and frequently spoke at their conventions and at various other gatherings.
texasmonthly.com: How has President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy affected your students?
VB: Based upon the information I received last November, under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) standards, Garza High School would be rated as “Needing Improvement” in graduation rate. Twenty-seven percent of my students graduated, meeting their four-year deadline. The NCLB does not account for the 67 percent of my students still in high school, the 5 percent that got a GED [General Educational Development degree], or the less than 5 percent dropout rate. The NCLB does not recognize either the high percentage of students from this school that have requested transcripts for college admission, which at a minimum is 75 percent. Also, under the NCLB, the State of Texas does not have the flexibility (as I have been advised) to have an accountability system for schools like Garza; thus the state doesn’t know what to do with us in regard to accountability.
texasmonthly.com: The Texas education system has been under much scrutiny in recent months. In your opinion, where should the government focus its attention and energy? What proposals have caught your eye in either a positive or a negative light?
VB: Actually, Texas, as well as national public education, continues to be assaulted daily. There may be some public schools that are not meeting the needs of all its students, but the majority are. One has to wonder what our nation has to gain by constantly demeaning public schools. Most people do not understand how very complex educating all children really is. It is much more difficult than it seems, and people are still caught up in finger-pointing. All educators are heroes every day they go to school. If public education is the backbone of our society as Thomas Jefferson stated, shame on everyone. Put your money where your mouth is, and fund the systems and the people that are entrusted to provide each and every child with the right to a decent life and the ability to reach his full potential. It is insulting that our state legislature won’t put its pettiness and its own agendas aside even with a special session. The proposal that constantly pops up by the governor and often members of the business community is to reward— monetarily—those schools and teachers who have the highest test scores. After all, that works in corporate America. I wonder which schools that would be? Every time members of the Legislature and the governor mention the word “vouchers,” I am insulted. Do you really think these private schools and others will take or keep the most challenging kids?
texasmonthly.com: How many students are enrolled at Garza at any given time? Do you have any space limitations?
VB: We try to stay at or around 350 students but have gone up to as many as 400.
texasmonthly.com: What is the biggest challenge that you face in running Garza?
VB: Being “out of the norm” has its pluses and minuses. The biggest challenge is trying to play well with others when you don’t look like the others and are constantly trying to fit in when you can and fighting it when you can’t. We constantly feel challenged to prove ourselves to the educational community that we are a legitimate high school. Any time you are different, people automatically think you are minimizing or skimping.
texasmonthly.com: How do students hear about the unique program at Garza? What type of publicity does the school do?
VB: The majority of students hear about Garza from another student. The referrals are mostly from word of mouth. Some come from high school counselors, friends, neighbors, and even doctors. We do not have an official public relations committee but have been very fortunate to get quite a lot of good press. I am always amazed when someone says he has never heard of Garza because we have been on TV and in the newspaper. There is an article on us in the national publication that goes to all social workers. The word is getting out.
texasmonthly.com: What’s your favorite success story?
VB: That is a difficult question because we have had 950 success stories. The first one that comes to mind is a young woman who came to us in a fragile emotional state with only nine credits. She was physically unable to attend her high school because she was overwhelmed with severe social anxiety to a point in which she could not even leave her house and preferred to remain in bed. Initially, she was terrified here, but then the healing began. Three years later, she graduated. The Garza experience literally saved her life.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?
VB: There is more good than bad happening in public schools. The public should demand they be supported fiscally.