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 had to destroy it.

The irony is inescapable: If Garza didn’t accommodate the needs of its students, chances are that few would graduate at all. Applying No Child Left Behind standards to a school like Garza confuses the political imperative of accountability with the educational imperative of creating an environment that promotes the success of every student. Instead of applauding the extraordinary resilience of Garza’s students, the law treats them as failures. “A lot of kids need to repeat Algebra I,” Garza’s principal and founder, Vicki Baldwin, told me, “but you can’t afford that under Bush’s law. The mentality is that everyone learns at the same rate. No one with a lick of common sense believes that.”

Most of Garza’s students have survived some life-altering experience: the death of one or both parents, mental or physical illness, an abortion or the birth of a child (15 percent are parents), a slide into drugs or alcohol, or some other crisis that strays from the norm. Like Ellie, many work thirty to forty hours a week. Nearly one third fit the legal definition of “homeless.” One boy lived in a friend’s doghouse, and several other students live in their cars.

Garza has the same requirements as other schools in the district, but its open-enrollment policy allows students to start school or complete courses anytime during the school year. Rather than having two inflexible semesters, the school operates on a five-semester system. Students attend year-round, eight weeks of class followed by two weeks off. There are no tardy

One School Left Behindslips at Garza, no bells, no dress code, no classroom lectures. Teachers, or facilitators, as they’re called at Garza, work one-on-one with students. Baldwin’s system forces students to take responsibility for themselves. Though Garza’s curriculum is more difficult than that of most schools in the district, students told me that the challenge works as an incentive. They abide by an honor code, which is part of the school’s culture: “At this school we will demonstrate personal honor and integrity at all times; choose peace over conflict; respect ourselves and others.” Fights almost never occur; Garza was in its fifth year before one broke out—over the interpretation of a basketball rule. Baldwin sentenced the combatants to “reflection time,” requiring them to consider two questions: Is this the place for me? And can I live by the code? Ellie, who attended two other high schools before Garza, told me, “If you have a problem here, you go to a counselor. At a regular school, people don’t notice problems until a fight starts in the hall.”

Baldwin, 61, is a tough cookie—but with a soft center. For twelve years she was the principal of a gang-infested South Austin middle school, and in 1995 and 1996 she was the principal-in-residence for President Clinton’s Department of Education, in Washington. When the AISD superintendent asked her to design a school for juniors and seniors that would circumvent the traditional barriers of high school, she laid down a couple of conditions: a liberal budget (Garza has one computer for every three students and its own media lab, both the envy of other schools in the district) and absolute say over who would be on her staff. Baldwin speaks the language of the street as easily as that of the classroom. The respect and unconditional love that she shows her students is reciprocated in dozens of small ways. There’s a lot of hugging and reassuring at Garza. In the hall one day, she put her arm around a huge twenty-year-old man-child named Hank. Hank dropped out after both of his parents died, Baldwin told me, but now he was back, completing high school in the morning and working in the afternoon to support his younger brother. “Hank got into drugs for a while,” she explained, as he hung his head and shuffled his enormous feet, “but now he’s got his shit together.”

Whites are a plurality at Garza, though race here doesn’t seem to be a big deal. Ellie jokes that her race is “stirred, not mixed”: Her father was black and her mother is white. Ellie lived with her grandparents, Jayne and former state district judge Joe Dibrell, until she was twelve. “My grandmother was old-school,” Ellie told me. “She had me taking ballet, horseback riding, tennis, Girl Scouts, something every day.” When Jayne began to develop Alzheimer’s, the girl went to live with her mom, who by then had remarried. Ellie goes to school until noon, sometimes works until eleven o’clock at a pizza parlor, drives her own new car (her grandfather replaced the one that was wrecked), and makes her own life choices. She has a tattoo that is a tribute to the father she barely knew: the word “Daddy” on one ankle, above a depiction of the AIDS ribbon and the date of his death. “Ellie is high-maintenance,” Baldwin confesses. “She can be too smart for her own good.”

Short and attractive, Ellie wears her long, curly hair in a bun and works out at the YMCA to maintain her ideal weight. She is bright and precocious but can be excessively dramatic and self-absorbed. She favors off-the-shoulder blouses and high stiletto heels. “It’s a forties look,” she explained. For her English IV reading assignments, she selected books that were once censored, including Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Her goal is to graduate from the University of Texas law school, where her grandfather and uncle are alumni. “My dream is to be on the U.S. Supreme Court,” she told me. “I know that’s really, really unlikely.” She would settle for being a judge, like her grandfather. Garza has given her a chance to reach that goal. “It has taught me that I can defy the odds,” Ellie told me. “A lot of people think Garza is a last-chance school, and in a way it is. We’re giving ourselves a last chance.”

But Garza may be facing its own last chance in a few years if its graduation rate doesn’t rise. So draconian are the penalties under No Child Left Behind that Baldwin sometimes wonders if the Bush administration’s real agenda is to discredit public schools and convince people that vouchers are the solution. If accountability is really the goal, she says, they should give Garza extra credit for the fifteen students who graduated in only three years. “Schools have to have higher standards,” Baldwin concedes, “but we don’t have to have this gotcha mentality.”

In the meantime, she has developed a plan to help students catch up before the federal alarm clangs: a four-credit thematic course under the rubric “Forensics.” Assisted by the Austin Police Department, students are working on a realistic criminal case—DNA analysis, fingerprinting, evidence collection, ballistics, and finally, a mock trial—while taking four separate courses in chemistry, integrated physics, desktop publishing, and criminal justice. Not surprisingly, the class is filled to capacity.