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. Villarreal 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). This culture has spread throughout Mission: Six of the district’s ten elementary schools earned a four-star rating. Mission is on a mission.
This community culture keeps the school board and the central administration focused on education—not politics, as is the case with far too many school districts these days. Here is the rest of Villarreal’s formula for Waitz’s success:
• Teach English The object of Waitz’s bilingual program is to prepare all regular students—even migrants—to take the TAAS test in English by the third grade. State law provides an exemption for non-English-speaking students; Villarreal rarely uses it.
• Remedy shortcomings Students are pre-tested to identify their weaknesses in specific areas of the TAAS test. Then they receive computerized instruction in these areas, such as vocabulary. On Saturdays teachers come to Waitz for special training on how to group students during class time to allow them to work on their individual problems, and high school students show up to tutor children from migrant families.
• Involve parents Villarreal knows his constituency. He drove me up and down the dirt streets of the colonia, pointing out a dwelling where eight people live in a single room and another where the daughter of a migrant family has just made the honor roll. Like all Mission schools, Waitz has a paid parent coordinator who calls on families, urging that kids come to school even if they are mildly sick and stressing the importance of making them do their homework.
• Instill values The cafeteria abounds in one-word banners touting virtues—“Kindness,” “Honesty,” “Respect”—and every Friday a different group of students puts on a short skit about one of the values.
On the day I attended, a skit on honesty was part of a ninety-minute “incentive assembly.” Banners and posters filled up the cafeteria walls, all of them in English except for one over the stage that displayed the school’s motto: “¡Querer es poder. Hay que ponerle ganas!” or, roughly, To succeed, you must keep trying. Villarreal recognized group after group of achievers—classes with perfect attendance, honor roll students, accelerated readers who used their free time to go to the library, students showing progress in overcoming their TAAS weaknesses. Cheerleaders led yells, teachers in matching T-shirts shook pom-poms, a local TV news anchorman told students to stay in school, I was called up to speak, and students sang sweet songs and accompanied them with hand signals performed in unison. It was so heartwarming and so schmaltzy that it was almost possible to forget for a moment where these kids had come from and what they had accomplished.