Local Author Writes Book That Could Change American Education Forever

Michael Brick looking writerly (Photo by Ben Sklar)
Michael Brick looking writerly (Photo by Ben Sklar)

So, confidence in public education has never been lower. It seems like every school is strapped for cash–or in the process of closing–and every teacher I know complains that the job would be so much better and more effective if they didn’t have to “teach to the test.” We like to think the victims in all this are the kids deprived of a quality education, as if those kids won’t someday grow up to make our entire society less intelligent, less capable, less innovative, and more vulnerable to terrible ideas and terrible politicians.

Well, Michael Brick, a journalist who graduated from R.L. Turner, has a new book out on the topic. I met Brick at the Mayborn conference a few years ago, where he had an incredible story about the murder of a pot dealer. He’s also written for the New York Times and Sports Illustrated. And he’s a regular on Gangrey, a journalism site I’ve been known to visit. For Saving the School, Brick followed a principal, several students, and several teachers at a once-great high school in Austin, as they struggled to keep their school–and in many ways their entire community–afloat.

You know it’ll be big, because Oprah calls it a “must read.” The Washington Post calls it “a compelling, enlightening account of a school community rising to save itself in the unforgiving, data-driven, often nonsensical world bequeathed to public education by No Child Left Behind.” Really, it could change the way this country thinks about–and talks about–public education and investing in our own future.

Over the last few days, I had a fun little email exchange with Brick about the book.

Me: Okay, we’ll get to that whole education thing later. First, I have to ask: How many times did you watch movies like Lean on Me–or Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds, or the wholly under-appreciated Summer School–while working on this? And if this book one day becomes a movie, and there’s a reporter character based on you (there’s no first person in the book, but Hollywood loves to tinker), who would you want to play you?

Brick: Never seen Lean on Me, Stand & Deliver or any of those movies (except Dead Poets Society, when it was in theaters). During the reporting & writing of this story, I avoided that stuff for fear that certain hagiographic tendencies common to Great Teacher/Tough-as-Nails Principal fiction might’ve crept in to poison my effort to tell a true story about real people.

Since you asked, my brother Jeff, who is a trained Shakespearean actor, should play me in the movie (note here that no “me” character actually exists in the book). He’s damn good. Plus he’s 6’7″, smart as hell and tres handsome. Unlike a nonfiction writer, Hollywood can take those sorts of liberties.

Me: As a writer, I want to know: how did you get this genius idea for a book that will probably sell a million copies and be turned into a movie?

Never seen Lean on Me, Stand & Deliver or any of those movies (except Dead Poets Society, when it was in theaters). During the reporting & writing of this story, I avoided that stuff for fear that certain hagiographic tendencies common to Great Teacher/Tough-as-Nails Principal fiction might’ve crept in to poison my effort to tell a true story about real people.
–   Since you asked, my brother Jeff, who is a trained Shakespearean actor, should play me in the movie (note here that no “me” character actually exists in the book). He’s damn good. Plus he’s 6’7″, smart as hell and tres handsome. Unlike a nonfiction writer, Hollywood can take those sorts of liberties.

Brick: Everybody knows public education has become our most pressing social, economic and even moral problem. Positions are entrenched, there’s a lot of hot rhetoric on all sides, and frustration has built to such a fever pitch that we’ve turned on teachers as the villains. We’ve started shutting down schools all over the country.

But this isn’t a policy book. As a writer looking for a good story to tell, in the tradition of “Friday Night Lights” and “Random Family,” I went into the pressure cooker of a public high school working against the clock to raise test scores. My intent was to take a last hard look at what we are throwing away in this national purge. I expected to come away with an elegy for the great American high school.

Instead, I found an inspiring story of human perseverance, but one that points toward some more profound issues we have to face for our kids. This book tells the story of the best that our most devoted educators can accomplish under the system we’ve set up. It’s an inspiring story, but I hope it also makes you very angry.

The story begins in the summer of 2009. Anabel Garza, the new principal at Reagan High, has overcome some significant personal tragedies in her life, worked her way through night school while raising her son and taken on a job nobody else wants. The school is rated “academically unacceptable” by the state education agency, which means the district sends home letters telling parents they can transfer out. As a result, the only kids who remain fall into two categories — those who do not have the means to leave, and those who are too loyal to leave, because their big brothers and sisters and even parents and aunts and uncles were Raiders.

Anabel quickly identifies what she calls “a heartbeat in the school.” This is a place people once cared about deeply, the pride of the city, winner of state 5A football championships, design awards and honors for the drill team, the Madrigal Singers and on and on. Those days are long gone, but the memory persists, and in that memory Anabel sees a way to restore the school to its role as a vital center of the community.

As she leads the desperate scramble to raise test scores, she starts to set the groundwork for rebuilding the kind of high school many of us remember – with plays and dances and pep rallies and chess clubs. Soon teachers and even some kids start trying to rally the neighborhood in their own ways.

I was hooked. I had to see what would happen. So I stuck around all year.

Me: Tell me about how you reported the book. Were there complications because you were reporting on kids and sensitive issues, careers in danger, that sort of thing?

Brick: This was a labor of love. As you know very well, Mike, reporting in depth on people in turmoil requires showing up when nothing is expected to happen, partly in case something does (but also for other reasons), and hanging around when something that was suppose to happen doesn’t, to see why it didn’t happen and what’s happening instead.

Getting in was fairly easy. The principal at the center of the story, Anabel, is one of the most open-spirited people I’ve ever met, but once she lets you into her world, she holds you to high standards. That’s true of the teachers who work for her and the kids she works for too. For me, that meant being respectful, being honest about what I was trying to accomplish and being candid about how I was reacting to the things I was seeing. All of which serves the journalistic purpose of understanding the context and getting the story right.

So anyway: I had the national relevance of the divisive education policy debate. I had the narrative tension of a ticking clock.

From there, it was a matter of finding the characters to carry the story.

I went looking for a science teacher (science and math were where test scores needed the most improvement) and found Candice Kaiser. Her increasingly devout religious faith threw me a curveball, but if you aren’t surprised in reporting an in-depth story, you’re doing it wrong. I figured something had to bring her to this place much of the country has abandoned, and if it was Jesus, well, let’s explore that.

Derrick Davis, the basketball coach, stopped me in the hall and introduced himself. He was the onetime star of the basketball team from the school’s (somewhat) better days, back to coach at his alma mater.  He said he figured the white guy with the notebook had to be from the state education agency, and because he cared about the school so deeply he wanted to know what I was up to. To my mind, he embodied the school’s richly complex history. I thought: “You just passed the audition for adult character #3.”

And the kids — many of the kids were surprisingly savvy about the school’s reputation and the implications of the standardized tests. Some were just trying to get through the gamesmanship of modern high school. Some embraced the efforts to revive the school. Some had deeply strategic plans for escaping their circumstances. I chose to focus most intently on JaQuarius Daniels, a remarkable young man who was doing all three of those things at once.

At the time I met him, JQ was a rising junior with a B average, a girlfriend of five years and the attention of college football scouts. He was trying to shine as the standout quarterback in a lousy football program, but Coach Davis had higher ambitions for him. He wanted to use JQ’s athletic prowess to make the basketball team – kids who’d been playing together since junior high — a rallying point for the whole school.

All these folks had come to the high-pressure situation from different backgrounds with different motivations. So as you can imagine, tensions emerged.

Me: What was it like being back in a high school? (As I think you know…adults going back to high school is a topic I find particularly interesting.) Were there first day jitters? Were you remembering stuff you’d long forgotten? Did any of the kids find you creepy? Or are kids so used to reality television and every moment being documented?

Brick: Good question. It’s impossible not to feel a little nostalgic inside a public high school, even (or perhaps especially) inside a public high school that’s been left for dead. All the iconic imagery — the lockers, the blackboards, the Main Office, the intercoms, the flags, even the bathroom graffiti — forms a sort of stage set where these people who don’t look much like Sean Penn are having this very American coming of age experience. Or at least they’re trying to, in an education system stripped of its resources, saddled with sharply different priorities and made a whole hell of a lot less fun.

Me: As you said, this is most certainly not a policy book. It’s a narrative, straight-forward tale about a school put to the test. (Not sure how much of the ending you’re giving away.) But I’m sure a lot of people are still going to ask you things like, “Well, what did you see that worked and what did you see that didn’t.” So, tell me that, but also tell me the one thing you thought you knew — something you almost took for granted as true — that  later you learned wasn’t.

Brick: I assumed teaching was a tough job. Even just controlling a classroom feels way beyond my capabilities. But I was astonished to see the extra duties teachers in struggling public schools have to take on just to get things done. Candice Kaiser, the science teacher profiled in the book, had a job that resembled many other people’s jobs, to a point. She was tasked with transferring knowledge of chemistry concepts into the heads of teenagers. Her performance was measured by analytics and metrics. She delivered her deliverables, so her bosses shifted more clients to her portfolio. But to get the job done, she had to recruit volunteer tutors from her church, take students to coffee shops for extra help (and a glimpse of life outside the impoverished neighborhood known as the 2-3, for its Zip Code) and even sometimes drive them to doctors’ appointments. My admiration for her eventually gelled into the realization that she’s hardly the only teacher put into this position, which then mutated into a sense of anger: Is a system that requires burning through all our wonderful young Candice Kaisers to function really the best we can aspire to build for children in this country?

Me: My theory is, you’re going to be very wealthy, because there are so many teachers and principals, and so many concerned parents, and so many academics and politicians looking at this stuff, and we know these people already like books. That’s what the experts like to call “a market.” Even if just one teacher in each of the hundreds of thousands of schools in the country buys the book, you’ll be able to afford your own county. So…feel free to respond to that. Also, when you’re rich enough to buy or build your own ideal education system, what will it look like?

Brick: If you’ll allow me to quote Homer Simpson, I like your way of thinking, and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

The saddest part is that we were on a path toward building the best education system in the world. We had well-rounded schools that gave our neighborhoods a sense of common ground, shared history and continuity. People fought and marched and even died to achieve the most important final step – giving all children the chance to grow up in a great American high school. To that end, standardized testing served an important purpose: It exposed the second-class education we were still serving up to children in certain neighborhoods. But then, when it became clear that the dream would be hard to achieve, we gave up, turned away and embraced a cynical every-man-for himself pursuit of higher test scores. It’s my humble hope that this story will get people thinking about how we can return to the pursuit of that ideal.

Me: I’ll tell people they can buy Saving the School here and here. Get the e-book here. Or the iBook here.


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