Austin High School Gives a Lesson in Real Education Reform

Next fall, Mauricio Ramos will enter the University of Texas at Arlington to major in computer science. “My career goal is to become a computer programmer, definitely,” he says. When he was in his early teens, however, that didn’t seem imaginable to Mauricio or to his teachers. Like a lot of kids growing up in his East Austin neighborhood, Mauricio was making all the wrong choices. “Bad influences were sending me down the wrong path. I needed something to change. Luckily for me, I went to Lanier.”

Mauricio doesn’t mince words when describing Lanier High School. “It was a life-changer,” he says. “Everyone here helps every student, to make sure we are doing well in school, to help you enjoy learning, and to make sure you graduate. It is a special place.”

Lanier High School is a predominantly Hispanic school in Austin, Texas, and about 95 percent of its 1600 students qualify for free-and-reduced lunch. With 65 countries represented in its student population, Lanier is also the most diverse high school in Austin.

While urban schools are almost universally associated with the term “failure” by so many so-called reformers, Lanier stands as a success story. Over the past 6 years, the school’s graduation rate has soared from 54 percent to 90 percent – one of the reasons why the NEA decided to spotlight Lanier as part of its kickoff to the upcoming 2013 American Education Week (Nov. 18-22).

On Tuesday, NEA Vice-President Lily Eskelsen García toured Lanier, accompanied by Texas State Teachers Association President Rita Haecker, and Education Austin President Ken Zarafis. They brought along two special guests, Texas State Representative Donna Howard and Austin City Councilman Mike Martinez to serve as “Educators for a Day.” During American Education Week, NEA is inviting prominent members of the community to experience an entire school day to raise awareness of the challenges of teaching and the needs of students.

NEA’s Raise Your Hand campaign is mobilizing educators, parents, and community leaders around the country who share a commitment to great public schools and can lift up good ideas, smart policies and successful programs, like those that have taken root at Lanier High. Teachers feel empowered to be creative in their classrooms and are supported by the administration.

“So many people told us, ‘You have to go see Lanier, because it is one of the best high schools in the country,’” said Eskeslen-Garcia. “The staff is amazing and the students here get to learn everything they need to graduate and succeed.”

Lanier offers a continuum of learning opportunities that merges rigorous academics with programs designed to engage all levels of student interest, including a strong arts curriculum and a popular career and technical education program. Lanier students can take everything from cosmetology to audio video production.

“My students tell me all the time that they do better in school because of this class,” says cosmetology teacher Barbara Becerra. “Many want to get their license but they know they have to graduate. They’re excited about learning. They know what they want and they go for it.”

Lanier also provides a “twilight school” to those students who need to make up lost credits and are maybe at risk of dropping out. The program extends school hours to 7:30pm.

Councilman Martinez was impressed by the wide array of programs offered by Lanier and the dedication of the staff.

“This is a school that is doing what it needs to do to help students succeed. Politicians don’t know what is best for these kids. These educators know what works and they’re doing it,” said Martinez.

The success of Lanier and the example it sets should be trumpeted far and wide, says Ken Zarafis of Education Austin, but getting the word out is difficult.

“Politically, the school is in a bit of a void,” explains Zarafis, “It’s not really located in either East or West Austin. It’s in this slither of space in between, so it kind of gets forgotten. But the great things happening here have to be promoted, because these reformers don’t get it.”

“We don’t need to be inundated with standardized tests to determine if students are learning,” adds Eskelsen García. “That’s the last thing schools need. At Lanier, they’re doing it with exciting learning opportunities to prepare kids for college and careers. And every single member of the staff here is playing a role. The results speak for themselves. Students here don’t talk about what they will do if they graduate. They talk about what they want to do when they graduate.”