Think Small

Richard Farias wants to change the way HISD teaches middle school

Not much more than a week before school starts, the five classrooms at the Raul Yzaguirre School for Success seem a long way from completion. In one classroom, pipe fitters are cutting and threading pipe for the school's new overhead sprinkler system, littering the floor with oily metal shavings. In the other four rooms, dry wall workers are still nailing up Sheetrock and taping and floating, getting ready for a weekend crew of painters. Concrete walls still need to be knocked out to create new entrances into the former warehouse at the corner of Scott and Polk. All of the renovations must be finished by August 19, when 100 middle school students from the East End will come here to try the state's latest experiment in education: charter schools.

Charter schools fulfill a long-held fantasy of many teachers, parents and social activists. What if you could take the money that the government spends for each student and start a not-for-profit school? And what if that school would be free of most of the well-intended but cumbersome state and local regulations that have accumulated over the years? What if you could recruit teachers best matched to your students' needs, let them choose the curriculum and truly run the school without a bunch of middle management superintendents and politically indebted school board trustees looking over their shoulders? And what if you could keep classes small and insure that each student's needs are attended to?

During the last session of the Legislature, a new law allowed for the creation of 20 charter schools -- public schools that would answer to the state rather than the local school bureaucracy, and that might serve as models for reform. The West Houston Charter School, for example, aims to teach according to students' ingrained learning modalities: auditory, visual and kinesthetic. The Medical Center Charter School will offer the Montessori method for children of Medical Center workers.

But Richard Farias, the primary force behind the Yzaguirre School, had long dreamed of a less esoteric reform. Farias, 48, grew up in the bor-der town of Brownsville, moved to La Porte as a teenager and, after military service and a succession of community and four-year colleges, worked as a juvenile probation officer for Harris County for 18 years. For several years he was the school liaison for a county home for kids in trouble.

Farias believed that the 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds he counseled were both the most vulnerable and most salvageable of children. Adolescents need individual attention and care as they undergo the physical changes of puberty, separate emotionally from their families and create their own identities. If middle-schoolers don't have strong basic skills in reading and mathematics, they are primed for dropping out before they even enter high school. Add poverty and uncertain English to the mix, and close to half of all Hispanic children drop out of school -- the highest rate of any ethnic group in the nation.

Middle school could be a positive turning point in students' lives, says Farias, but instead of receiving individual care and attention, adolescents are shuffled from class to class in large buildings better suited to high schools. Middle school teachers often must deal with 150 students a day, and counselors become more concerned with arranging class schedules than the well-being of each student.

On a drive through the East End, Farias stared at Jackson Middle School's red brick facade and declared, "That should be a high school. It has no damn business being a middle school."

Both Jackson and Edison, the two middle schools that serve the East End, are designed for failure, says Farias. Edison Middle School, only seven years old, is a sparkling, sprawling brick and tile-roofed campus. Jackson, built in 1923, appears immaculate behind its chainlink fence, but has a reputation for after-school violence. Both schools serve upward of 1,500 students. Farias believes that a middle school should be more like an elementary school: no bigger than about 400 students, with students assigned to a single teacher.

Four years ago Farias yearned to start such a school. Then the director of the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans, he parted ways with that group when its board showed no interest in creating a middle school. Eager to do more than the AAMA would allow, he founded the Tejano Center for Community Concerns. With offices in the East End neighborhoods of Denver Harbor and Port of Houston, the Tejano Center has created low-income housing and a clinic, and is working on a 24-bed facility for neglected and abused children.

Last November, Farias ran for the Houston school board, losing in a runoff to incumbent Esther Campos by only 150 votes. No matter, says Farias. "The only reason I did it was to make complete, systematic change. The whole district is too big. It needs to be broken down."

Instead of working from the top down, Farias now hopes to lead by example. The Raul Yzaguirre School -- named for the founder of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic social service organization -- will be the first step in Farias' plan to offer East End parents a chance to think small.

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