For 27 years, Robert Gonzales has been the auto-collision program teacher at the Barbara Jordan High School for Careers. It is the only place he's ever taught, the only courses he's ever led. When he started at Barbara Jordan, the school had just been recognized by Omni Magazine as one of the "10 Schools of the Future in the United States."
In 1999 he was voted Teacher of the Year at the school — not bad for someone who'd dropped out of his own high school in tenth grade and who took a circuitous route to college and the teaching profession. He's on the school's shared-decision-making committee, and on his last evaluation at the end of March, his principal, Andria Schur, found that he "exceeded expectations" — the highest mark possible — in 11 of 13 categories.
He can recite names and finishes of countless students he's taken to district and regional body-work competitions.
"I've seen Bobby's program," says Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. "The important thing is kids walk out of those programs and right into a job."
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School-administration notes taken during a recent visit to Gonzales's class document a teacher who is "constantly moving from student to student, giving details/feedback," and one who has to give out instructions just one time to students, without constant reminders before the tasks of the day are completed.
In his room, everything moves at speeds of fast and faster. "There is no normal. There is no slow. It's minus 30 points if you sit down," says senior Christian Cuevas.
Students like Cuevas and fellow senior Jaqueline Zuniga, who've won district competitions against students from other schools in body work, say "Mr. G" and the program he leads are the reasons they attend any school at all, and Barbara Jordan in particular. Cuevas has already worked at two body shops; following graduation, Zuniga hopes to work with her boyfriend, who graduated from Barbara Jordan two years ago and started right up at a BMW dealership. They are practical and looking forward to making money; college will be on the side or later.
On March 25, Principal Schur told Robert Gonzales that "due to budget constraints" thanks to the state's financial crisis, she is shutting down his auto-collision program at the end of this school year. She is retaining the auto-technology and welding program strands taught by other teachers. But auto collision is gone, and there will be no place for Gonzales at Barbara Jordan in the fall.
A week later, Gonzales says, an office worker tried to get him to sign a paper agreeing that his continuing contract would be terminated — thereby stripping him of his right to be placed in another teaching position in the district if one became available. (He declined to sign.)
Schur denies that Gonzales would have ended his contract rights by signing. "Actually, the template that comes from the district is informing them that they do have continuing contracts, and that if there's anybody else in the school district that has less seniority, then they would go to that program. However, if everything was closed across the district and there wasn't another program, period, then the program altogether would be cut and then they are available to apply for any other types of positions, just like anybody else. But they would not be guaranteed a position in that field."
As for why Gonzales's program has been cut, Principal Schur says that it didn't have the numbers, and that the school is "trying to shift to more 21st-century jobs."
Instead, she suggests that students interested in body work and painting cars might want to change to the fine arts. "We're opening up some advanced-placement courses in the area of art, two college-level courses: studio art and art history. Both advanced placement."
Cuevas and Zuniga, who are graduating with plans to go into body work as an immediate career, don't quite understand this. Setting aside the question of whether AP studio art and art history will a) result in any immediate jobs, or b) satisfy the urge to two-tone a car or bend a wrecked hood back into shape and operation, they just don't see how cars aren't in anyone's future.
"I don't think cars are ever going to be over with. Everyone's always going to have wrecks," Zuniga says.
Or at Cuevas puts it: "What's the point of going to Barbara Jordan High School for Careers if you're not studying a career?"
Spend any time with Robert Gonzales, and it's fairly apparent that this is a guy who has forged his own special path and probably rubs some people the wrong way — not the best persona to have at a time when principals have been empowered to make personnel cuts at their campuses.
After opting for an early exit from Seguin High School, Gonzales enlisted in the Army at 17 and did two tours of duty in Vietnam as an infantryman. He went back to Seguin to his uncle's body shop and then, when he was 36, decided he wanted to teach body shop in high school. He entered the University of Houston in a special program as a first-time freshman on his way to a degree and teacher certification.
During all this time, Gonzales maintained his interest in music. A musician since the age of 12, he plays guitar, bass and keyboards and sings. He was inducted into the Tejano Music Hall of Fame in 1991.
A couple years back, he says, he was offered a chance for good money to play at a club in town and now has some regrets about not taking that up. He was ready to retire in another two or three years, he says, but it clearly chaps him that whatever happens next is being done on the district's terms and not his.
Most of all, he hates it that his program is being shut down. In fact, he wants to ask district officials that, if he has to go, the auto-body teacher from Kashmere High be moved to Barbara Jordan so the program can continue. Kashmere Principal Paul Hardin confirmed that he has decided to cut the school's cosmetology and auto-body programs.
Gonzales didn't always get along with his previous principal, but their disagreements were "always professional," he says. In fact, last year she bought a lot of expensive equipment for his shop: five misting fans like athletes use so it would be bearable to work in the heat of the shop, and a compressor (that still hasn't been hooked up, he says). Schur said some of the equipment can be used in the auto technology program or moved to any other school with an auto-collision career path. If there aren't any, she says, then it's up to the district to decide what to do with it.
This year was the first for Principal Schur, a transfer from the Clear Creek district, and fairly early on Gonzales got crosswise with her about one thing or another, including "having non-certified personnel cover classes" and school committee procedures. While he says there's no overt "hostility," he does admit to feeling "a lack of camaraderie."
"The budget has become a convenient tool which a principal can now arbitrarily use against teachers who will not go along with these violations," Gonzales says.
For her part, Schur just says that in the nine teaching positions she's cutting, "there's a lot of great teachers." She's phasing out the cosmetology program — students already enrolled will get to finish it out over the next three years, but no freshmen will be allowed to sign up — and she's cutting graphic production and positions in the business and education strands.
Enrollment at Barbara Jordan has stayed fairly stable at 1,050 students, she says, but some programs just didn't have the numbers. "We might have a class that had five to ten students in a career strand, so we had some room to make some cuts. Other campuses were probably not in as good of a shape as where we are, because we just had some excess."
Gonzales says he had five seniors this year, ten juniors and two classes of freshmen (another teacher takes the tenth-grade classes). Five seniors does seem light, although that's about the norm for an AP art history class.
Gonzales says that by eliminating the auto-collision program at his school, HISD is wiping it out for the district. Schur says she doesn't know which other schools might still offer auto body; that she's just trying to get her programs in place to do what makes sense for her school; and that she hasn't had the chance to talk with other principals about what they're doing.
She's sure there will be places at other campuses for at least "four or five" of the teachers she's letting go.
It may be hard for some people to believe, but kids like Zuniga and Cuevas actually do talk about careers in body work in the same way someone might describe a great piece of music, a sonnet, a great invention.
"I've always been interested in cars. I just got in it out of curiosity and once I got in, I was just hooked on it," Cuevas says. "You learn to love it. Not everybody likes it. I feel special. I was one of those few.
"I'm a dreamer. I like to make stuff out of nothing. You see cars going there all the time, really messed-up cars, and you fix them, you paint them, you make something good out of them. It's just the joy you get out of them," he says.
Zuniga talks in similar terms about painting cars.
"I really wanted to learn about colors. I am a color person; I just love messing with colors. They required me to get tools, and my dad didn't want to get them, but I messed with him until he got them for me." Her father didn't want her to get into this course of study, but she told him it was for her. It was her career, her choice.
Both Zuniga and Cuevas had planned on coming back to school next year, visiting classes to tell kids about their great jobs in auto body. Now there won't be anyone there to listen.
"When I met Mr. Gonzales, he was rough on us. He would shove us and hug us at the same time. Some of us really need that push," Cuevas says. "He's taught me a lot of great values; I mean growing up like a man."
When news broke about the end of the auto-body and other programs at Barbara Jordan, some students were ready to stage a walkout. This prompted a March 31 memo to teachers and parents from Schur warning that this would be a violation of district policy and the kids could get in a lot of trouble. Crisis averted. Schur pointed out that 100 percent attendance would also help them make their goal of being named an "exemplary school."
The principal refers to what she's doing as "kind of shifting and tweaking of our programs, not necessarily full cuts." And despite the changes, she insists that they won't lose any students — in fact, she predicts increased enrollment with the new programs they're offering in health science and engineering.
All of which is really good, but in a car-centric city like Houston, all those vehicles are going to disappear?
HISD, like most other districts, pays a lot of lip service to the importance of career technology education and the adage "College isn't for everyone." But moves like this, with the insistence that the only worthwhile things are "21st century," are a step away from that. Car repair is like plumbing — a necessity of life, and someone has to do it. These kids want to.
Fallon says it looks like HISD is pushing the responsibility for career technology courses to the community colleges. For years, she says, the union has said HISD's high schools should be doing technology programs in conjunction with Houston Community College and others. But, she says, that meant "coordination," not that high schools would end their own programs.
Not everyone can afford to go to college. "Some students have absolutely no interest in going. It has nothing to do with ability," Fallon says. That doesn't mean they can't have productive careers, lead happy lives, rejoice in their abilities — to say otherwise is just impossibly condescending.
Fallon's prediction: "People are going to be very unhappy when school opens in the fall and they see huge classes, almost no career and tech, and a lot of electives gone. What we're getting rid of is all the things that used to keep kids in school, even in the academics department."
At the start of this school year, Cuevas wanted a bigger challenge than in years before, so he and a friend scouted junkyards till they got the gnarliest pieces of body parts they could find. Cuevas ended up with a rusted-out, smashed-up Chevy fender that would have been tossed out of any professional body shop as too much work. But he wanted to prove himself and worked for months to restore it.
Zuniga's successfully-met challenge was to score a place on the All A-honor roll in the fall semester. In return, Gonzales paid the $200 cost of her trip to Corpus Christ for a car-painting competition.
Gonzales can't understand why HISD would shut down its auto body. "Baytown has one, Pasadena has one, La Porte has one. Houston can't have one?" Gonzales says. It's hard for him to let go of his own set of dreams.
"I wanted one more year. I have one student, a freshman this year, who did really well. I think I could go to nationals with her."