Think Small

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.

When the school opens, its 100 students will have five teachers, one counselor and a part-time nurse. Each teacher will have only 20 students, and students will have the same teacher through both seventh and eighth grades.

The small school sets itself large tasks. It aims to become what the schools have long said they cannot be: a complete social service agency. The school's counselor, longtime theatrical producer Daniel Bustamente, will focus on assessing the entire needs of a student. Referrals can then be made for help for the family. "If a child is sleeping on the floor," says Farias, "we will find out about that and address it through the Tejano Center."

Much of the middle school trouble happens not in the halls but after school. The children at Yzaguirre will stay until 5:30 for extracurricular activities such as theater and martial arts.

One of the conditions for acceptance at the school is that parents sign an agreement to help out. Volunteer work is not merely requested, it is scheduled, says the school's education director, Adriana Tamez. Tamez says the parents of a few prospective students have walked away when they found out what was required, but most have responded well to the requirement. Applicants are now on a waiting list. (Students who would otherwise attend Jackson and Edison are admitted on a first come, first served basis.)

Among the last parents to sign up was Salustio Morales, a janitor who is enrolling his son and namesake into the seventh grade. A quiet, shy man dressed in jeans, striped shirt and a straw cowboy hat, Morales moved from Arizona to Houston four years ago. He learned of the new middle school at his son's elementary school. He has a daughter at Jackson, and when he picks her up after school, he sees signs of gangs, he says. A man of clearly modest means, he liked what he heard about the Yzaguirre School.

"It sounded like a private setting," he says through an interpreter, "and I thought he would get more attention."

Such parents remind Farias why he's struggled so hard to open the Yzaguirre School. Texas won't disburse any money to its 20 charter schools until the first week of September. To get the school off the ground, Farias has taken out loans, rounded up volunteer labor and applied for federal grants. The resources for education can be raised, he says, but not without a lot of work. His two marriages have ended in divorce, and he's not sure any woman can put up with his obsession.

"You've got to be diplomatic and tactful to raise the money," he says, "but you've got to kick ass when you need to."

Farias isn't through kicking. The school plans to add another hundred students next year, and eventually to serve perhaps 400 students, almost all of them Hispanic, and 70 to 80 percent of them low-income. He is considering even further expansion; he has his eye on a former Bible college on Lawndale.

Farias also hopes other people will steal his idea. When he gets the Yzaguirre School running, he'll be able to show others how to build a school from scratch. He relishes the prospect of sharing his idea. "I think," he says, "it's going to catch on fire.

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