• by Rogelio López del Bosque, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • February 2001
Five years ago, Louis W. Fox Technical High School was the lowest ranking school in Texas. Today, it has been elevated to National Blue Ribbon status and given the state accountability rating designation of “recognized” in the 1999-00 school year. The school has been able to defy the stereotypical vision of an inner-city school: low socioeconomic status student population, mostly minority, with a reputation of poor attendance and a school with no goals. Nicknamed Fox Tech, this school has regenerated its ties to the community and alumni.
Impetus for Change: Low Student Performance
Despite a glorious and proud heritage, Fox Tech was disestablished in May 1995. Less than a quarter of the school’s students were passing the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), the state-administered criterion-referenced testing program that draws its objectives from the state-mandated curriculum established by the State Board of Education. Texas’ accountability system utilizes this standardized test, along with other data, to rate schools and districts as either “low-performing,” “acceptable,” “recognized” or “exemplary.”
In 1995, the district took a bold step. It asked all staff to re-apply for positions at Fox Tech. The school was “re-established” immediately with a new administration and one-third of the original staff.
The task of returning the school to its former glory would be a major test for the new administration. School leaders began by looking at what had to be done differently to increase enrollment and eliminate the high dropout rate. The new principal, Ms. Joanne Cockrell, explains: “Many articles, based on research, have been written about improving schools. It sounds like common sense to me, but why do we not see these practices more often?”
Ms. Cockrell believes that many of the attributes of high-performing schools should be obvious to educators. She says:
What I wanted to do when I got this job was to put into use those practices I always thought were common sense. There are two very important areas of focus as far as I am concerned: a strong focus on children and strong leadership. As a leader and working with teachers, I am very clear that I am not in the business of giving jobs to adults. That is not my purpose. My purpose is educating children. The only way I can do that is by employing the best teachers.
She comments on the high number of schools that say “children first” but wonders how many of them actually put the saying into daily use.
In a 1989 Texas Education Agency publication, the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) outlined attributes of successful schools (Cárdenas et al., 1989). The following are some of the strategies IDRA described that promote scholastic success:
- Communicate high expectations.
- Use encouragement to support independence, self-esteem, risk-taking and acceptance of others.
- Monitor teaching to identify and change negative expectations and behavior.
- Use a wide variety of teaching styles.
- Maintain high expectations that are appropriate to each student’s ability level, and monitor student progress in order to maintain appropriate expectations.
- Exhibit strong school leadership that assumes and supports success.
- Plan for staff development and institute cooperative decision making.
- Correlate campus and programmatic activities designed to serve students who are considered at-risk of dropping out with the core curriculum.
- Incorporate critical and higher-order thinking skills in all course content areas.
- Conduct ongoing evaluations of student learning outcomes to modify teaching strategies and organizational operations.
- Create campuses that are centers for community involvement, support and interaction.
- Increase recognition of students’ accomplishments and special talents both in academic and non-academic pursuits.
- Create ways in which students who are considered at-risk of dropping out can be acknowledged as peer leaders and more fully participate in projects that respond to student and community needs.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE) has been studying initiatives for turning around low-performing schools. It describes low-performing schools as those schools with:
- high rates of teacher turnover,
- high percentages of uncertified and/or inexperienced teachers,
- frequent leadership turnover,
- low rates of parent and community involvement, and
- single, piecemeal, uncoordinated reform efforts.
On the other hand, attributes of high-performing schools are:
- academic focus,
- high teacher quality, and
The turn-around created at Fox Tech by the teachers, staff and students beautifully illustrates these attributes.
After the re-establishment, moving the school forward would not be easy, but the positive attitudes and expectations were definitely there. It was apparent to all staff that the essence of a successful school is valuing students, teachers, parents, and community; understanding that students always come first; and having pride in the school, self, community and heritage. In an interview with IDRA, the principal outlined the five focal areas that are being principally addressed in this transformation.
Strengthening School Pride
Fox Tech is nestled in the middle of downtown San Antonio. Across the street is a major bank, a historic church, a leading hospital, an art institute, and many other businesses. One block away is the city library, which, sitting in its great splendor, bright colors and design, can be seen from the freeway and from miles away.
If you were to drive past Fox Tech, you would never know that it is a high school. Its architecture is modern and blends in with the busy downtown area. Built in the 1970s, Fox Tech reflects the new but maintains old charm in the original renovated building that still stands and is part of the school. The only clues from the outside that this is a high school are the stadium and the large parking lot for the students and staff.
Outside the buildings, uniformed students are at the bus stop, loading city buses, making conversation, and studying. Unlike many high schools in the area, the parking lot is not full. Most of the students do not own cars and use district and public transportation. Many now come from around the city just to attend Fox Tech.
People from all over Texas and the United States call to inquire about the school. Many of these calls are from teachers seeking a teaching position. Calls to the school’s main switchboard are greeted by a warm recording: “Welcome to Fox Tech High School, the only National Blue Ribbon winner and “recognized” high school in the history of San Antonio Independent School District. We are beginning our 122nd year of excellence in education.” The tone of the message is positive, sincere and exudes pride in the students, school and community.
As you walk into the main school building, you are reminded of a university atmosphere. The school is very quiet, extremely clean and polished. Fox Tech was just named the “Outstanding School Building of the Year” in the San Antonio Independent School District (ISD) for cleanliness. It is cheerfully decorated with student art projects and other beautiful and clearly visible work that proudly reflects the school’s ethnically-diverse population. Everywhere on campus you will find displays, awards, and even an area that is a mini-park – a place for lunch, socializing and studying. The campus is spotless, there is not so much as a gum wrapper on the floor. Teachers and students alike are so proud of their school that they all do their part in keeping the school clean. Everyone becomes part of the solution.
The Wall of Fame, located on the second floor, has pictures of the many successful Fox Tech graduates. In the center sits a huge buffalo – the Fox Tech mascot – again reflecting pride of school and student ownership. As you walk into the front office, there is a warm feeling not typical of many schools. You are greeted with a friendly and sincere, “Good morning, may I help you?” Staff and students working in the front office have the same attitude of good service that is expressed in either English or Spanish. The school building and front office are both “people friendly.”
With the new administration and staff came the creation of “schools-within-the-school” as a means of meeting the needs of all students. The idea was to create small, caring communities within the framework of the larger school setting. Multiple academies were established, each with its own assistant principal, counselor(s), instructional guide, and core and magnet teachers.
Each academy began to create, build and establish its own program by working collaboratively and always with the students foremost in mind. The ongoing planning, evaluating and assessing of programs has resulted in a law and research academy, an applied technology academy, and a universal global academy. Ms. Cockrell comments:
We created schools [academies] that allow students to choose what they want. Our vocational school grew so much that I had to divide it into the computer-based school and the 19th Century Program classes, which include your basics. It is important that the students choose, but also important that they know they are not stuck in those schools. They have an opportunity to change schools if they are not happy.
In an attempt to move the concept to an even higher level by, again, focusing on the needs of the students in each academy through careful assessment, other needs were identified. These included more law-related information and courses, a more technology-based strand, and a program to assist the students who were considered as being in at-risk situations. The countless hours of careful planning, monitoring and evaluating programs focused on student needs has resulted in an assets-based model that values the students and instills pride in school, learning, community and heritage.
One of Ms. Cockrell’s goals is to provide students a quality education so that all students have options when they graduate, “When they change their minds at 19- or 20-years-old and decide they want to go on to a higher education, they will have the background to do it.”
Fox Tech has different courses in leadership. Student’s electives are geared to their needs.
Instructional programs are carefully selected and given the resources needed to succeed. If they do not work for the students, they are discarded. Fox Tech does not “force-fit” a program. If the program does not address students’ characteristics, then the program is not used. Ms. Cockrell comments on the strategy: “You can call it an individual plan for each student. This is for every child, not just for special education or the gifted and talented.”
The principal at Fox Tech advocates a leadership attitude that is straightforward, where students and teachers are to be respected and offices have an open door policy. Students, teachers and parents know that the principal is there to listen when they need to voice either praise or concerns.
Ms. Cockrell also emphasizes the importance of pride. The students must have pride in themselves, in their community, and in their school. She says: “The school was the worst in the state. That tells you that there was no pride in self or school. We found people who had a vision of pride and began instilling that pride in the students.”
Preparing students for success involves adapting, having a good attitude, and giving the students priority. Ms. Cockrell and her staff make every decision based on these three things. Adapting to new techniques and continuous learning by her staff are priorities to Ms. Cockrell.
She is also concerned with hiring and retaining new teachers:
All our new teachers in this district are involved in a mentorship program since we know we lose them in the first five years. I meet with them and their mentor often and I get feedback. Teaching school now is 50 times harder than it was when I became a teacher. You have to keep current just like you have to keep current in any position.
A teacher’s attitude is another focus of Fox Tech’s success. Ms. Cockrell explains:
When I hire somebody, I hire their attitude. If they have the right attitude toward teaching, it goes a long way toward making up for any other shortcomings. I always want to see the strengths in teachers, and I practice an assets-based model with staff and value them always. No person is a born teacher, you make yourself a good teacher through attitude and learning. I want my teachers to keep current in the loop and be part of the solution. When teachers have demonstrated to me that they no longer are interested in our children, then perhaps it is time for them to seek a position elsewhere. We do not hire people who cannot stay here for 25 years.
Making the students first on the list of priorities has helped make Fox Tech a success. Teachers are very involved with their students. One way the teachers monitor students is by calling their homes. Teachers must call the homes of all the students enrolled in their second period class at the beginning of the year. They check attendance and give parents the opportunity to correct the home phone numbers. Teachers are also expected to call home and personally invite parents to the “distinguished graduates night” in October. They are asked to call home when there are problems and make notes of any responses from the parents.
The teachers at Fox Tech also make a point of showing the students they are valued by attending events hosted by the school. Ms. Cockrell says:
I rely on the commitment from teachers to support the children outside the classroom as well. Our students know teachers are not paid for the extra time they spend outside of the classroom in the evening, standing by the sidelines, rooting them on or attending an event that involves after-school hours.
Teachers at Fox Tech are at the school 185 days of the year, and there are as many as two or three events per day. Teachers are asked to attend at least 10 events per year. Ms. Cockrell also makes sure to recognize teachers who go above the required attendance and support. Children need to know their teachers care and that they come first. This commitment from teachers is critical.
According to Ms. Cockrell, everyone “ custodians, cafeteria personnel, paraprofessionals, teachers, administrators and students ” at Fox Tech is accountable for its success or failure.
Each one of the academies has an instructional guide, an assistant principal, and at least one counselor. They work with the same students all the time. It is the responsibility of the instructional guide to look at the quality of teaching and to assess the curriculum. Proper implementation of the curriculum is critical for maximum student impact. Therefore, the instructional guide helps ensure that the teachers and the curriculum are a good fit.
Students are responsible for their own success. Ms. Cockrell has a system of naming each class of students for a specific positive trait. She says: “One group that was recognized was a particularly tough group when they were freshmen. I spoke with them, and the staff and I decided that the class was really gifted, and we had to change to work with them.” After working with the class for some time, they were named the “Dream Class.” This was appropriate because they first had to dream of what they could accomplish. With support and affirmation from the staff, the Dream Class members developed their goals. Ms. Cockrell says with pride, “Of course, they tested the highest in the district.”
Students show their drive through collaboration and support of each other. An example of this philosophy presented itself when the Dream Class won a reward – not having to wear their uniforms for four weeks – because they were recognized on the TAAS. After the class won the reward, they requested that one of their prize weeks go to the sophomore class to support them and challenge them to do better.
Students dropping out of school is a serious issue for the school. Ms. Cockrell says: “No student can withdraw from school without having a conference with me. We want to encourage them to stay in school, but if there is no other alternative, we always leave the door open to welcome them back.” The entire staff is challenged to prevent students from dropping out in the first place and bringing them back if they do leave.
Fox Tech has made an amazing turn around, going from the lowest ranking school in the state to being nationally recognized in a short five years. Based on my personal observations of the school, interviews with the principal, and conversations with staff members and students, I surmised the following as contributing to Fox Tech’s success.
Five years ago when the school was reestablished, failure was not an option. By carefully selecting staff, the principal was able to instill a path to success. As a group, they were going to do whatever was necessary to succeed rather than to follow a path to keep from failing.
Fox Tech has shown that there is no room or time to blame students, community, parents, or the economic level of the student population for a school not being successful. Their approach has been one of not placing blame on anyone and not falling in love with their problems. Rather, as a group – including students and parents – they came up with solutions. Programs were carefully screened, and curriculum was heavily monitored. These measures were viewed not as ways to create a convenient situation for staff but as ways for meeting the needs of the students.
Lastly, the process of change was created not by exerting the staff’s or the district’s wills on the students. It was not about holding an external power of fear over the students and community. The change process was about true human power of the principal, staff, students and community working collaboratively in an environment based on mutual respect, understanding, compassion and good intention.
Transformation at Louis W. Fox Technical High School, San Antonio, 1994-95 to 1999-00
|1994-95 School Year
Texas Education Agency disestablishes the school at the end of the school year.
1995-96 School Year
The school is reestablished for the new school year with a new administration.
By the end of the year, the school is removed from “low-performing” with a new administration status in math.
The school is still rated as “low-performing” due to its 14.7 percent dropout rate in 1993-94.
1996-97 School Year
Fox Tech’s dropout rate improves dramatically, according to TEA reports.
1997-98 School Year
The school is named “most improved school” by the San Antonio Independent School District.
$1,000 awarded to each teacher by the HEB grocery store chain.
The school rating is upgraded to “acceptable” by TEA.
Dropout rates and attendance improve.
1998-99 School Year
The school rating is upgraded to “acceptable-plus” by TEA.
Dropout rates and attendance continue to improve.
1999-00 School Year
Fox Tech is named a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the US Department of Education.
Dropout rates and attendance continue to improve.
Seven Characteristics of High-Performing Schools
|– Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. “Talking Points – Turning Around Low-Performing Schools,” documents from the OESE leadership team (Washington, DC: US Department of Education Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, October 2000).|
Louis W. Fox Technical High School Summary Data 1994-95 to 1999-00
Texas Assessment of Academic Skills
Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. “Talking Points – Turning Around Low-Performing Schools,” documents from the OESE leadership team (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Education Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, October 2000).
Cárdenas, J.A., and A.M. Montemayor, M. del Refugio Robledo, A.L. Trujillo (eds). Successful Schooling for Economically Disadvantaged At-Risk Youth (Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency, 1989).
Rogelio López del Bosque is the marketing coordinator in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2001, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 2001 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]