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Saving the School: The story of JaQuarius Daniels, Reagan High

Adapted from SAVING THE SCHOOL by Michael Brick. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) 2012 by Michael Brick.

JaQuarius Daniels took his place on the bleachers. The other boys made room. Though he was only a junior, JaQuarius was already the biggest kid in the school, 6-foot-5 with an intense bearing, a full-grown weightlifter's physique and a neatly trimmed track of facial hair running ear to ear. He was used to being accommodated. He was used to being watched. For JaQuarius, high school was passing in an orderly rotation of seasons, from football to basketball to track and back to football, the sport of his heart and chosen future.

"He looks like he's doing it effortlessly," his football coach had said on TV sophomore year, when he rushed 317 yards to score four touchdowns in a single game and the local CBS affiliate pronounced him athlete of the week and the local paper chimed in: "Daniels has become a good student and the focal point of two athletic teams. He's also emerged as someone to look up to."

History seemed to favor his ambitions. Around the gym, aging banners commemorated a streak that had earned the Raiders of John H. Reagan High School a place among such Texas dynasties as Abilene, Odessa Permian, Dallas Carter and Converse Judson. As the 2009-10 year began, though, the school faced a once unthinkable fate. Under the numerical terms imposed by standardized testing, officials were closing down public schools all over the country. The state education commissioner set a one-year ultimatum on Reagan High. For the neighborhood in northeast Austin, the stakes were no less than a gathering place, a symbol of continuity, an alma mater. For the principal, the teachers and the coaches, jobs were on the line. And for JaQuarius, the moment of reckoning would come at the end of junior year, when a closure order stood to end any hopes of shining on the field as a senior, much less turning his work into a college scholarship.

But as he settled into class on the first day of school, with a full season of football still spread out before him, JaQuarius projected ease. Everywhere he went, in fact, JaQuarius projected ease. Disarming ease, uncanny ease and sometimes otherworldly ease. Disengaged ease. Unnatural ease. He was Black Fonzie standing there.

Of course he could draw D-I football scouts to watch the Raiders suffer another humiliating beatdown at Nelson Field; he was JQ. Of course he could walk down the hall holding the hands of two girls at once; he was JQ. Of course he could improvise sound bites every time the local paper sent a junior sportswriter out to find some uplifting good news from the Eastside school that was going to get shut down ("I'm proud that people around here can look up to me,' Daniels said. 'I like being a leader."); he was JQ. Of course he expected to earn a business degree, which of course he wouldn't have much use for until his triumphant retirement from a storied NFL career, at which point of course he would deploy his hard-earned acumen toward the management of his image, his wealth and his endeavors to give back to the community. He was JQ.

And being JQ meant letting it all hang out. His momma came from a West Texas hick town: So what? His sister and his two brothers all came from different daddies: Whose didn't? None of the daddies had stuck around: Whose had? He was quarterbacking a football team that couldn't catch, didn't block and seemed allergic or perhaps even conscientiously opposed to tackling? All the more reason to admire his singular devotion.

Because all those things -- if you wanted to be JQ, as opposed to just another oversized and athletically gifted Eastside kid -- all those hard things had to look easy. So when his sister got hauled to the principal's office, when his stepdad turned up on the sidelines looking all wild man, when the family car broke down yet again, JaQuarius could always be seen gliding through the courtyard the next day, conspicuous grin conspicuously subdued, earbuds in, head above the crowd, nodding up and down just enough to show he was agreeing in principle with every thunderous downbeat. Also, he had a 3.4 grade point average.

"The sky is the limit for this young man because of his attitude, his work ethic," the football coach had said on TV. "He's got his head on right."

*****

At night the luminescent R on the weathered brick facade backlit the numbers '67, '68 and '70, beaming a bright blue reminder of ancient seasons clear down Cameron Road toward the parking lot at Whataburger. Those state football championships meant something powerful in Texas, where the Cowboys were opening a new billion-dollar stadium and the Longhorns were within striking distance of another national title. For decades Reagan High had turned in winning records, setting the citywide standard for the most successful coach by victories (Wally Freytag, '74-'78) and by percentage (Travis Raven, '65-'70). Even in the late 1980's, when the draw of the new exurbs took hold and enrollment fell to 1,200, coach Dennis Ceder fielded an undefeated class AAAA squad, advancing to the third round of the playoffs. On the 40th anniversary of the school's first state championship, 36 old-timers showed up for a reunion. Some wore varsity letter jackets. The local paper sent a photographer. "Once a Raider, always a Raider," the tight end said.

But in four years on the state's list of schools rated "academically unacceptable," Reagan had won only seven games. Coach Darby could hardly pull together a full team. Every summer, the district sent home letters informing parents of their right to transfer out, and every year more kids with the resources and transportation left for schools on the west side.

Among those left behind, 30 percent were learning English as a second language. Mobility rates, a measure of unstable home lives, reached 40 percent. Nearly one in 10 students dropped out, almost three times the state average. At the front of the classroom the numbers were not much better. Young teachers came to work off educational debts. For the first five years, they got paid more than the state average. Then they got paid less. Then, often, they left. The hardest numbers were the ones the state didn't track: Behind the main office, two dozen infant children of current students played at a day care center with a yard full of plastic toys. Little Raiders, they were called.

Friday nights at Nelson Field the bleachers were nearly deserted. Banners advertised the only team that could still draw a crowd, a minor-league soccer club unaffiliated with the school. Only 25 kids showed up to practice, including 16 starters from last year's 2-8 team. In his note to scouting services, the most optimistic Coach Darby could sound was: "The Raiders need improvement throughout the lineup, but they should get it as players get older and gain experience."

At quarterback, JaQuarius was already one of the returning starters, though even he needed, in Coach Darby's estimation, "to improve significantly on a learning season."

*****

Saving the school: That was how just about everybody described the task assigned to Anabel Garza, who was starting her second year as principal. She herself described the job as "educator, police officer, nurse, psychiatrist, counselor, custodian, translator, gang unit, parking lot attendant, gardener, and firefighter."

Even making the numbers wouldn't really save the school, Anabel told people. Provisions in the education reform laws would keep raising the standards every year. And every year a new batch of kids would arrive in need of frenzied tutoring.

She wanted a neighborhood public school, open to all, with dances and crowded bleachers, band performances and yearbooks, Pan-American clubs and teachers who brought books alive. She wanted to restore the school to its founding ideal, its place at the center of something defined only by itself. She wanted to reach out into the middle schools, into the neighborhoods, into homes and families to make people believe in the school again so maybe the cycle would end. She wanted love and expectations.

For one more year, then, win or lose, Reagan High would become it had always been, what every American high school had once been, a wild, confused and conflicted ecosystem of aspiring athletes, musicians, scientists, mathematicians, auto mechanics, doctors, lawyers, janitors, housewives, programmers, criminals, maids, pilots, writers, financiers, nurses and cetera, a population suspended in mid-metamorphosis, hormones raging, teeming with divisions of race and class, religion and ambition, money and no money, united in an increasingly fragmented age by accident of geography, thrown together to receive the sculpting blows of four awful, unforgettable and dizzying years.

And in that mix, bopping down the hall, earbuds in, a head above the crowd, Anabel saw something she could use.

"I don't know what has made JQ JQ, but I see leadership potential in him," she said. "He doesn't see it in himself yet. He's doing it for himself ... He doesn't have to be a man of many words; he just has to communicate to others."

*****

Off the field, JaQuarius preferred to watch. He'd learned a lot that way, by watching. He'd watched his older cousins play football. He'd watched his mother give birth to his younger sister while she was still a teenager herself, then to two more boys in the next four years. Moving the family from Abilene to Austin, where her own mother lived, she'd found work as a home health aide, taken up with a roofer who wore a cheek tattoo and enrolled her children in the public schools.

New to the Eastside, one of the biggest kids at Pearce Middle School, JaQuarius had starred at running back. Trouble noticed soon enough. The summer before seventh grade he got arrested in a big brawl at Highland Mall, where somebody was showing a pellet gun around. As he told it, his night in jail was a turning point: His mother was mad and hurt, and he knew she'd been struggling all her life and he shouldn't have been adding to her troubles.

JaQuarius hadn't figured all that out on his own, though. The middle school basketball coach, who'd been trying to get him to join the team for a year, started talking about what a shame it would be to waste great talent with bad decisions. The compliment connected; JaQuarius joined the middle school basketball team, where Alex Parish and Brandon Golden and Jerold Hill and Willie Powell already had a tight bond. JaQuarius elevated their game with his size and athleticism, but they were all going to Reagan, where the basketball coach was promising playing time. JaQuarius had to think it over. Most of his football teammates were going to L.B.J. High, where the Jaguars had just made the playoffs with six athletes selected as first team all-district. The L.B.J. freshman squad was bound for even bigger things, stocked with kids who would eventually sign up to play for Georgia Tech, Texas Tech and the Air Force Academy. And L.B.J. was rated academically acceptable, so there was no risk of getting shuffled across town just when scouts were starting to notice.

On the other hand, maybe JaQuarius could stand out playing against L.B.J. And of course there was Ashley Brown.

*****

"Don't follow me. Do what you got to do, and I'll do what I got to do." That was what JaQuarius had always told her, all the way back to junior high. Ashley usually called him JaQuarius, not JQ; she had high expectations for him too. That was why she'd agreed to go out with him even though he was a year younger and, she claimed, not very handsome. Their first encounter was less than romantic. The girls were playing basketball against the boys in the Pearce Middle School gym, things got out of hand and he gave her a slap. She told the girl he was seeing, Dominique, that she'd better get her man in line, but Dominique didn't respond in a manner she found satisfactory, so the next time the girls and boys played basketball Ashley gave JaQuarius a slap herself. Ashley would remember it all vividly for years; JaQuarius would just say he was pretty low in seventh grade.

Later on, at a party, one of her girlfriends passed along the information that JaQuarius liked her, to which Ashley said: "I don't care; he's ugly." She thought little of it until JaQuarius and a boy named Michael each asked for her phone number in close enough succession that she suspected they'd made some sort of wager. Eventually she gave the number to JaQuarius. She liked the athletic body type for sure, and JaQuarius seemed ambitious. She liked that too.

There was never any question Ashley was going to Reagan, even though her freshman year in 2006-07 coincided with the state labeling the school academically unacceptable. Her mother, La'Quisha, had graduated with the class of '93, and her aunts and uncles had gone to Reagan too. The Lady Raiders track squad had won state in 2000, and coach Leslie Riggins was still taking girls to the big meet most years. Being an athlete made Ashley popular, and being a pretty one made her more popular, not that she cared about any of that. She cared about the feeling she got when she was running: Stress-free. Grades came pretty easily, but running was the only time she stopped stressing about whether she was going to see her dad again, or when, and other stuff. She had developed an attitude problem, she was the first to admit. People called her Tough Cookie. She'd get mad about something and the anger would just spray out before she could aim it at the thing she was mad about. Still, she was off to a fine start at Reagan, passing the standardized tests, keeping up her grades and even qualifying for state in the 4x100 relay freshman year. So no matter what he said about not following each other, JaQuarius had enrolled at Reagan too.

*****

The weight of history rested lightly on his shoulders. When JaQuarius spoke of Reagan "back in the day," he meant the depths of 2003, when a girl was stabbed to death in the stairwell, not the glory of '67. He wasn't carrying on anybody's dynasty. He was out to set his own legend, or at least his own course. Before bed he did a hundred pushups. Off-season he lifted weights. Hurt, he performed his assigned rehab. Even in his dispiriting sophomore season, when scouts had ranked the team 927th in the state (and 11,258th in the country), he'd thrown 11 touchdown passes to make first team all-district.

By junior year, football was starting to like a real chance to go to college. His mom understood how things worked. When JaQuarius offered to get a money job, she told him to concentrate on schoolwork and sports. The sports part came easily. Football, basketball, track, football, basketball, track, and when nothing else was going on he joined the golf team (he shot in the low hundreds). School work came less easily. Sometimes math problems looked like they were written in a foreign language, but he worked hard, and his confidence was improving. None of that made him a leader, not at the level of the expectations set when the local newspaper put him on the cover of its sports section. The headline said: "Star Daniels could revive Reagan athletics."

This new season didn't look like much of a revival. In the heat of August, the Raiders traveled to Taylor, an exurban outpost of 15,000, to lose 52-0 to the middling Ducks of Taylor High. Their next five opponents ran up 245 points to the Raiders' 26 (Texas does not adhere to the mercy rules some states use to protect fatigued players). All season the losses came by 35 points or more, except for the hardest one. Playing at home against the winless Vikings of Lanier High, Reagan lost by a margin of less than a touchdown.

When the game ended, JaQuarius dropped to his knees on the turf. What had he gotten himself into? When he looked up, the principal was standing over him, right there on the field, pulling him to his feet. He didn't commit her words to memory, but she did: "The minute you look like you've been defeated, we have no hope," Anabel said. "Because people are looking at you."

*****

Football season couldn't end soon enough, and didn't. The Raiders lost their last game, by 50 points, to the Knights of McCallum High School. JaQuarius had expected to lose to L.B.J. He'd gotten over losing to Lanier. But 70-20? The Knights scored so many touchdowns they had two kickers trading off extra-point duties. JaQuarius kept his cool on the field, but not on his mySpace page, where he called himself the one "that shot or shank a nigga."

Losing to McCallum would have hurt no matter the score. It wasn't because the Raiders had a chance; they didn't. Reagan was ranked last in District 26-4A, behind the sorry Lanier Vikings, behind the hated Jaguars of L.B.J. High, and hopelessly far behind the first-place Knights, who'd made the playoffs every season for the past 17 years.

It wasn't because the Raiders were the sentimental favorite; they weren't. Since the McCallum head coach had died of a heart attack at 63 (an occupational hazard of Texas high school football as real as any concussion), the Knights were fixed for pep talk fodder, magnets for maudlin sports page copy and playing the way only teenage boys wearing a dead man's initials on their helmets can play.

And it wasn't because the Knights were a traditional rival; they weren't. McCallum kids looked forward to playing Travis High every year for the right to keep Old Locomotive Bell No. 988 in the school trophy case. Reagan kids looked forward to the annual showdown against L.B.J. at Nelson Field, the home stadium they begrudgingly shared.

It wasn't really even because of football.

It was because McCallum was choking Reagan to death.

Reagan High was used to losing talent to the far-flung exurbs, academic and athletic alike. The most striking example was Reggie Brown, a star linebacker in the 1990s who earned a scholarship to Texas A&M, signed with the Detroit Lions and then bought his mother a house north of town in Pflugerville. His younger brother, Michael Johnson, played for Pflugerville High, not Reagan, before going on to the Super Bowl with the New York Giants.

Black flight wasn't much different from white flight. Families that could afford to move out of the city took their property tax dollars with them. The district had to spread around the budget impact, and come Election Day the mayor had to deal with it and the city council and everybody.

But McCallum was just three miles west, drawing kids with good standardized scores, ambitious parents and reliable transportation right across the interstate. The trickle became a stream in 2006, when the state education agency pronounced Reagan academically unacceptable. McCallum wasn't just winning money and resources by producing high-caliber students. McCallum was winning high-caliber students by producing money and resources.

And so on a warm Friday night in November, with a light breeze blowing south across the field, the Knights of McCallum -- the academically acceptable home of the city's Fine Arts Academy, where teachers earned $1,896 more on average than Reagan's for their 14 years average experience to the Reagan staff's nine, and where twice as many students were enrolled -- beat JaQuarius Daniels and the Raiders by beating Reagan High School, first at the standardized tests, then in the pay stubs, then on the real estate brochures and finally on the field, by seven touchdowns, each more humiliating than the last.

*****

A week later, with another winless season on the books, Anabel Garza walked the halls, dressed in the school colors, smiling wide, stopping to inspect a big green tomato in the garden she'd planted to spruce up the courtyard. In a history classroom, she handed a boy in the front row a hall pass to her office.

"We got some talking to do?" the boy asked. "I'm in trouble?"

Turning on the heel of a sensible flat, Anabel gave a wink but no explanation. In the hall, she selected two Latino boys for hall passes. Outside she came across a football player called Morgan showing off to some girls.

"Don't make me break this up," Anabel said, handing Morgan a hall pass. She was gone by the time he understood he'd been summoned.

"Aw, I don't want to go talk to Ms. Garza," Morgan complained.

Anabel gave JaQuarius a hall pass too. She didn't say anything about what he'd written on his mySpace page.

Back in her office, Anabel offered candy. She scanned the room. Seven kids sat around the table, two girls and five boys. For better or worse, these kids were role models to many of the others. JaQuarius, carrying a bright red backpack, grinned and had good posture, like athletes used to. He loomed half a foot over the next tallest kid and nearly two over her. Anabel nudged one boy's elbows off the table and mimed the removal of headphones and said, "Yeah, doesn't work for me."

The kids ate her candy. Anabel talked about how the teachers had been trying for four years to make the academically acceptable numbers and yet here they were. She was open to ideas.

"Here are the topics, and just fast and dirty," Anabel said. "Our attendance is bad, and if people aren't in classes we're not going to get better. Our benchmarks are 10 percent better than last year, but we will have to cross the finish line together. So the ones who are doing better have to help the others along."

She looked around the table. The kids kept eating candy. JaQuarius spoke up.

"When we're in class," he said, "don't just let us pick what groups to be in. Let the teachers pick the groups, and put the different races together. And make them get along with each other."

Anabel took notes. These were not new ideas. People had taken them to the Supreme Court more than once.

"JQ, what makes you want to do well?" Anabel asked.

"Seeing my momma, how she struggled when she was younger."

Anabel went around the circle. All the kids repeated JaQuarius' remarks, inserting their own mothers. One of the boys said: "We're all divided, Hispanic and black, and that's wrong. They don't do a thing to us and we don't do nothing to y'all, so why don't we hang out together? And the other thing is, teachers can't control the classes."

JaQuarius said, "Sometimes it's not the case of teachers not wanting to teach the class. They're just scared to say certain things to the students. Sometimes I think the teacher makes it worse. They just fail them, and they don't go up and talk to them, and so the student just keeps it up."

Anabel said high school was an important time in life. She talked about how quickly it would pass and how a bad decision could ruin things.

"You are very powerful," Anabel said. "You don't know how powerful you are."

She went on: "I didn't have that burden on me when I was in high school. I didn't even know high schools closed. But financially, there's a burden on everybody now. And they're trying to push us toward excellence, which isn't a bad thing. But we didn't have it together last year, and now this is the year to make it happen. Those of you that play sports, it's like we're in the last few minutes, and it's, 'Are we going to make it or not?'"

*****

The bus idled in the parking lot. The marching band had a solid rhythm going with mallets and drumsticks on the seatbacks. Anabel stood up front and counted heads. Her star athlete turned up in sandals.

"Where are your tennis shoes?" Anabel asked.

"I don't have any," JaQuarius joked.

"You're going to wear mine. You better wrap them around your feet. What size do you wear?"

"Fourteen."

The bus pulled out of the lot, carrying a passenger manifest chosen by an imprecise amalgam of grades, profile and charisma. The kids bounced in their seats, riding toward middle schools they'd once attended, on an errand to convince at least a few of the more capable eighth graders that Reagan High might have more to offer than four years of standardized test cramming and the avoidance of getting stabbed.

Anabel draped her arm across the seatback, tucking a leg to achieve that position at her stature. The band kids had been an easy choice, the drum line in particular. They drew a crowd wherever they went, from the bank parking lot to formal competitions; they'd been called up to play on the Friday Night Lights TV show; and this morning they'd dressed up their uniforms with headbands that said, "Soul in Columbia Blue."

Still, JaQuarius was the main attraction, Mr. Reagan High. On the football field he stood out just by showing up. Some college programs were looking at him, Baylor and a couple bigger ones too. As he told it, that had been his plan all along, to shine against the backdrop of a fallen dynasty. But the lesson of the losing season was hard to miss: JaQuarius couldn't do it alone. "His delivery may seem long, but he is also having to throw off his back foot a lot, which leads to a lot of inaccurate passes," one college scout wrote. "When he has been able to stand up and deliver the ball, he looks like a different player."

And for all his devotion to football, JaQuarius was starting to draw more attention on the basketball court, with the boys who'd been together since middle school. The Raiders had made the local paper's pre-season list of 10 teams to watch, at 10, and the sportswriter had said they "could surprise some people." Burned by the memory of last year's regional quarterfinal loss to L.B.J., the team was drawing crowds to its open practices, where there wasn't even much to watch but drills -- outlet, shovel, bounce pass, layup, outlet, shovel, bounce pass, layup, with Coach Derrick Davis calling, "Stay low, stay low." The Raiders had opened their season up in Killeen, where people were still reeling from the shooting at the Army post. Playing Harker Heights, a 5-A school with 2,536 students and a "recognized" rating from the state, the boys had won by three points, 57-54. After the Christmas break, district play would bring two chances to avenge last year's loss to L.B.J.

For now, the education commissioner's decision loomed in the distance of summer, a teenage eternity. The bus driver parked behind the cafeteria at Webb Middle School. The drummers and dancers gathered their things. The band director went to make arrangements. JaQuarius took the chance to give the principal a hard time.

"This is illegal, recruiting," he said.

"We're not recruiting," Anabel said. "We're showing off."

She changed the subject to standardized test prep and his smiled faded. His first look at the Exit Level TAKS test was coming up. His girlfriend, Ashley, had already passed the tests her junior year. She was applying to Baylor and some places even farther away too. No TAKS, no college, and no college football.

"When I get to the test," JaQuarius said, "it doesn't translate. I act like I haven't been studying."

Anabel looked for some encouraging words. A buzzer sounded from the middle school cafeteria. The eighth graders were starting lunch. It was time to put on a show.

"Alright, chicas," she called, giving the dancers a roundhouse wave. "Are you ready?"

The girls in their sparkling blue followed JaQuarius up the delivery ramp, past a sign tracking the progress of a Thanksgiving can drive and into the cafeteria with their principal close behind, calling, "Where are my strutters and my dancerinas at?"

The bass drummer smashed an opening salvo, the echoed resounded from the concrete walls and somebody called, "Hit it, Reagan!" The drum line teased a march beat but soon dropped into a low shuffle, doing exaggerated tucks and chair steps. The Soul Strutters took to the floor below the stage, hips shaking, and the drum line hushed to stick clicks for the call and response:

Everybody say ...

RHS!

The drummers called out their parts. The Soul Strutters did a suggestive twist. The middle school kids perched on their cafeteria stools, rapt and maybe a little overwhelmed. Somebody introduced the woman responsible for this lunchroom spectacle, the principal of Reagan High School, Ms. Anabel Garza.

"We are hearing fantastic things about you," she told the eighth graders. "We hear how smart you are. We are here from Reagan today to identify our future Raiders."

She asked for a show of hands.

"And those of you who aren't coming to Reagan," she went on, "we hope we can change your minds today."

"I'm good," one kid called, and some others laughed. They were only 13, but they'd already seen their middle school go through the same desperate race to make the numbers. Anabel went on with her pitch, introducing the band, the Strutters, the cheerleaders, the yearbook photographer and the quarterback.

"As you can tell," Anabel said, watching the eighth grade girls watch JaQuarius, "we have the best-looking kids in Austin, the most beautiful girls, the most handsome boys ..."

The drum line took over. The band played on, a deafening clamor in that unacoustical lunchroom. The Reagan kids worked the room, circulating fliers that told of auto shop and drama clubs and sports. The middle school girls competed for the attentions of this fine and towering JaQuarius, who made his way up and down each aisle before returning to his place by the stage. When the music stopped, JaQuarius held the door for the drum line, the Strutters and everybody. Last came the principal. The middle school girls didn't stop staring until JaQuarius let the door close behind his back.

"I don't know what they see," Anabel said, shaking her head at JaQuarius, "in a boy with no shoes."

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