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Cavazos' Adviser on Dropouts: Uniquely Qualified for Job

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Washington--There may be no one in the federal government more qualified for his job than Richard Marquez. But those who knew him when he was a teenager would probably have laughed at the idea he might someday serve as an assistant to the Secretary of Education.

The Secretary's adviser on dropout prevention is not only a teacher and administrator who dramatically reduced the dropout rate in a Dallas high school, he is also a former dropout himself. He left school at the age of 17 and earned a General Educational Development diploma while serving in the Army.

"Having been supposedly a failure of the system ... gives me perspective in terms of how I felt and how I felt I was viewed by the system," Mr. Marquez said in an interview last week. "It gives me a perspective on labeling, which is one of the worst things we do to people."

His philosophy, shaped by his own experience and 13 years as an educator, is that most school failures are attributable to institutional flaws rather than student deficiencies.

The solution, he believes, is to make the system less bureaucratic and more responsive to individual needs. It is a philosophy that dovetails nicely with the Bush Administration's emphasis on school restructuring and flexibility.

A large part of Richard Marquez's job, which is a new position at the department, is to identify dropout-prevention programs that are effective and "reproduce them."

He is also working with the department's research branch, he said, to improve data on the dropout problem, which are notoriously flawed due to the wide variances in definitions of dropouts and ways they are tracked.

But Mr. Marquez is most enthusi8astic about the opportunity his new job gives him to encourage educators to fight the bureaucracy and change their schools.

When he decided to accept the post, he said, "I felt like I had some answers."

As an indicator of where those answers might lie, he pointed to a note stuck to his computer. It read: "Are American students inferior, or are they the product of an inferior system?"

Passing On His Experience

The Dallas school system did not "work" for Mr. Marquez when he was a student. He was one of those he talks about now who "feel they don't belong in school and don't see the point in staying."

But he eventually left a job operating computers for Sears to go to college because he realized his lack of education was limiting his upward mobility.

He decided early on that he wanted to be a teacher. "I felt like I'd made enough mistakes in my life and could pass that experience on to other kids," he said.

He taught history and Spanish in two middle schools. Then his supervisor suggested that he was "administrator material," and he went to night school for a master's degree in educational administration.

His first job after graduation was running special programs, such as workshops for schools experiencing racial turmoil. After that, he served as an assistant principal in a middle school and a high school, and then was given the helm of Anson Jones Elementary School in 1983.

The elementary school was 96 percent Hispanic and held almost three times the number of students it was built to accommodate. Mr. Marquez is particularly proud of his work there, but his claim to fame is his tenure as principal of Sunset High School, where he reduced the dropout rate by one-third and increased the number of students in advanced-placement classes by 600 percent.

An intensive program Mr. Marquez launched at Sunset High for students who had failed the 9th grade has won him the most acclaim. But the majority of his efforts there were aimed more broadly.

"Everything in a school is interrelated," he said, "it all works toward the same goal."

One big problem at Sunset, accordint to the administrator, was low expectations on the part of teachers trying to cope with the school's changing demographics. They basically believed, he said, that "Hispanic kids can't learn."

Mr. Marquez tried to limit early "labeling" of students based on test scores, which he thinks are misused and overused.

"If I were in the system now, I probably wouldn't ever have the chance to be here," he said, "because the obstacles that have been thrown in over the past 15 years, with the use of test scores, have actually closed down those opportunities for people to move."

Tests were meant to gauge a teacher's success in conveying ideas and to measure students' progress, he said, but "we've begun to give them the value of telling us how valuable this person is."

In his work at the high school, Mr. Marquez emphasized a restructuring of the curriculum, eliminating many low-level classes.

"Kids who create problems in the school usually create problems because their needs aren't being met," he said. "If a kid is bored in class, he's going to wreck your classroom. If a kid isn't being successful in school, it means he starts to fall back and get retained, and it's your instructional program that's not being successful."

Mr. Marquez also thinks it is crucial to "create an organization that deals with the individual."

He did not visit the homes of truant Sunset students and drive them to school, as he had at Anson Jones. But he strove to deal with each student and teacher on an individual basis.

"That's a lot of work, and that's why so many people shy away from it," he explained. "Rule by standardization is easy management."

School systems, Mr. Marquez said, too often are bureaucracies that stifle creativity. So he wasn't surprised when he began hearing himself referred to as a "maverick."

But, reflecting on that label, he added this: "I ask you, if you have to be a risk-taker and a maverick to make an urban school work, does it mean urban schools are designed not to work for kids?"

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