How, Not How Much

By Drew Lindsay — January 22, 1997 10 min read

The story of Zavala Elementary School easily could pass as the work of Horatio Alger. Five years ago, the nearly 60-year-old school was a monument to failure. Plopped between two public housing projects in one of the roughest and poorest neighborhoods in Austin, Texas, the school scraped bottom on virtually every measure of student achievement. The faculty was divided, fighting over just about everything. Morale was so low at the end of the 1990-91 school year that almost half of the teachers jumped ship for other jobs. Salvaging Zavala was such a hopeless task that when the state moved to include it in an initiative for poor-performing schools, some bureaucrats balked. Zavala, they complained, never followed through on anything.

Today, however, Zavala is born again. Test scores are up. Last year, 93% of the school’s 4th graders pas ed the state’s writing-proficiency test, compared with 7% in 1991. The school’s staff hemorrhaging has been stanched-indeed, teachers now clamor to get assigned to the school. And politicians no longer shun the school but embrace it as a model. Witness first lady Hillary Clinton’s visit to Austin last summer. She praised Zavala as proof of her favorite theme, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

The story of Zavala’s turnaround is filled with vintage rags-to-riches tales of grit, courage, and creative thinking. But mixed in with these pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap anecdotes is a moral about money. Between 1987 and 1995, Zavala and 15 other schools in Austin collected roughly $300,000 a year on top of their regular funding. The extra cash was part of a political compromise to end forced busing in the city and was intended to help the schools educate their high concentrations of low-income and minority student--students who presumably would need help to learn.

At most of the priority schools, the money produced little improvement. But Zavala transformed itself and in doing so, added a wrinkle to the long-standing debate over whether money matters in education.

When Austin began its priority schools program in 1987, it earmarked much of the investment for class-size reduction. As a result, Zavala, like the other priority schools, plowed most of its bonus dollars into new teacher hires. The school also signed on a community liaison and an attendance specialist to help kids who e rough-and-tumble lives in the inner city barrio interfered with learning.

Some of the money paid for professional development, but because Zavala had no school-improvement plan, training was picked at random, says Al Mindiz-Melton, who was then the assistant principal at the school. “If a brochure came in, and it looked interesting, we did it,” he says.

In the first years of the priority schools program, the money changed little at Zavala. When Loretta Caro was named Zavala’s assistant principal in 1991, she knew she was headed for a school whose pulse was weak. “My friends offered their condolences,” she says. “Out of the 66 elementary schools in the district, Zavala was the lowest in terms of student performance.” When Ms. Caro arrived, Todd McDowell was fresh off a rookie year teaching science to a class of students with severe discipline problems. “It was a horrible experience,” he says. “I wanted to be a teacher, and I wasn’t getting to be a teacher. I was a referee.”

None of the other schools was seeing dramatic improvement either. In 1992, district officials reported that the 16 priority schools made some gains in student achievement. But Gary Orfield, the director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, delivered a much gloomier assessment in his study of the program’s first years. Standardized test scores did climb some, his study says, but principals at 10 of the 16 schools said student achievement had not improved much over the past five years. Also, students at priority schools continued to score much lower on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills than their peers.

Mr. Orfield studied Austin as part of multicity research into whether extra cash given to resegregated schools would raise student achievement. His conclusion: “Just putting money into schools is not likely to produce benefits,” he told a reporter for The Austin American-Statesman newspaper.

Zavala broke with its past at an emotionally charged PTA meeting in the fall of 1991. Mr. Mindiz-Melton had taken over as principal a few months earlier, and he used this meeting to stir revolt among the parents over student achievement. Many parents had no clue that their children were not being educated. The school, after all, was sending home report cards filled with A’s and B’s.

But a few understood that they were being deceived. Before the meeting, Mr. Mindiz-Melton arranged to have one of those parents stand up, read the school’s test scores aloud, and air his grievances. The parent charged the teachers with malpractice and demanded change. Some teachers took offense and demanded that their new principal defend them. But Mr. Mindiz-Melton refused: “I cannot defend something that’s indefensible. And our performance is indefensible.”

Stung by the parents’ charges, Zavala’s staff set about overhauling the school to make achievement its sole mission. They jettisoned activities peripheral to academics and juggled class schedules to move such core classes as reading, writing, and mathematics to the morning when students minds are sharper.

The school also began an exhaustive reworking of its teaching goals and strategies. Students’ poor reading skills were a top worry, so the staff agreed to use much of its class-size money to scale back classes in kindergarten and 1st grade to a ratio of 12 pupils for every teacher. Teachers in the upper grades would now have classes of 25 students or more, but the more intensive instruction in the early grades would mean they would have more students reading at grade level.

These discussions about teaching and learning also prompted changes within the classrooms. Cooperative- learning techniques were introduced, and multiage classes were adopted 0 that teachers could work with the same students for two consecutive years. The staff pointedly rejected the slogan “all children can learn” and embraced instead the idea that all children can excel. They adopted the state’s reading and math curriculum for gifted students and merged special education students into the regular classroom. To align staff training with the school’s new focus, professional-development money was targeted for work in cooperative learning, the new advanced reading program, inclusion, and other instructional strategies that fit the school’s mission.

The result? Within a few years, Zavala emerged reformed and rejuvenated. The traditional classroom with rows of desks disappeared, replaced by students grouped around tables. Teachers who once squabbled now teamed up to sort out the school’s strengths and weakness. And test scores climbed steadily.

Even bigger changes followed when the school moved aggressively to lasso funding beyond what the priority schools program doled out each year. Beginning shortly after the critical 1991 PTA meeting, community organizers from Austin Interfaith, an interdenominational grass-roots organization, began working with Zavala to make parents key players in the school’s planning and decisionmaking.

Staff and volunteers for Interfaith, which is part of a statewide antipoverty group run by community organizer Ernesto Cortes, went door to door in Zavala’s neighborhood to zero in on parents’chief concern about the school. Eventually, with Interfaith’s encouragement, parents assumed key roles in determining Zavala’s priorities and strategies. Perhaps more important, they became the school’s political champions, campaigning at the city, district, and state levels for additional money for Zavala programs.

This wasn’t easy for many of the parents. “It was a lesson for all of us,” says T.A. Vasquez, one of Zavala’s most active parents. “How do you sit at the table with all these officials and not feel intimidated? You see all of them dressed up so nicely and you think, ‘My clothes are not as good as theirs.’ ”

But fortified by their conviction that more money put into the right programs would boost their children’s low performance, parents overcame their fears. In their first fight with the city, they won funds to set up a health clinic at the school.

Next, Zavala joined four other schools to win funding for the district’s first after-school enrichment programs. Before the city council, they argued that structured, academic-based activities after school would keep children off the street and raise achievement. “We really had to fight for it,” Mr. Vasquez says. “The city council couldn’t see it. They couldn’t see the reason behind it. But we could.”

While 16 schools won extra funding with the end of busing in 1987, only one school besides Zavala saw dramatic gains in student achievement. In 1987, Ortega Elementary was a low-performing school drawing student from a high-poverty community with a crime problem so severe that school officials had surrounded the school with an 8-foot chain-link fence topped with 2 feet of barbed wire.

Like Zavala, Ortega in the early 1990s reconfigured its school structure and approach to teaching. Adding 45 minutes to the school day, Ortega began enrichment labs in math, science, reading, and other core subjects to reinforce classroom work. Like Zavala, it also raised standards for students, adopting schoolwide math and reading curricula designed for gifted students. And like Zavala, Ortega also signed up with Austin Interfaith and mobilized for additional funding-including a whopping $750,000, three-year grant from RJR Nabisco Inc.'s Next Century Schools program.

Quickly, Ortega’s performance took off. By 1994, Ortega’s transformation was so complete that the U.S. Department of Education named it one of the country’s “Blue Ribbon schools.”

“You see, money doe make a difference,” says Aurora Garcia, the school’s assistant principal. “We’re a very progressive faculty; we’re risk-takers. But we couldn’t have done any of these things if we had just basic funding.”

Zavala and Ortega’s success is not unequivocal proof that money matters. The relatively stagnant performance of the other priority schools is testimony to the fact that money alone does not necessarily produce positive results. Some observers in Austin argue that it was strong leadership, not money, that made the difference at Zavala and Ortega. Mr. Mindiz-Melton, for example, was honored as a Reader’s Digest magazine “Unsung Hero” in education for his role in reviving Zavala. And Lynda Tinsley, Ortega’s principal until this year, is widely considered a fearless and untraditional educator who left no stone unturned when looking for outside funding sources.

“Money was not the driving force at either of these schools for the changes,” says Darlene Westbrook, Austin’s associate superintendent for instructional support services. “They had two passionate principals who said nothing but the best is acceptable for our children.”

But the leaders themselves say their experience proves that money can boost achievement if it’s used to leverage change. “In a capitalistic society like ours, everything is built around the accumulation of money,” says Mr. Mindiz-Melton. “But it’s how you utilize that investment that’s key.”

Researchers Richard Murname and Frank Levy argue in their recent book, Teaching the New Basic Skills, that money mattered at Zavala and Ortega because those two schools used the cash to revolutionize their practices.

The other 14 schools stuck with the status quo. Class sizes were reduced at all the priority schools, then-Austin Superintendent Terry Bishop tells the authors, but “you’d have two rows of five students, and the teacher would still be up there in front of the room, and still using ditto sheets like they were before.”

Money, of course, is not a cure-all, argues Joe Higgs, the Austin Interfaith leader who worked closely with Zavala, but it’s definitely a catalyst. “Resources,” he says, “create an opportunity for a conversation among stakeholders. What do we want to do with that money? What’s our vision? And without that conversation, change won’t take place.”

Now that Zavala has pulled itself back from the brink, its leaders aim to crack the elite of Texas, schools. Its scores on the state’s achievement tests are roughly on par with those of schools in the rest of the state, but the school’s leader aren’t satisfied with that. Success breeds success, they say, and within a few years the school will stand among Texas’ top performers.

“If you have achievement, then you have a sense of pride,” says Loretta Caro, who replaced Mr. Mindiz-Melton as principal this year. “Now when I say I’m at Zavala, people say, ‘Oh, yes, I’ve heard of that.’”