Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Corps Purpose

I was lucky enough on Tuesday to be notified about a visit to Jefferson High by the Commandant of the Corp of Cadets at Texas A&M. When I saw the initial notification I automatically assumed it was going to be some wealthy white guy who was raised in the suburbs and had his parents pay his way through college. Nothing wrong with that, I just expected someone who wasn’t going to be 100% capable of connecting with a school that has a population of over 95% minority and nearly 83% economically disadvantaged students. Especially considering this person was coming from a college which consists of a near 75% population of white undergrads (37% of Texans are Hispanic) and a Corps of Cadets that has kept a steady >80% population. Not to mention that Texas A&M has never had a non-white Commandant in its 135-year history. ( I’m not trying to make the topic of this blog about race, I’m just trying to convey to you the delight that came to me when I found out that I was wrong.

I stood in Ms. Cockrell’s office as she made the announcement for all JROTC students to report to the school auditorium. I also stood in front of the auditorium doors with her when less than 10 minutes later all students reported to the auditorium and took their seats. 300 students filed into the auditorium in an orderly and polite manner and took their seats with little to no direction needed from the staff standing by. Impressive.

As the students took their seats I couldn’t help but compare their actions to those of my counterparts in the AF. Whenever we have massive gatherings on base, it usually takes two or three directions of “Move to the front seats please” in order to get some kind of order in the room. Other wise you have ten empty rows in the front of the room and an enormous amount of people in the back rows. I didn’t see this occur at Jefferson. Not one direction was made of “move to the front…”, the students automatically did it. Again, impressive.

Principal Cockrell introduced SAISD Board Trustee Ed Garza, and in turn, Mr. Garza introduced Brigadier General Joe Ramirez. Yes, Ramirez. General Ramirez is the first Hispanic Commandant of the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets. Gen. Ramirez quickly took the microphone off of the stand and began with a hearty “Howdy”, which is the traditional Aggie greeting. He made his way to the center of the stage and the first thing he did was take a jab at the rival state college the University of Texas. Typical Aggie.

After a couple of jokes regarding the “communist” UT Longhorns, Gen. Ramirez got to business and began dishing out statistics. He informed the students that in today’s society, out of 100 minority students that begin high school, only an average of 60 make it to graduation. Out of that 60, 24 go on to college. Out of the 24 that go to college, only 12 will graduate. 12% of our minority students that enter high school are destined to earn a college degree; 88% will not. He continued by stating that 32,000 students applied to Texas A&M last year and only 8,300 were accepted. He mentioned all of this to bring an awareness to the students that if they were not already preparing for their future, then their future was already passing them by. He mentioned to them that there isn’t a certain point when their lives begin to be determined; they were in control of determining the direction of their lives right now. He expressed to them that the only limit in this life is the one that you set for yourself.

He then moved on to his own background. He showed a photo of his family and informed the kids that his family was from ‘the Valley’ and that they moved up to Houston when he was a kid. He continued to tell a story of himself as a kid who grew up rough, and whose father ended up serving in the Korean War. He mentioned how he was first inspired to attend A&M when he was a kid and saw the Corps of Cadets marching in a Houston parade. Being the first of his family to graduate from college, he went on to serve 31 years in the U.S. Army before being selected for the position of Commandant at Texas A&M.

It was surprising that General Ramirez didn’t push the agenda of joining the military at all. Students asked questions about the military and he would tell them about all the benefits, but he wasn’t there to recruit kids for the military. He showed the students the Corps of Cadets Mission Statement, “The purpose of the Corps of Cadets is to develop well-educated leaders of character prepared to answer the call for values-based leadership and service in the public and private sectors.” He keyed in on the “well-educated leaders” portion of the statement. Nowhere in the mission statement does it mention military. One of the students asked if they were required to go into the military if they graduated in the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets, General Ramirez clearly answered, “Cadets are NOT required to go into the military.”

This battle between the benefits of a terrific education and military service has been one that Jefferson High has had to deal with throughout the past year. Jefferson has transitioned from a magnet program that focused solely on the Arts, to two separate magnet schools that focus on ‘Military Science and Public Service’ as well as ‘Architecture and Environmental Studies’. The Military Science program has been one that has caused much confusion among the local community. Many parents have the misconception that the Military Science portion is nothing but a military recruiting program. This is far from the truth when it comes to Jefferson High’s agenda. As the SAISD Superintendent Dr. Duron states himself when describing the magnet school, “The Military Science and Public Service magnet at Thomas Jefferson High School is committed to creating heroes and leaders of tomorrow.” Just as the Texas A&M Corps of Cadet’s foremost purpose if creating “well-educated leaders”, so is the mission of Jefferson’s new magnet program.

As I walked out of the auditorium I stopped one of the students and asked them what they thought about the program. They energetically stated that they had previously considered it, but now seriously wanted to join the Corps of Cadets. I then asked if they wanted to go into a military career. His reply? “No way.”

*** Sidenote: After the program was over and all the students filed out of the building, I noticed a group of about 15 – 20 students still sitting in the front. I walked over and noticed that a staff member, Coach Polit, was sitting with them talking to them, so I decided to sit down and listen to what he was saying. He commended the students on their behavior and informed that they represented not only their class well, but also themselves as individuals. He compared them to a few students who caused a ruckus and were promptly taken out of the auditorium right before the end of the program. “You all demonstrated what leaders should act like.”

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Junior Class Principal

Today I spent my entire morning at Jefferson High School. I was lucky enough to shadow Ms. Donnie Whited, one of Jefferson’s esteemed assistant principals. Ms. Whited is actually one of my former teachers from Sam Houston High School and I was very excited last year when I heard that she would be one of the new principals under Ms. Cockrell at Jefferson. Ms. Whited was one of the most formidable elements of my time at Sam Houston High. She was the only teacher, in my personal opinion, who was not stopping at graduating students from high school, but also developing well-prepared GLOBAL leaders to step into the corporate world and take over. I contribute a large amount of my speaking skills and professionalism to Ms. Whited’s mentoring at Sam Houston. Anyways, enough gloating about the wonderful Ms. Donnie Windham Whited…

I arrived at Jefferson High at 8:45am, just in time to catch the school administrators in the halls rounding up all the students who were tardy to class. The admin were equipped with handheld devices that scanned student’s ID cards, loaded the appropriate offense into the database (tardiness) and then printed out a ticket (tardy pass) which listed the student’s name and also their history of prior offenses. So, all in one stop the student was stopped, notified, documented and then sent to class. If the student was in violation over a certain amount they would be held to the side and escorted to the detention hall. Ms. Whited notified me that these devices saved staff a tremendous amount of time and relieved so much paperwork. Efficiency at its finest.

As the tardy students were standing in line to receive their tardy passes, Ms. Whited walked along the line and inspected uniforms and shaving regulations. Yes, shaving regulations. Jefferson High has a rule that student’s must be clean-shaven, with an exception for mustaches. If a student was in violation they would be escorted to the detention hall, where they were provided a shaving razor and shaving cream and were required to shave. As we escorted the two students who were in violation of the shaving regulations to the detention hall I heard one of them mention, “Man, you know how many girls I got with this?” referring to his thin amount of facial hair, “Now I’m not going to get any of em…” I wanted to tell him that he was definitely better without it and should wait until he can grow a big boy beard before he chooses to stop shaving, but, I decided to just stay quiet and keep notes.

After dropping the peach fuzz crew off we then went to visit one of Ms. Whited’s students for a little positive reinforcement. She informed me that the student had been in a bit of trouble in the past and that they seemed to be on a better path now, so she wanted to go by their 1st period class to encourage them to keep it up. When Ms. Whited pulled the student out of class I realized that they were actually a special education student. At the end of their brief conversation the student gave Ms. Whited a hug and invited her to their ‘graduation party’ this year. Ms. Whited politely declined, but told them that she would gladly purchase a graduation gift instead. He left her off with another hug.

After our short visit Ms. Whited then walked me to the JROTC building. I won’t go too far into detail on this visit because I will be writing an exclusive blog on Jefferson’s JROTC program in the near future, but, to say the least, I am VERY impressed. I was lucky to be at Jefferson today because the U.S. Army was actually on campus with their Black Hawk simulators as well as an entire challenge course. As the students completed the course they were given a set of personalized dog tags. Not much else to say about that, it was just a nice coincidence that I came on the same day as this event.

After the JROTC visit and a few stops in between, we came back to Ms. Whited’s office so she could take care of some paperwork and also get her information together for her ‘Data Walks’. A Data Walk consists of admin visiting individual classes and going through a checklist of observation items. Each admin is equipped with an iPod Touch which has program that allows admin to simply check a box under each objective. Some of the objectives listed on the list are:

Is the teacher sitting or standing? Yes or No

Teacher’s location:
- At desk
- Front of room
- In teaching zone
- Not present

Learning Environment:
- Teacher Nest (messy, disorganized, clutter)
- Instructionally Purposeful (posters relating to content)
- Effective Classroom Management
- Door/Window Uncovered
- Visual Models

Administration is required by the district to complete 25 data walks per week for each grade level. This is a terrific policy considering it requires eyes-on accountability by administration. Even though it’s a matter of integrity whether or not personnel actually complete the data walks or just ‘pencil-whip’ the checks, I think with the proper oversight this would prove to create a more proactive administration as opposed to a reactive one. It’s easier to catch deficiencies in teachers when you have to do daily checks, as opposed to waiting for a student or parent to report a discrepancy.

All in all, today’s visit was a complete information overload, at least from the viewpoint of a blogger. But from the viewpoint of someone who is looking to enter the education field in the near future, it was a chance to experience the nonstop tempo of being an administrator at an inner-city high school. So, not much of a lesson/moral to the blog today, just a day in the life…well, half a day at least.