Before and after: Orr’s turnaround through students’ eyes

Print More

This fall, Orr High School embarked on its fourth effort  at raising performance through the district’s school turnaround program. And judging by the views of two Orr students, this time the effort appears on track to bear real fruit.

Antwan Ward, a senior, and Edward Ward, a sophomore, gave a before-and-after picture of Orr:  Social capital and trust among teachers and students was fractured by the announcement of Orr’s turnaround but is now being re-established.

This fall, Orr High School embarked on its fourth effort at raising performance through the district’s school turnaround program. And judging by the views of two Orr students, this time the effort appears on track to bear real fruit.

Antwan Ward, a senior, and Edward Ward, a sophomore, gave a before-and-after picture of Orr at the second installment of a three-part school policy luncheon series, “Is Great Teaching Enough?” The luncheons are co-sponsored by Catalyst and Business and Professional People for the Public Interest. (Note: The two young men are not related.)

Social capital and trust among teachers and students was fractured by the announcement of Orr’s turnaround but is now being re-established, the students said. The turnaround involved consolidating three small high schools that were the product of a previous reform strategy.

While Orr had problems—a lack of extracurricular activities, rivalries among students in the different small schools and conflict between the schools over resources—the two students felt there were strong teachers who really cared about them. The prospect of losing those teachers, and their support, was a big blow.

“In order for students to learn, they need to trust teachers,” Edward said. “When they fired the teachers, trust was broken. Students felt abandoned.”

Both talked about the shock of the turnaround announcement.

The turnaround news was also blow to Orr’s Peace Council, an initiative of the Mikva Challenge that sought to build student leadership and give them an opportunity to weigh in on efforts to improve Orr. 

“The students were as angry, as nervous and embarrassed as the teachers, if not more,” said Kareem Manuel, the Mikva Challenge staffer who established the council. “They were consistently being told in the news how stupid they were. At least that’s how they felt.”

The news also sparked resentment and behavior problems among students—garbage cans were tossed in the hallways, and some students simply quit going to school.

“The way I felt was, we didn’t have a voice,” Edward said. “We couldn’t be heard because they just made the decision basically for us.”

Students felt a glimmer of hope after meeting new principal Jammie Poole, who talked about his vision for the school with a focus on building relationships—and a multimillion dollar football field.

“The thing I was really impressed with was the fact that he came to talk to the students before he came to talk to anybody else,” Antwan said.  “At the end I had no questions. He answered all of them.”

Under Poole’s leadership, some of the school’s best teachers were rehired and stronger relationships with parents have been forged. Antwan notes that his mother is now a school volunteer. “She realized that by not helping before, she was part of the problem, and she wanted to be part of the solution,” he said.

Class sizes are smaller, too, and more extracurricular activities are provided.

The new start is heartening, but there’s still work to do, the young men said—and that work revolves around building social capital. Students and the new teachers are still getting to know one another, and rivalries among students remain a problem.

“You have to get trust among the students,” Edward said.

Yet, developing the Austin community that surrounds Orr is just as important, Antwan noted.

“The reason why the school has been turned around so many times is because of the community,” he said. “There’s nothing being done to help it grow. If you don’t put anything positive in a community then the negative things are going to seep into the school.

“It doesn’t matter how many times you turn the school over. You’re going to get the same results each and every time.”

Posted by: Amy Weiss