Words by Rick McGee Photos by Eric Morales
Where do all the “bad” kids go? You know, those wayward teens who lack discipline, don’t show up on time, and often drop out of school. What happens to a fifteen year old with a learning disability who struggles and falls behind? Who has the time and patience to mentor a teen with an attitude problem these days? Is it even possible for a high school to help a teenage mother get her diploma or craft a schedule for a juvenile who has to work during the day to help feed his family?
Sadly, there are many teens in Austin who have given up and forgotten their dreams, if they had any at all. They simply don’t fit the traditional school system of block schedules, closed campuses and the unrelenting pressure to prepare and pay for college, when some don’t believe they are worthy. These challenges drain the resources of traditional schools and sap the spirit of our youth before they even have a chance at shaping their lives.
Jesus dropped out at 17 years old to clean offices. “I lived day to day, was always sad, and not very proud of myself.” He looks at the floor and reflects on that lost year. “My parents fought all the time, and my father was very bad.” He paused, then shared a deep truth. “I made some bad choices.”
Six years ago, Frank Oakes took the reigns at Austin Can Academy, a charter school on Rosewood Avenue that serves 479 teenagers. “We’re a recovery school for dropouts,” said Frank. Having served as a teacher and football coach in south San Antonio for 28 years, then as principal at Gary Job Corp, prepared him for the task ahead. He quickly realized the Can had to be rebuilt from the ground up. “We were known as a thug school,” he whispered. Frank started over. 75% of the teachers were moved out. “We tore it all down before we could focus on student achievement.” He set standards for attire, attendance and conduct, demanded of every student, teacher and himself. When Frank walks the halls now, which occurs often, and sees a student with shirttails out or headphones in, his voice bounces off the walls. “I wouldn’t hire you today. Tuck it, pull it and get to your job,” commands Mr. Oakes, as he playfully and skillfully refers to classrooms as a student’s place of work and shows another student little things matter. “In the beginning, students ran the school,” remarked Ashley Treat, Development Director. We toured the school and Ashley noticed a coupling. “Guys, separate! Go to class! I know where your aunt works!” The veiled threat parted the pair, and they hurried away. “Our reputation was ‘if you can’t behave in school and don’t want truancy court, come to the Can.” Our tour continued, and I noticed encouraging signs on the walls:
I Can Achieve Anything
I Believe In My Dreams
If You Stop At General Math You’re Only Going To Make General Math Money
Our three student guides, Andrea, Danna and Isaiah all came to the Can based on recommendations from friends. “Teachers make you understand a topic with your own reasoning,” commented Andrea who will attend college next year to study English Literature. “My parents were iffy about me coming here, but greater than 80% of the students are motivated to succeed while only 60% seemed that way at my old school.” We talked about the differences and an analogy came to mind. “My old school is diverse and large. It’s like a city. Austin Can is a small neighborhood where everybody reaches out and encourages you.”
The Game Plan
Principal Oakes brought more than three decades of experience. He installed a game plan patterned after Coach Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs. “In our system, like the Spurs, we look for the right fit,” remarks Frank. “We want teens who are unselfish, team-based, that don’t get into trouble and never refuse to read or attend physical education.” Frank’s bag is filled with many tools. “The Can has better ratios allowing teachers to care more about the students,” commented Danna about the 15:1 student-teacher ratio. “The ratios help the teachers work you hard,” agreed Isaiah. Teacher retention rates were 100% the past two years as three were added, and none were lost. “We recruit teachers from our ‘development league’ of tutors who are embedded into classrooms with students. We’ve learned our tutors want to be here and make terrific classroom instructors,” indicated Frank.
The Can opens at 7:45am and closes at 9pm allowing students to attend one of three half-day programs: morning, afternoon or evening. The triple half-day model enables flexible schedules to fit unique needs. Some schedules are cut even finer. For example, a teenage mom might attend two hours in the AM and two hours in the PM. “There are no excuses a student cannot be here 95% of the time,” exhorts Frank. Advisors with social services backgrounds are assigned across the student population. They track attendance on an “absence spread sheet.” If a student is missing after first period, her advisor goes into hyper alert and texts or calls until the student is found. One mother remarked, “Why are you calling me every day? It’s too much stress!” indicated Mario Hernandez, Assistant Principal. “Her daughter apologized for the mother’s behavior until the day mom had that ‘aha moment.’ Her daughter’s grades improved from failing at her former school to 90% at the Can.”
Charter schools are often viewed as competitors to traditional schools. Not so at the Can. “We don’t compete with traditional schools; we partner with them,” said Frank. “Once a student gets that look and says I can’t go on, we want our partners to think of us.” Ricky Williams, Graduation Coach at LBJ High School, concurs. “When I need help, I call the Can.” Ricky sent a 9th grader to the Can last year because of a poor attitude and worse grades. “I don’t care” and “I’m leaving school” are triggers for Ricky to make the move. “That 9th grader rejoined LBJ a year later and sang a different tune: “I didn’t know what I was doing.” When asked what makes the Can experience unique for troubled kids, Ricky exclaims, “In a Can classroom, everyone is participating and working … hard!”
Frank installed a large rock on a pedestal at the entryway, another element borrowed from the Spurs. Teens learn about the stonecutter hammering away at his rock until the 101st blow splits it in two, knowing each hit of the hammer contributed to the end result. As students, teachers, administrators pass by the rock, most give it a fist bump, evidence they are pounding the rock that day. “I only need to look at the rock to know I’m one glance closer to my goals,” indicated Andrea. “The Rock is Mr. Oakes’ baby. It’s a mental state of mind about overcoming challenges,” said Mario. “Kids come here with a stigma of being difficult to teach. The Rock is symbolic of our passion to help teens discarded by society and transition them from lost hope to becoming thinkers.”
Thinking Through Reading
Students read in every class, every day, out loud, each sentence twice until they get it. “Reading is fundamental. It’s like a pivot in basketball,” remarked Ashley. Students agree with the dogged discipline. “I comprehend more here than my previous school,” said Isaiah. Reading out loud followed by teacher-guided discussion challenges students to comprehend subject matter and develop higher order thinking capability. Teachers achieve a level of intensity that engages students and prepares them for the 13 most tested skills across all standardized exams. “Every Monday new students arrive, and some wear a “mean mug” that I have to penetrate,” comments Gregory Maneikis, English Teacher. “I’ve learned to help students express themselves in their unique way, whether it’s verbally, visually or the written word.” The small class size allows teachers to spend quality time with students individually or in small groups rather than one-to-many instruction. One student commented, “At my old school teachers talked too much and I couldn’t focus, so I laid my head on the desk. I can’t hide at the Can.” Squeezing a full day of school into a half-day day works for Joel. He rises at 5:30am to care for his 10-month old daughter prior to the AM Can session. He’s back with A’layah in the afternoon until the 4-11pm shift at Burger King. “Too many kids feel sorry for themselves and let negativity overtake their lives,” said Joel. Having his daughter kick started his brain in a different direction. “Kids I once idolized, smoked weed and broke into houses. If students come here to just drag it, Mr. Oakes will kick them out. I want to be my own boss some day.”
Removing obstacles to learning is often the first step. The Can has provided free eye exams and glasses, bus passes, and free immunizations. A health and wellness focus, combined with fast acting advisors who often predict when intervention is needed, helps students concentrate on what matters. “We can’t lose momentum!” exclaims Mario. Students get into the practice of waking early, attending classes and learning at school. “If we don’t develop a career path now, the kids might settle in life.”
“A lot of parents worry about paying rent and feel college is out of reach, indicates Rachel Groth, Ready to Work Program Coordinator. “I help remove that false burden, show them how to receive Pell Grants and file FAFSA applications for student aid.” Rachel also helps teens prepare resumes, complete job searches, and apply for the military and trade schools.
From Cleaning Houses to Building Them
A spark ignited Jesus as he cleaned an architect’s office during the year out of school. “We design buildings based on math,” remarked the architect. Months later, Jesus found himself in Miss Spencer’s math class. “She explained numbers clear and neat. I realized I liked math, especially trig. Connecting shapes and triangles is a puzzle I like to solve.” Jesus will complete his second year at ACC this spring then transfer to focus on Architectural Engineering. A confident grin enveloped his face as he met my eyes: “Mr. Oakes wants me to be a math tutor this summer.”
Word of Mouth
A former student testified to the Texas State Senate, “Traditional schools look at your past with an emphasis on credits. Austin Can looks at your future with a focus on getting the right job after graduation.”
“Many kids here have two strikes,” remarked Andrea. “It’s the right school for kids with goals but unsure how to attain them.” “At my old school, students had to be there. At the Can, kids want to be here,” said Joel. “Everybody knows my name.” “I felt I could do anything when I earned my diploma,” said Jesus. “The Can is not for everyone. If you’re going to goof-off, don’t bother. If you’re willing to work, tuck in your shirt and show up on time, get to the Can. It could change your life.”
A half-day schedule at a school some say looks like a prison with a large rock in the entryway, a “new wing” built in 1939, and no 20 MPH School Zone is achieving strong results with troubled teens who have two strikes and no one in their corner. The people and processes at the Can make it happen because they care, they’re smart and students get it. Imagine what could be accomplished if local businesses, colleges and the city of Austin became partners with the Can.
“I’d love to establish a day care and trade programs so students can attain certifications,” remarked Ashley. “More tutors are needed, and the parking lot is a mud pit when it rains.” Ashley closed her hand into a fist, “We’ll keep pounding the rock.”