Posted: Wednesday October 10, 2012 7:51AM ; Updated: Wednesday October 10, 2012 1:23PM
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Saving the School: The story of JaQuarius Daniels, Reagan High

Story Highlights

Reagan High was once pride of Texas, but has faced tough times lately

One dedicated principal and a star athlete helped give the school hope

Reagan still faces plenty of challenges, but has the will to keep fighting

By Michael Brick

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Courtesy of Penguin Press

Adapted from SAVING THE SCHOOL by Michael Brick. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) 2012 by Michael Brick.

JaQuarius Daniels took his place on the bleachers. The other boys made room. Though he was only a junior, JaQuarius was already the biggest kid in the school, 6-foot-5 with an intense bearing, a full-grown weightlifter's physique and a neatly trimmed track of facial hair running ear to ear. He was used to being accommodated. He was used to being watched. For JaQuarius, high school was passing in an orderly rotation of seasons, from football to basketball to track and back to football, the sport of his heart and chosen future.

"He looks like he's doing it effortlessly," his football coach had said on TV sophomore year, when he rushed 317 yards to score four touchdowns in a single game and the local CBS affiliate pronounced him athlete of the week and the local paper chimed in: "Daniels has become a good student and the focal point of two athletic teams. He's also emerged as someone to look up to."

UNDERDOGS: Reagan High's long road back

History seemed to favor his ambitions. Around the gym, aging banners commemorated a streak that had earned the Raiders of John H. Reagan High School a place among such Texas dynasties as Abilene, Odessa Permian, Dallas Carter and Converse Judson. As the 2009-10 year began, though, the school faced a once unthinkable fate. Under the numerical terms imposed by standardized testing, officials were closing down public schools all over the country. The state education commissioner set a one-year ultimatum on Reagan High. For the neighborhood in northeast Austin, the stakes were no less than a gathering place, a symbol of continuity, an alma mater. For the principal, the teachers and the coaches, jobs were on the line. And for JaQuarius, the moment of reckoning would come at the end of junior year, when a closure order stood to end any hopes of shining on the field as a senior, much less turning his work into a college scholarship.

But as he settled into class on the first day of school, with a full season of football still spread out before him, JaQuarius projected ease. Everywhere he went, in fact, JaQuarius projected ease. Disarming ease, uncanny ease and sometimes otherworldly ease. Disengaged ease. Unnatural ease. He was Black Fonzie standing there.

Of course he could draw D-I football scouts to watch the Raiders suffer another humiliating beatdown at Nelson Field; he was JQ. Of course he could walk down the hall holding the hands of two girls at once; he was JQ. Of course he could improvise sound bites every time the local paper sent a junior sportswriter out to find some uplifting good news from the Eastside school that was going to get shut down ("I'm proud that people around here can look up to me,' Daniels said. 'I like being a leader."); he was JQ. Of course he expected to earn a business degree, which of course he wouldn't have much use for until his triumphant retirement from a storied NFL career, at which point of course he would deploy his hard-earned acumen toward the management of his image, his wealth and his endeavors to give back to the community. He was JQ.

And being JQ meant letting it all hang out. His momma came from a West Texas hick town: So what? His sister and his two brothers all came from different daddies: Whose didn't? None of the daddies had stuck around: Whose had? He was quarterbacking a football team that couldn't catch, didn't block and seemed allergic or perhaps even conscientiously opposed to tackling? All the more reason to admire his singular devotion.

Because all those things -- if you wanted to be JQ, as opposed to just another oversized and athletically gifted Eastside kid -- all those hard things had to look easy. So when his sister got hauled to the principal's office, when his stepdad turned up on the sidelines looking all wild man, when the family car broke down yet again, JaQuarius could always be seen gliding through the courtyard the next day, conspicuous grin conspicuously subdued, earbuds in, head above the crowd, nodding up and down just enough to show he was agreeing in principle with every thunderous downbeat. Also, he had a 3.4 grade point average.

"The sky is the limit for this young man because of his attitude, his work ethic," the football coach had said on TV. "He's got his head on right."

*****

At night the luminescent R on the weathered brick facade backlit the numbers '67, '68 and '70, beaming a bright blue reminder of ancient seasons clear down Cameron Road toward the parking lot at Whataburger. Those state football championships meant something powerful in Texas, where the Cowboys were opening a new billion-dollar stadium and the Longhorns were within striking distance of another national title. For decades Reagan High had turned in winning records, setting the citywide standard for the most successful coach by victories (Wally Freytag, '74-'78) and by percentage (Travis Raven, '65-'70). Even in the late 1980's, when the draw of the new exurbs took hold and enrollment fell to 1,200, coach Dennis Ceder fielded an undefeated class AAAA squad, advancing to the third round of the playoffs. On the 40th anniversary of the school's first state championship, 36 old-timers showed up for a reunion. Some wore varsity letter jackets. The local paper sent a photographer. "Once a Raider, always a Raider," the tight end said.

But in four years on the state's list of schools rated "academically unacceptable," Reagan had won only seven games. Coach Darby could hardly pull together a full team. Every summer, the district sent home letters informing parents of their right to transfer out, and every year more kids with the resources and transportation left for schools on the west side.

Among those left behind, 30 percent were learning English as a second language. Mobility rates, a measure of unstable home lives, reached 40 percent. Nearly one in 10 students dropped out, almost three times the state average. At the front of the classroom the numbers were not much better. Young teachers came to work off educational debts. For the first five years, they got paid more than the state average. Then they got paid less. Then, often, they left. The hardest numbers were the ones the state didn't track: Behind the main office, two dozen infant children of current students played at a day care center with a yard full of plastic toys. Little Raiders, they were called.

Friday nights at Nelson Field the bleachers were nearly deserted. Banners advertised the only team that could still draw a crowd, a minor-league soccer club unaffiliated with the school. Only 25 kids showed up to practice, including 16 starters from last year's 2-8 team. In his note to scouting services, the most optimistic Coach Darby could sound was: "The Raiders need improvement throughout the lineup, but they should get it as players get older and gain experience."

At quarterback, JaQuarius was already one of the returning starters, though even he needed, in Coach Darby's estimation, "to improve significantly on a learning season."

*****

Saving the school: That was how just about everybody described the task assigned to Anabel Garza, who was starting her second year as principal. She herself described the job as "educator, police officer, nurse, psychiatrist, counselor, custodian, translator, gang unit, parking lot attendant, gardener, and firefighter."

Even making the numbers wouldn't really save the school, Anabel told people. Provisions in the education reform laws would keep raising the standards every year. And every year a new batch of kids would arrive in need of frenzied tutoring.

 
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