For Whom the Bell Tolls

Electronic monitoring may dramatically curb truancy. So why isn't DISD interested?

"Get your butts to class," Goodsell tells a cluster of kids having a discussion as if they had no place to be. "C'mon, get a move on," she tells another student.

After the second bell rings, she spots a straggler. "Roberto, come here," she says. The student gets a stern look from Goodsell, who asks what he's doing. "Nothing," he says, looking down at the floor, seemingly unaware that he'll be late to his class. Goodsell sends him to the vice principal's office for discipline.

It wasn't always like this at Bryan Adams, not until DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa plucked Goodsell from Irving's Lamar Middle School in 2006 to turn around what Goodsell calls "a broken school." When she began her tenure, the police seemed to have a permanent presence at Bryan Adams, and Goodsell didn't wear jewelry or fancy clothes and refused to drive her Lexus to work out of fear it would be stripped for parts before she left. The students' lack of respect for teachers resulted in verbal and physical attacks. No learning was taking place, says Goodsell, and there were no systems in place to make safety the priority.

On her first day at Bryan Adams, Goodsell fired the registrar, who was in charge of verifying the addresses of students to ensure they lived within the school's boundaries. Accurate verification reduced the rolls by nearly 900 kids, many of them problem students who had been kicked out of other schools. She fired 20 teachers who said they were unhappy in their work, dismissed three assistant principals and set up tardy tanks in the auditorium and cafeteria where students had to earn their way back into class. Within two years, she reduced the number of tardies from 400 per class period to six.

"I don't want to take the credit for it," she says modestly. "But I was elated about it because I thought we were beginning to make success possible for many more kids than we had before."

Goodsell has taken a personal interest in many of the students involved in AIM, including their parents—several of whom expressed their excitement about the new hope their kids had, she says. One of her favorites is Ricardo Pacheco, a former gang leader.

In January 2007, Goodsell asked for a meeting with the leaders of the Bloods and the Crips—rival gangs at the school—to broker a truce between them. Pacheco was leader of the Crips—known as the East Side Homies—and a third-generation gang banger. Pacheco helped convince Goodsell to introduce a dress code at Bryan Adams, which bans the use of gang colors (red and blue).

After the meeting, she took Pacheco under her wing. She gave his family money to pay bills while his father was in jail. "I love that kid," she says. But Pacheco was skipping school regularly and was on pace to lose credit for his classes. He became one of 46 chronic truants at Bryan Adams under court order to wear an ankle bracelet and GPS device, a unit that soon became known simply as "the box."

Pacheco, now 18 years old and about to graduate, didn't miss a day of school while in the AIM program. He says he stopped smoking pot and snorting cocaine and is no longer affiliated with gangs. It became easier to leave the gang once he was in the monitoring program because gang members felt as though they were being watched too. He credits the program for keeping him in school and Goodsell for keeping him on the right path. "I have changed a lot," he says.

Other truants report similar changes. Josh Cervantes, a 16-year-old freshman, started missing school when his friends convinced him to spend the day smoking marijuana instead. "We didn't have anything else to do," he says. "Mainly, all we did is smoke."

Cervantes stopped smoking and started attending school, thanks to GPS monitoring and court-ordered drug testing. He says he was missing two to three days of school every week, and he's missed just one class since the program began.

Some of his friends also snort cheese, which is a mixture of heroin and Tylenol PM that has claimed several lives in the Dallas area, but Cervantes had enough sense not to indulge. "The only way to distance myself from them was to stop smoking," he says.

Cervantes says the monitoring helped improve his grades and family relationships along with keeping him in school. Instead of coming home on weekdays around 10 or 11 p.m., he is spending more time with his parents in the afternoon when he gets home from school. "Now, whenever they eat, I get to eat too," he says.

Jaime Pacheco (not related to Ricardo), another 16-year-old freshman, cites laziness as the cause for missing approximately two out of every three weeks of school. He would regularly stay up until 2 a.m. watching TV, which caused him to sleep until noon and beyond on school days. Jaime says he didn't like school or see the point of going. "I always thought it wasn't worth my time."

His parents, who live in Irving and Plano, left him with his grandfather when he was just 18 months old. He sees his mother on Thursdays and his father on weekends, and claims their absence from his everyday life doesn't bother him. His grandfather, Carlos Mendez, says otherwise, laying the blame for Jaime's truancy on his strained relationship with his parents. "He's like ours, you know, but I think he wants his parents more involved than they've been," Mendez says. "They're not there for him, and I think that really discourages him more than anything else."

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