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It's a balmy morning in April, which to Anthony Tovar means only one thing: crunch time. Instead of walking the halls of Sunset High School in his usual happy-go-lucky way, greeting teenagers with a grin and calling them by name, the principal is hunched over paperwork in his office, his round, brown features drawn together in a brooding frown. There are just three weeks left before the school's 2,200 students sit down to take the fateful standardized tests that are referred to simply and ominously as the TAKS. The names on Tovar's list belong to the 75 seniors who, having failed one or more of the exams, are about to get one last chance to graduate with their class.
"I'm worried about this bunch. This will be their fifth or sixth time to take the test," Tovar says. "I hate to say it, but it's going be tough for them to pass." He shakes his head. "You call 'em in to tell them whether they passed and they cry—either from joy or sadness. Eighteen-year-old boys crying like babies because they passed a test; it's a sight to see. But it breaks your heart when you have to tell them they didn't pass...again."
Glancing at his watch, Tovar snaps back into the upbeat motivational mode instilled in him over 22 years of coaching baseball and football. "You have to encourage them," he says. "Say, 'Look, you improved by 50 percent last time. Keep comin.'" He turns to the intercom for morning announcements and tells the 75 seniors on the list to gather in the auditorium. "We're down to three Saturdays left before the TAKS," he says, his voice reverberating throughout the labyrinthine school. "We're here for you guys. We need you to come to Saturday school and after-school focus groups."
Moments later, the listed seniors file into rows of seats in front of a stage framed by purple curtains. In keeping with Sunset's demographics, all of them are Hispanic, and they hold their backpacks and watch impassively as Tovar, in a crisp white shirt and red tie, launches into his last-ditch pep talk. "How many of you work?" he asks. Roughly half of the students' hands go up. "You want to keep working at those places?" Only one hand goes up. "Your back is up against the wall," he continues. "If you want something bad enough, you'll do it. You'll sacrifice. You'll put your girlfriend or boyfriend or job on hold and focus for the next three weeks."
These students' futures aren't the only thing hanging in the balance. Their scores will help determine whether Tovar can make Sunset the first non-magnet school in the Dallas Independent School District to be crowned as "recognized" by the state, a coup that would build on this year's "acceptable" rating and be especially meaningful considering most of Oak Cliff's high schools have long been deemed unacceptable. To be "recognized," in most cases, a school must have at least 75 percent of its students pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests in all four areas—English/language arts, social studies, math and science (there are other factors that can change the 75 percent requirement).
Under Tovar's leadership, in the past three years Sunset has challenged the assumption that urban schools are doomed to languish and fail. It has seen its TAKS scores rise and its parental involvement skyrocket, and this year, it's being touted as the district's most effective high school, according to the DISD rating system that gauges how well schools perform in relation to their demographics (27 percent of Sunset's students have limited English proficiency, 96 percent are Hispanic and 70 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunches). Since 2006, the number of Sunset students who passed the reading and language arts TAKS jumped from 77 to 82 percent, the scores for social studies rose from 89 to 91 percent, and the math and science scores—most challenging district-wide—inched up from 53 to 57 percent and 56 to 62 percent, respectively.
"If Sunset's 'recognized,' that will blow the top off some of the myths about urban high schools," says DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, who holds up Sunset as the embodiment of the district's education innovations and a model for other schools. "People have low expectations because the comprehensive schools lose top students to the magnets, so they think they can't compete. Tony's changing that conversation, and I'm really rooting for him to make it."
Sunset, Hinojosa says, is one of a handful of DISD campuses that have seen leaps in performance under principals with a knack for hiring effective teachers and administrators, inspiring people to succeed and instituting new practices that produce results.
"It's a leadership issue," Hinojosa says, stressing that Tovar's success can be replicated. "You have to have systems that work, but you also have to have someone who can inspire people and rally the teachers and the students to make things happen."
Yet Sunset's status as a bright spot in DISD is also a sobering reminder of the district's grim realities. Just 55 percent of Sunset students graduate in four years; only 40 percent of those who graduated in 2006 are enrolled in higher-education, and a mere 3 percent of those who take the SAT or ACT college entrance exams have college-ready scores. Such statistics are like battle lines to Tovar. The son of Mexican immigrants who married as teens and never finished high school, the 53-year-old principal is determined to make Sunset into the sort of school that defies its circumstances, just as his family defied theirs.