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Part Coach, Part Cheerleader, Sunset High Principal Anthony Tovar Aims to Prove That Inner-City Schools Can Be Winners

Mark Graham

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.

"I wish our students' parents had higher expectations," he says. "They hope the kids will finish high school and then maybe go to college. I remind the parents and the kids that a high school diploma is the beginning, not the end of their education." One of his greatest frustrations is teen pregnancy, which is so common that Sunset's yearbooks are filled with baby pictures and it often seems there are nearly as many baby showers as graduation parties. "A lot of times I say stuff to Hispanic kids that I could get in trouble for if I were white or African-American," Tovar says. "I say, 'I'm tired of reading that Hispanics are No. 1 in DISD in dropping out of school and we're No. 1 in getting pregnant. I'm tired of hearing we can only do "Mexican" jobs.' When I see a kid skipping class, I say, 'You're living up to what they're saying in the papers about us. You're making us look bad.'"

For Tovar, the most challenging part of being a principal is getting evaluated for results that in many ways depend on demographics and other factors beyond his control (this is especially apparent to him since he coached and taught history at Skyline High School—a magnet—for 16 years). "It's frustrating when you're dealing with parents who have given up on their kids, and it winds up counting against you," he says. "I can't go to anybody and say, 'This guy can't get his kid to go to school, and I'm getting penalized for that.'"

It can also be wearisome for all of his varied efforts to be judged by a series of standardized tests. Like most educators, he acknowledges the need to monitor schools' effectiveness and hold teachers accountable, but he has concerns about how well the tests measure learning and about the sorts of creative material that may get left out in the rush to pass.

"I don't know if it's good or bad," he says of TAKS. "I just know we have to be measured by it."

Tovar doesn't spend much time wringing his hands over the things he can't control. When he gets discouraged, he thinks about former students who have gone on to become lawyers and teachers and professional baseball players. He thinks about the last senior whose cool façade gave way to grateful tears because he passed the TAKS test and got to graduate. And then, like any self-respecting coach, no matter how bad the odds might seem, Tovar keeps searching for new strategies that might help his team win, all the while cheering them on as if they're the best players on earth.

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On a recent afternoon, Tovar heads down the hall toward the cafeteria during lunchtime. Students nod and smile as they pass. A young woman greets the principal from across the hall. "Hey, Tovar!" she shouts with a grin. He waves back. "Hey, how are ya?"

He stops a pale, gangly teenager. "Hey, Cyrus," he says, "did you get a ride last night?"

"Yeah, I got a ride. Thanks, Mr. Tovar."

Moments later the principal strolls through the packed cafeteria past the senior table, where "Class of 2009" is painted on the wall in enormous purple letters. A young woman waves, and he waves back. "She just got a scholarship to Austin College," Tovar says proudly.

When you ask teachers and parents what sets Tovar apart as a principal, one of the first things they say is simple: He's visible. Instead of spending all of his time holed-up in his office or attending meetings, he reserves the late afternoon and early evening for paperwork so he can dedicate much of his day to visiting classrooms, walking the hall and talking to students, parents and faculty.

"They're seen," Cynthia Hall, who has taught science at Sunset for 15 years, says of Tovar and the administrators he hired. "The ones we used to have didn't come out of their office. These are out there supporting and motivating the kids. That's really big."

 

Hall also points out that unlike prior principals, who after two years left for loftier posts with the district, Tovar has been there for three years and says he doesn't have plans to leave. (Hinojosa says Tovar, Sunset's 10th principal in 16 years, recently told him, "No offense, but I don't want to go down to the central office. I want to stay at Sunset.") For teachers and administrators, that sense of stability is crucial for implementing reforms. "If you're constantly changing administrators, there's no direction, no support," Hall says. "You don't know where you're going, and you have to start over all the time."

To begin a new era at Sunset when he was hired in the summer of 2006, Tovar replaced three administrators and five department heads. "The people here were great people, nice as can be," he says. "But instructionally they were horrible. They didn't know how to talk to teachers, improve teachers, improve classroom management. I had to get stronger instructionally and make sure I hired people who were. There are 2,200 kids and 155 teachers—I can't run this place by myself."

Coming off three-year stints as an assistant principal at Adamson and Molina high schools, he says, he had a lot to learn to ensure that he wasn't just managing the brass tacks of operations, but also developing a team that could effectively evaluate and improve teaching methods, ensure students learn, and fulfill on district-wide initiatives such as daily "collaboration" meetings in which teachers who teach the same subject share their strategies.

"A lot of what I did comes from my coaching days," Tovar says. "You have to have players, good people surrounding you."

His new team included Mark Ramirez, a former science teacher and DISD science consultant, as associate principal in charge of the science department; and Jonathan Parker, a former associate principal at Pinkston High School, as the assistant principal in charge of the math department. At first, implementing new practices like the teacher collaboration meetings was challenging. Some teachers were too embarrassed or too proud to ask for help, Tovar says. Beth Pumpelly, an assistant principal intern who helps coordinate limited-English-proficiency classes, says other teachers resisted sharing their tried-and-true methods, preferring to keep the secrets of their success to themselves. Yet eventually, a new sense of camaraderie, free communication and mutual support emerged.

"We all help each other, and we have an administration that backs us, and that's rare," Pumpelly, who has taught for 16 years and came to Sunset in 2007, says. "I almost feel like I've walked into the Twilight Zone."

One of Tovar's most momentous personnel decisions was to create a community liaison position and fill it with Nora Garcia, an Oak Cliff native who was working as a teaching assistant for the LEP classes. A petite, gregarious woman who's fluent in Spanish and exudes an efficient, no-nonsense air, Garcia brings to mind an odd combination of your favorite elementary school teacher and a monster Caterpillar tractor. She immediately began reaching out to parents and within two years has managed to increase the attendance at PTA meetings from a couple dozen to around 120 parents each month.

"You never see that in high school," Superintendent Hinojosa says. "Maybe elementary school, but not high school. Somehow, they've managed to engage the parents."

Parental involvement is crucial; for educators it's something like the rudder on a boat—if students' home lives are in shambles and they lack support from their families, you can row all you want and not get anywhere. Since most of the students come from poor families, there are many single parents who work multiple jobs and are hard-pressed to be very involved in their children's education. Garcia leads weekly parenting classes on Monday mornings that routinely draw 20-50 people, most of them Mexican immigrants. She has addressed a range of topics, from talking to kids about sex and drugs to helping them with their homework, disciplining them and supporting them in the run-up to the TAKS tests. She also offers English and computer classes.

"A lot of the students come to us without any English, or without any formal education in either language, which makes it very difficult," Pumpelly says. "But the government requires us to educate them and get them out of here in four years. If we can empower the parents and teach them, I think you'll see remarkable things."

A number of the parents who have been attending Garcia's classes say they've already seen remarkable things. Maria Fe Basa says that as she and her husband have spent more time helping their daughter with her homework, they've watched her grades rise from C's to B's. Maria Nunez, a mother of four from Mexico, says the classes have helped her with her 17-year-old daughter. Before, she was too strict because she was so scared the teen would get involved in drugs or gangs or get pregnant. "I didn't let her go anywhere," Nunez says. "Now I do. I realize I have to give her some freedom and responsibility, and she shares a lot more things with me."

 

Aracelly Rios has also started to communicate more with her son, a 17-year-old senior who arrived in Dallas in eighth grade speaking no English. Concerned about drugs after noticing that one of the boys he carpooled with stopped showing up for school and took to driving around in flashy sports cars, she asked her son about it. He told her that while there were lots of kids selling marijuana or other drugs at school, they didn't pressure anyone to buy them.

Rios also found out at Garcia's class that to keep up with his class, her son could attend night school and Saturday school. "There are lots of opportunities you don't know about until you come here," she says.

On the morning of April 20, about 40 parents sit at round tables in a classroom decorated with periodic table diagrams and TAKS strategies. "I know you get tired of me talking about this, but I notice that a lot of parents have stopped parenting," Garcia tells the group in Spanish. "They think work absolves them of this responsibility, and then when they come in for a meeting, they're faced with a lot of surprises. We teach the students to read and do arithmetic, but to truly educate them about managing school and their life—that's your job."

A woman named Amalia nods. "It starts with us," she says. "We come, learn, develop ourselves, and then we can help our children."

"A lot of us don't read, we don't speak English, and we can't understand the fliers the school sends home to us," another woman says. "There are classes, but we have to take advantage of them. We have to be responsible."

A third woman in a pink sweater questions how much of a difference all of this will make in the face of a new and often mysterious culture. "The problem is, the kids don't respect their elders like we did," she says.

Garcia, suspicious of any statement that sounds remotely like an excuse, isn't buying it. "You think it's this country's fault your kids misbehave?" she says, managing to be blunt and respectful at once. "You have a privilege. This is one of Oak Cliff's best schools, and that's partly because you guys have stepped up and gotten involved. I've known many of you for a long time. You're good parents. But what about the parents of the kids who yell at teachers? The parents of the kids who fight and get sent to alternative schools? Where are those parents? We need to reach out to them."

Tovar's voice blares over the intercom as the class wraps up. "Seniors," he says, "a tentative graduation list will be posted today in fourth period. If your name is missing or incorrect, let us know. This is our last week before the TAKS test. I want to congratulate you, Sunset. We had almost 300 kids here for Saturday school last week, and we hope to have more this time because it's the last one."

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If there was one thing that always motivated the Tovar kids to excel, it was the blood and grease covering the floors of the Supreme Beef plant on Second Avenue. Their father worked at the meatpacker for more than three decades, and when Tovar and his two younger brothers were growing up, Anthony Tovar Sr. would bring them to work with him in the summers.

"If you don't finish your education you'll be working here next to me at this plant," he'd tell his sons, "so think about that."

Tovar is the oldest of four, and when he was born, his mother, Nina, was nearly a child herself. She'd married Anthony Sr. when she was 15 and he was 17. Both were born in Dallas, but their parents had emigrated from Mexico. They chose to begin their family in a Pearl Street duplex in Little Mexico near Reverchon Park. Most of the modest homes were occupied by multi-generational families, and in the evenings, Tovar and his siblings would play baseball in the street while the adults sat on the stoops and talked in the fading light.

When Tovar was 5 his parents bought a house in Pleasant Grove for $15,000 and moved to the then mostly white area. Tovar attended John Ireland Elementary and recalls being one of the only Hispanic students. He adjusted quickly and by fifth grade had fallen in love with baseball and football and was determined to become a coach. "I was on the fifth-grade football team, and I thought, 'What a great job,'" he says, "'you get paid for playing!'" He and both of his brothers, Michael and John Paul, or J.P., would go on to lengthy coaching careers in DISD.

 

As Tovar progressed through John B. Hood Middle School and later, Samuell High School, his mother remained ever-vigilant about his performance. She got wind of some behavioral problems when he was in the seventh grade ("I was being a smartass," Tovar recalls. "I thought I knew everything.") and insisted on accompanying him to class for two full days. If she noticed he was unfocused or talking out of turn, she would raise her hand and say, "Excuse me, my son isn't behaving."

Remembering his embarrassment, Tovar—now a father of four himself—laughs. "She never had to come again," he says.

His mother recently told that story at one of Garcia's parenting classes. Garcia thought the Tovars' story would be inspiring for her pupils, so she had them come into the auditorium as guest speakers. Nina and Anthony Sr. arrived on a Monday morning looking dapper, Nina in a smart skirt suit with a flower pinned to the lapel and her husband sporting a suit and tie.

"My parents wanted the same thing for me that you want for your kids," Tovar said in labored, third-generation Spanish as he introduced them to the group. "They didn't go to high school, but they have four kids who finished college."

His father took the mic and addressed the group in fluent Spanish. "Sixty years ago education wasn't considered very important for Latinos," he said. "We've been married 57 years, we have four kids, a house, all the stuff any family could want. But my one regret is that we didn't finish our education. Sending four kids to college isn't easy. It requires sacrifice. For many years we never took a vacation because we worked year-round."

He introduced his wife as "the backbone of our family," and she talked about the importance of constantly monitoring and motivating one's children. "I was always behind them," she told the parents. "You have to stay on them."

Tovar inherited a dose of his mother's tenacity. At Samuell High School, he earned only a C-plus average, but he was still set on going to college and becoming a teacher and coach. His guidance counselor didn't agree. "I said I wanted to go to Texas Tech; she said Sears and the phone company were hiring," he says. "I thought, 'I'm gonna buckle down and prove her wrong.'"

Tovar graduated from Texas Tech in 1978 and took his first DISD job teaching history and coaching baseball and football at Woodrow Wilson High School.

Developing personal relationships with players and students always seemed to come easy to Tovar. He recently stood in his office, where the walls are lined with baseball team photos from years past, and looked at a picture of Skyline High School's '87 team. "All these guys have been successful, except this kid—he got into drugs," he says. "This kid has played for the Detroit Tigers, this one's done well and has a big house in Coppell, this one ran for judge, this one's a very successful nurse. I just ran into him at a Stars game."

Tovar still draws on the rapport-building skills he learned as a coach to connect with students and teachers. "I don't care how smart you are," he says. "You better build that relationship with that kid or he won't care. They have to know you care."

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Tovar gives district-wide Hinojosa-era reforms such as reduced class size much of the credit for Sunset's improvements, but he and his staff have also brought unique zeal to district mandates. In the run-up to the April TAKS tests, he redoubled efforts to prepare students for math and science tests, which are the most challenging for the majority of schools. While 91 and 82 percent of Sunset's students passed the social studies and reading/language arts TAKS last year respectively, just 62 and 57 percent passed the science and math tests. That's up from 56 and 53 percent in 2006, but far shy of the 90-percent goal for 2010.

Starting in late March, Tovar instituted special test-prep pull-out classes in addition to Saturday school. Students who had already failed the math and science tests in past years were taken out of their electives for the special sessions to review material and encouraged to attend at least one session on Saturdays.

In early April, a white board in Tovar's office lists various TAKS goals and strategies. "Sense of urgency," one item reads. "Senior lock-in for TAKS—when?" another asks. "Who's tutoring in the morning and afternoon?"

Among the students high on the administrators' priority list are those 75 seniors at risk of not graduating because they still need to pass either the math or science TAKS. One of those students is Anne Arana, a 17-year-old who was born in Dallas to Mexican immigrant parents and who wants to go to college and study interior design. She has taken the science test three times—once as a junior, once last summer and once last fall. Her scores improved each time, but she didn't pass. "I haven't put as much effort as I needed to," she says. "I didn't know it would take me this long. I've studied a lot harder this time."

 

On April 24, Arana sits in a special TAKS pullout class with around 10 other students and answers practice questions about cellular respiration, mitochondria and what distinguishes viral infections from bacterial infections. A banner hanging over the blackboard reads, "Fabulous '50s: Nothing Less than 50 Questions Right." The motto refers to the fact that it takes 35 correct questions to pass and 55 to be rated commendable. Aimed to lighten up the pre-TAKS atmosphere, it was the brainchild of Cathy Donaldson, a DISD TAKS consultant and former teacher who—like most of the faculty today—is decked out in '50s clothes and wandering the halls in a pink poodle skirt.

Arana, seated in the back of the class with her backpack and a large textbook called Tackling the TAKS, is answering a lot of teacher David McMahon's questions. "A 1 kilogram ball has a kinetic energy of 50 joules," he reads from a practice test. "What's the velocity of the ball?"

"G, 10 m/s," Arana says.

McMahon asks her to come up to the blackboard and write out the formula that led to her answer. "You know how to do it, but not everybody knows," he says.

Tovar appears in the doorway a few minutes later. In the spirit of Fabulous '50s, he's wearing a white T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a black leather jacket and aviator shades. "You guys ready?" he says.

The class nods. "Yeah," says a girl with long, dark hair and a pink backpack. "We got this."

"Take your time," Tovar says. "Make sure you get enough sleep and come in ready to go. I believe in you. You can do it!"

As much enthusiasm as the teachers and administrators muster for the TAKS, it's no secret that educators across the district and the country, including many at Sunset, despise the standardized tests required by the federal government.

"TAKS needs to be done away with because these kids were not born on an assembly line—they all learn differently, and you can't measure what they've learned by using a standardized test," says one Sunset teacher who didn't want to be named. Spending so much time on the test teaches them only to take the test, the teacher went on, instead of developing and testing broader skills through papers, research, labs and other hands-on projects.

Another teacher who also declined to be named for fear of losing the job, says that often, the "teaching to the test" criticism is spot-on. "Most people wind up teaching to the test because you want your kids to pass and you want to have a job next year. Sometimes you'll miss a lot of good material. They'll ask a specific question on the test about DNA and they'll learn that and that's fine, but then they'll miss a lot of things that go with it. I realize we need to have accountability [the original goal of the testing], but we also have to engage the kids."

On the last Saturday school before the test, a teacher leading a science classroom tells students, "Those are the only three things the state of Texas usually asks about that, so if you know those three things, you'll be good," and, "Which system does HIV attack? They put that on the test all the time." That's to be expected at a last-minute TAKS prep session, but it also raises the question: Does a decent showing on these tests actually indicate broader learning effectiveness? It's a thorny and controversial question, but only one of many that arises when you talk about standardized tests.

One of the Sunset teachers voices another common criticism—that linking funding and job security to performance leads to an inflated focus on money and school status, and can sometimes even pave the way for unsavory methods.

One Sunset parent who declined to be named says her child has told of foreign exchange students being pushed to take the TAKS even though it's not required in their home country's school systems, and that teachers—who receive a cash incentive for each student they sign up to take an AP test—have pressured the exchange students to take AP tests in their native languages, such as German and Chinese.

 

"The smart kids, the foreign kids, the ones who have the ability to single-handedly raise the scores of a whole class are hand-picked," the parent says. "If they're bringing up the whole school, then I guess that's fine, but it seems like it's just to get money."

Tovar counters that the test gains have been across the board and that it's worthwhile for high-achieving students to take AP classes because it helps them in college. But he also says that while he doesn't know of students being pressured to take AP tests simply so teachers can get the incentive money or so the percentage of students taking the tests will rise and reflect on the school's record, he condemns such tactics. "The push has been to get more people in AP classes," he says, "but you can't push kids into them just because they've scored well on other tests. The kids have to be committed to being in the AP classes and putting in the extra work."

Late May finds Tovar parsing through the TAKS results. The social studies and English language arts scores jumped to 91 and 84 percent respectively, but the math and science scores still lag well under the 75-percent requirement to be "recognized," at 62 and 67 percent, respectively. Nevertheless, a DISD spokesman says preliminary calculations suggest Sunset and six other non-magnet high schools may reach recognized status because of new rules that take other factors into account.

Still, Tovar is a little disappointed. "We're a little stunned. We were hoping for double-digit gains," Tovar says. "I got a call from the district office saying they're very happy with our scores and that any time you get five points of growth you should be happy, but I thought we would be recognized. Well, we just gotta keep truckin'."

He has set up a meeting with his administrators to brainstorm ideas for new "interventions" to teach students the material and measure whether or not they're actually learning it in advance of the test dates. "I think we did a good job of putting a sense of urgency into people, but we've got to come up with systems that will help us monitor the kids' progress throughout the year and make sure we're making the progress we need to make," he says. "Maybe we need to get in people's faces a little more, see what we can do to step it up." Known to ask teachers to "get a little badass in them," he's considering putting certain teachers on performance plans, and moving them if they don't deliver. "I want them to be comfortable, but not complacent," he says.

To soften the disappointment that comes with going for a goal and missing, he'll remind his teachers to think about all the kids who did pass, and the ones who will graduate and go on to bigger and better things. "Your rewards won't come today," he'll tell them. "Your rewards will come later, when you see the difference you made in their lives 10, 15 years down the road."


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