This article is part of KUT's yearlong series Turning the Corner, taking a look at Austin's Dove Springs neighborhood. For decades, the neighborhood has had a negative reputation. Now, many community members are trying to change the perception of the 78744 zip code. Listen to those stories here.
Ron Gonzales loves numbers. It makes sense: he used to be a math teacher before he became a principal. His love of hard data is obvious when you enter Mendez Middle School, where he has been the principal for the past four years. One of the first things you see is a bulletin board with each grade’s daily attendance rate. Next to it, he posts how much money the school lost due to absences that day.
“For example, yesterday we had 23 sixth graders and we also know lose $45 per scholar per day, so we lost $1,035 just for grade six," Gonzales says, pointing to the bulletin board.
Gonzales reads these numbers every day during morning announcements. He even came to our interview prepared with lots of data – even reading results to me verbatim from teacher surveys conducted by the school district. Gonzales says it’s a mindset he tries to instill in teachers at Mendez.
“We are physicians of the mind and the data are our X-rays," Gonzales says. "Based on [the] X-rays, that then shares with us the diagnoses of each scholar and what we need to do to make sure that student is productive and successful.”
Gonzales' tenure as principal isn't his first trip through the halls of this school. He spent six years teaching math here when it opened in the late 1980s, when he also lived in the neighborhood.
“It allowed me to get to be part of the community, understand the community and just form relationships," Gonzales says. "I remember the number of times I’d go to H-E-B and kids would look at me and say, ‘You really shop?’ and I’d say, ‘Yea, I eat.’ And just having the conversations with parents.”
For the past five years, Mendez Middle School has oscillated between passing and failing state accountability standards. But last year, the school met state standards and earned an achievement in Reading and Language Arts. Gonzales think that's because he and his staff have changed the culture of the school in that time.
"I've been known as a turnaround leader," Gonzales says, giving a small laugh.
When he first got to Mendez, he held an informal town hall meeting with teachers. They decided the biggest issues were school safety, improving student achievement on test scores and in the classroom, and getting more parents involved.
Gonzales implemented a stricter dress code: sixth graders wear grey collared shirts, seventh graders wear white and eighth graders wear black.
“It helps us identify students in the hallways and lunch," he says." If I know it’s sixth grade lunch I should see all gray shirts and if I see sprinkles of white shirts and black shirts I know I have students taking additional lunches.”
There are also lines down the middle of the hallways. Between classes, students are instructed to walk on either side of the line as another school safety measure.
“Do we still have typical middle school discipline problems? Absolutely," Gonzales says. "I’m not here telling you we don’t have misbehaviors: we do. We just don’t have the extreme behaviors that were occurring several years ago. It’s just typical behavior you’d see at a middle school.”
Still, according to the data, the number of students reported for fighting has stayed relatively consistent under Gonzalez’s tenure. Two years ago the number actually increased; more than 100 students were disciplined that year for fighting. That was the same year more than half of the teachers at Mendez resigned or transferred to another school in the district.
According to annual teacher surveys, just 40 percent of teachers that year thought Mendez was a good place to work and learn.
“It has to be the right fit for the teacher," Gonzales says. Now, he says he has honest conversations with teachers about his expectations and the challenges students in this neighborhood face.
“If we have more than five teachers not come back next year, that’s going to be too many," Gonzales says.
Today, more than 90 percent of teachers at Mendez think the school is a good place to work and learn, according to this year's Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning (TELL) survey. According to survey data, teachers still say parents could be more involved, but they think communication between parents and the school is improving.
Academically, student test scores are also improving. Last year, the school received an academic distinction for Reading and Language Arts for seventh grade writing scores. Still, less than half of the seventh graders passed that exam. Gonzales says it’s not just about improving numbers, it’s also about showing kids they can succeed.
"When we shared with them their test scores and that we have received a distinction and how many schools did not it was like, 'Wow, we did that?' 'Yes you did that, yes you can.'" Gonzales remembers. "When they can see that they’re becoming competitive with other middle schools in Austin it just starts to change their mindset.”
Gonzales says once the students see their success. it becomes easier to help them envision their future. Standing in front of a bulletin board of college pennants, he says he wants students to believe college is the ultimate goal.
“We have an expectation and mindset that scholars once they graduate that it’s a non negotiable to go to next level and receive a college education,” he says.
But the teachers union in Austin says changing that mindset and a school climate takes more than just one individual.
“A campus improving its climate takes a collaboration between faculty, staff and administration," says Education Austin President Ken Zarifis,. "It does not happen because of one individual. It happens because people work together to make it a better place. And that’s what’s important here.”
It’s hard to know how others at Mendez see the changes under Principal Gonzales. Throughout KUT’s 10 months of reporting on Dove Springs and Mendez, Gonzales approved only two of around a dozen requests to talk with various teachers and staff.