Bowie tries to rebuild after years of turmoil

September 25, 2016
El Paso Times

A legend is emblazoned on the northern wall of Bowie High School: In 1949, a team of boys from the barrio beat discrimination and long odds to win Texas’ first state baseball championship.

Their success exemplifies Bowie in many ways. The poor South Side campus, nestled along the U.S.-Mexico border, has always viewed itself as an underdog, battling misconceptions and low expectations for its students, most of whom are poor, Hispanic and speak Spanish at home.

Now, nearly seven decades after the Bears fought for the championship, Bowie faces its greatest comeback challenge yet.

This spring, it was the only traditional public school in the city that failed to meet state academic standards. One in five students don’t graduate in four years. Only a handful are considered college ready based on SAT and ACT scores. A string of principals has generated instability, and the shadow of a districtwide cheating scheme that denied an untold number of students the right to an education lingers over the campus.

“This should be the front door for America,” said Rice University Center for Education Director Linda McNeil, who has followed Bowie and the El Paso Independent School District cheating scheme. “This should be the school that presents the face of everything we’re excited about for our kids, instead of this is the site of corruption and everyone has given up on it.”

Five years after the cheating scheme broke, and in the midst of trials for administrators accused in the scandal, Bowie is trying to rebuild, hoping to become a legend once more.

Challenging years

Bowie High opened its doors in 1927, becoming the heart of El Paso’s Mexican-American culture, the center of a vibrant alumni network and the embodiment of the American dream.

Today, nearly all of Bowie’s students are Hispanic. Most are poor and many are recent immigrants. The average household income for the area is about $19,000, and as many as 650 of Bowie’s 1,460 students are learning English, Principal Michael Warmack said.

Those demographics breed stereotypes about Bowie.

“The biggest misconception is we can’t do anything because we’re Mexican,” senior Raul Barcenas, 17, said. “Puro mexicanos ahí.”

Student after student mentioned those stereotypes, and those false beliefs must be addressed in order to rebuild the school, McNeil said.

“Kids know they’re not being taken seriously; they know no one thinks they have a serious future,” she said. “A huge part of the turnaround … focus needs to be on empowering kids to do things that matter.”

Rather than empower students when Bowie was struggling in the mid-2000s, risking closure, EPISD administrators took a different route during the 2006-13 cheating scheme. They cast aside the most helpless students, pushing them out of school, sticking them in fast-track “credit recovery” classes and denying them credits they had rightfully earned.

The so-called “Bowie plan” became a districtwide tactic.

Bowie’s principal at the time, Jesus Chavez, was removed for his role in the cheating in 2012 — and a revolving door of leaders began.

Warmack is Bowie’s seventh principal in four years, following a string of interims and one permanent principal who stayed on 18 months before leaving to oversee Socorro High.

“I don’t think I have enough fingers to count the number of principals,” said Bowie football coach Robert Padilla. “This is a very difficult place to work. People who are working here aren’t working because they like the paycheck. The problems are compounded when you don’t have leadership continuity.”

Padilla has seen it with football since he came on eight years ago. After years of losing seasons, the Bears are now consistently making it to the state playoffs.

“Once we all start pulling in the same direction, we’ll see the results we want to see with our kids,” he said.

Already, students seem excited about their principal, who came on in spring 2015. Students in the Osos Orgullosos mariachi group credited Warmack with helping them get new equipment. Students in the business academy mentioned his help on their food truck endeavor.

The cheating scheme’s “shadow has been over us, and it’s still there,” Warmack said. “But I never had that sense from students. Not at all. … We want to make sure we’re living up to their expectations.”

An uneven playing field

Warmack worked as an assistant principal at nearby Jefferson High School before taking the helm of Zach White Elementary and Lincoln Middle schools in El Paso’s more affluent West Side.

There, nearly every student would enter reading at grade level, Warmack said. Most had two parents at home who taught them about college and a wide array of career opportunities, he said.

At Bowie, many students come in performing at the elementary level, Warmack said. They often come from single-parent homes and sometimes have after-school jobs to help their families make ends meet, he said. In the past week, a student dropped out to work, he said.

“The playing field that we’re on is not level,” he said.

Warmack asked dozens of local nonprofits and community groups for their help during a luncheon Tuesday, standing in a room at the old Bowie, now Guillen Middle School.

The luncheon was the EPISD’s first step in making Bowie, Guillen and Hart and Zavala elementaries into “community schools,” or one-stop shops that feature community agencies and service providers who help students and their families with everything from mental health to making rent payments.

How can students learn if they’re thinking about their rumbling stomachs or where they’ll sleep at night, advocates ask. By bringing services on campus, schools can remove some of those barriers and help kids focus on math and reading, said Allen Weeks of Austin Voices for Education and Youth, which is aiding the EPISD in its community schools initiative.

“There are a lot of good things going on at Bowie High School, but there are hundreds and hundreds of students with a lot of needs,” Warmack told the community groups. “I need your help. I only have so many resources on my campus.”

Tackling poverty must be part of the solution to improving Bowie, McNeil said.

“A new and honest school board, well-educated and dedicated principals and teachers, and academically and culturally strong programs within the school will not be able to assure all kids a great education unless the community and policymakers are also addressing and removing the causes of poverty,” she said.

El Paso Community College representatives were present at the Guillen gathering, and several others shared information about the college with Bowie students and parents earlier this month. Participants in EPCC’s Leadership Academy pick projects around El Paso or at the college as part of the leadership program. This year, participants picked Bowie to “help students see college is within reach,” said Virginia Madrid, a member of the college’s nursing faculty.

Engaging students in learning

In addition to students’ at-home struggles, EPISD officials are trying to tackle kids’ in-school challenges as well.

The EPISD is challenging the failing rating Bowie received from the state this spring, but the final ruling won’t come until later this fall.

So officials are turning to the toolbox they use to tackle struggling schools, including establishing frequent checks on students’ progress, introducing different types of instruction and promoting collaboration among teachers, EPISD Chief Academic and Innovation Officer Karen Blaine said.

Warmack said Bowie teachers are even working with their counterparts at the elementary and middle schools that feed into the high school to discuss curriculum and teaching strategies.

To Warmack, the main fix for academic underperformance is to get kids excited about school.

“The solution is by making school more fun, bringing in connections, bringing in the community,” he said.

He pointed to Bowie’s Advanced Placement art students, who all passed the college-level AP test; to the revived mariachi program; the turnaround football program; and the robotics students, who are building a small satellite to send to space.

“We can do that same thing in math,” Warmack said. “We can do that same thing in English. … Success breeds success.”

Bowie is the latest EPISD high school to join the New Tech Network, with 126 freshmen learning through projects and real-world problem solving rather than repetition or worksheets — instead of memorizing types of natural disasters, for example, New Tech students imagine a disaster’s impact on El Paso.

“It really raises not only the engagement but also the skills: There’s the expectation to speak and to write and to work together as they’re engaging in these projects,” Blaine said.

After launching New Tech at Franklin and Irvin high schools last year, EPISD Superintendent Juan Cabrera asked other campuses to apply to join. Cabrera chose Bowie.

“I want them to believe that they can have anything,” he said. “If you treat the school like you treat any other school, they can be just as successful as anyone else.”

Most New Tech programs focus on science and math, but Bowie’s builds on the school’s legacy as a center of culture, music and art.

That view of Bowie’s demographics as an asset rather than a disadvantage is key, McNeil said. The EPISD should leverage Bowie’s heritage, bilingualism and binational ties, she said, noting students could even learn about government and law by attending the upcoming trial of ex-administrators charged in the cheating scheme.

Crafting a new legend

In the back corner of Bowie sits another effort to engage students through real-life learning: a yellow Blue Bird school bus.

Squeezed under an overhang and tucked behind a chain-link gate for now, the bus will roam the streets of El Paso as early as next year, selling tacos, tortas and Bowie merchandise.

Six seniors in Bowie’s business magnet program are leading the transformation of the retired bus, which the district donated. They need $26,000 to $30,000 to retrofit the bus and to stock up for the first day of operation. So far, they’ve raised $11,000.

They hope to collect all donations by the end of November and to be up and running by late January.

They’re making their pitch to business groups around town, from Whole Foods to the Hunt Family Foundation.

It’s a real-life “family business,” Warmack said. To make the dream a reality, the students have to raise capital, craft a business plan, set prices and menus and determine where to sell their wares. They’ll use produce from the Bowie garden, as well as the know-how of culinary arts students.

The project fits the Class of 2017 motto: “Legends,” said senior Sisco Gonzalez, 17.

“It’s an idea for our class to leave our mark, to leave a legend,” Gonzalez said.

He and four of his five business partners transferred to Bowie specifically for the business magnet, despite their friends’ and families’ concerns about the school’s reputation.

Veronica Rodriguez, 17, transferred from Franklin High. Friends told her she’d be the only blonde at “gangster” Bowie, but Rodriguez said the misconceptions are false and she’s become part of a the tight-knit community.

“No matter what obstacles our school has gone through, we still stay close together as a family,” she said.

Family was a theme echoed by student after student, administrator after administrator. The students said they see and feel the Bowie family everywhere, running into alumni all around town.

“You hear Bowie this, Bowie that — all negative,” said senior Joseph Gutierrez, 17, who transferred from Bel Air High to Bowie last year. “It isn’t until you get here that you feel the community.”

They all had misconceptions about Bowie before they arrived, but instead they found a family.

“Those stereotypes and misconceptions, they’re in the past and we just want to keep moving forward,” said 17-year-old senior Joshua Hidalgo, co-captain of the Bears football team. He gestures toward members of the robotics team sitting next to him, who are working with the University of Texas at El Paso to build a 10-centimeter cube satellite that will manufacture small parts in space. The students’ idea won an international challenge, and once they finish building the CubeSat next year, they’ll send it to NASA to launch into space.

“We just want Bowie to be recognized as a school where many kids come together all as one,” Hidalgo said. “We can make a name for ourselves. We can create big things.”

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