By Joshua Benton
Not long ago, a woman in her late 20s came up to Paul Cruz, the Laredo school superintendent. She wanted to say thanks.
Thanks for the teachers who had taken an interest in her, years after she dropped out of high school. The teachers who had persuaded her to re-enroll, take her tests and finally to get her diploma.
“It was because she got personal attention from a teacher after all these years that she was able to do it,” Dr. Cruz said. “Now she’s going to community college.”
Dr. Cruz – at 36, not much older than the woman – will soon have a chance to help many more than a single student. He has been appointed to a new position in the Texas Education Agency: deputy commissioner for dropout prevention and initiatives.
The position is an attempt to tackle one of the traditional complaints about how states try to keep kids in school.
Since so many parts of the educational process affect the dropout rate – testing, social promotion, adult education, counseling services and others – it can be difficult to coordinate a unified state policy.
“We want to have the agency organized in such a way to make dropout prevention as effective as possible,” state Education Commissioner Felipe Alanis said in April.
Advocates argue about the magnitude of the problem, but all sides agree that thousands of Texans drop out of school every year. Last year, Texas enrolled 360,000 high school freshmen, but only 220,000 seniors.
In his new position, Dr. Cruz will oversee the state’s assessment system, GED testing and the state’s math and reading initiatives.
“The important thing is coordinating the work being done in different parts of the agency,” he said. “One student moving through the system may be getting help from many different areas, and they all should be talking to each other.”
Dr. Cruz is considered one of the state’s rising education stars. He was only 32 when he became Laredo’s superintendent in 1998, after a brief stint at TEA and stops in four other Texas school districts.
“He was quite young, but he was extremely articulate,” said Dennis Cantu, president of the Laredo school board. “He looked you in the eye. He had plans and goals.”
He lauded Dr. Cruz for a strong focus on student performance and depoliticizing the school system. Previous superintendents had been criticized for running the district as a cog in the local political machine, Dr. Cantu said.
“He wasn’t interested in that – he just wanted to focus on education,” Dr. Cantu said.
When Dr. Cruz arrived in Laredo, the district had four schools rated “recognized” or “exemplary” in the state’s accountability system. Last year, it had 12.
Laredo’s dropout rate also improved during his stay. In 1998, Laredo reported an annual dropout rate of 3.3 percent. By 2001, that had dropped to 1 percent.
Dr. Cantu said Dr. Cruz found money to increase the number of attendance officers in Laredo, which allows schools to keep better track of students who don’t show up every day. He also made it clear to district officials that lowering the dropout rate was a high priority.
“He made sure principals knew they would be held responsible for addressing the dropout problem,” he said. “It’s something Dr. Cruz and his staff were never reluctant to talk about in public. If there were problems, they brought them out and faced the public.”
Dr. Cruz said he’d use the same guiding principles to lead state dropout prevention as he did in Laredo. Primary among them: Setting coherent curriculum standards at all grade levels. If schools can do a better job of standardizing what all third-, fourth- or fifth-graders know in Texas, they will prevent children from falling too far behind when they reach high school, he said.
“All principals should, whether they’re elementary school, middle school or high school principals, know and understand the requirements of the graduation plans,” he said. “If a child is 7 years old and in the second grade, we need to be thinking where he needs to be now so he can take a rigorous math program when he reaches high school.”
Dr. Cruz said his top priority is using the new federal education bill to improve dropout prevention. The bill gives states more flexibility in how they use federal funds, and Dr. Cruz said that could open up new avenues for programs to keep children in school.
He also said he wants to find ways to improve the way the state counts its dropouts, long a matter of debate among education activists. The official state annual dropout rate is 1.3 percent, which many observers believe doesn’t accurately reflect the size of the problem.
“I think the methodology has improved, but there’s more we can do,” he said.