Perverse incentives were never so much in evidence as in the case of the three Avalos brothers and their experience attending Bowie High School in El Paso, Texas, as school administrators appear to have systematically discouraged low-performing students from negatively affecting the school's achievement numbers.
Upon beginning his sophomore year, Joe Avalos – the oldest – was made to believe by his principal that he should drop out of school. His younger brother got the same advice the following year, and in 2009 their youngest sibling heard the same message when he entered the 10th grade. The principal sited chronic tardiness as the reason to kick out the Avalos brothers, but since then their mother found out that the reason was much more complex.
Gisel Avalos said that the insistence by the school staff that the boys were constantly tardy — and the willingness of district administrators to back up that assertion — had her thinking that maybe her sons were lying to her. Either way, the attempt to get them reinstated failed, and the final Avalos son left high school for good in 2009.
Three years after the youngest of the Avalos brothers dropped out, the former superintendent faces prison time, state officials are strictly monitoring the schools and the district is trying to contact ousted students to help them complete their education.
"A few people did a lot of damage," interim Superintendent Kenneth George said. "Now we want to make sure these things never happen again."
Gisel now suspects that her sons were victims of a scam to keep hundreds of low-performing students from all over El Paso from taking academic assessment exams. The exams form a large part of school performance grades that could qualify districts for additional federal funding and earn their leaders, including the Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia, generous bonuses.
Garcia started to implement the plan to push out poorly performing sophomores from district high schools almost as soon as he took the reigns in El Paso in 2006. The process including administering "pre-tests" to tenth-graders in advance of the state-wide mandated exam, then looking for reasons to kick out the students who scored poorly.
And the lengths Garcia and his partners went to find those reasons were impressive.
He even asked an employee to photograph students crossing the border so they could be forced out on the grounds that they were living in Mexico and not within the district. Garcia "was looking for âbad kids,'" said Mark Mendoza, the district official who reluctantly photographed students crossing a border bridge during three days in 2008.
Some 9th graders, especially those with poor English skills, were held in 9th grade for two years and then promoted straight to 11th grade.
It was Bowie assistant principal Johnny Vega, one of the people who encouraged Avalos boys to leave that, in an act of contrition, provided some of the information that led to Garcia's arrest.
"At the time, I wish I would have known how serious this was going to be," Vega said. "I regret not having said no."
Bowie, one of El Paso's oldest high schools, was on the brink of being shut down after years of low performance.
"When grades improved, they gave us these really nice polo shirts. Mine is brand new in my closet, I didn't want to wear it," he added. "All my career as an educator I felt like I made a difference, except for that year."