By G. Medina Mendez
Art by Blake Jones

Mendez Art

This phrase “the browning of Baytown” is a sign that the city of Baytown is in the midst of change — a cultural shift — that some folks aren’t ready to accept. On one side you have a set of parents, long-time educators, and detractors upset with the changes made by the recently-fired superintendent of the Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District (GCCISD), Dr. Salvador Cavazos. On the other side, you have the supporters of these changes – also made up of parents, students, and educators.

 

The Brown Guy Takes Charge

Go back about two-and-a-half years. On July 19th, 2012, the school board unanimously elected Dr. Salvador Cavazos as the 14th superintendent of the district. Then board president, Howard Sampson believed Cavazos would “lead Goose Creek CISD into becoming an even more powerful district in the State of Texas.”

School board member Agustin Loredo remembers, “When we went looking for a new superintendent, it was with intention of finding someone who would come in and shake things up. That’s why we looked outside the district, we needed to stop being stagnant – scores were lackluster and we had two schools that were on the unacceptable list.”

In 2 ½ years, Cavazos made several changes within the district – he swapped high school principals out of their positions with junior high school principals, switched administrator contracts from three-year contracts to a one-year contract — all major changes for many personnel.

Laura Acosta, Project Administrator for the Baytown area National Hispanic Institute program put it this way, “The personnel changes seemed to bother people the most within the professional rank and file in Goose Creek. They felt the moves were unfair, and I heard a lot of comments about how he was bringing in his friends from Alice [ISD]. I believe it was coded language meaning his ‘Latino friends’ from Alice.”

In all truth, Cavazos brought in several people from all over, including Diana Silva, who at one time was in charge of turning around “at risk” schools for the Texas Education Agency (T.E.A.). Cavazos brought her to Alice ISD and then later asked her to come to GCCISD to help make changes.

Cavazos had somehow tapped into a lot of “inherent fear and distrust as he began to deconstruct the status quo that existed for a long time in Goose Creek,” says Acosta.

Loredo echoed her point “Before Cavazos, you had a lot of good assistant principals and coordinators who worked hard for the kids in this district but would get passed up for leadership positions. Many inquired about what was needed to move up within the district. They were told ‘You aren’t ready.’ One African American man interested in an upper-level position emailed administrators; he waited six months with no response. So folks like him looked elsewhere, and you know what happened as soon as they left Goose Creek? They got the positions they wanted.

“They were people of color who wanted to be in GCCISD and they had been treated unfairly. GCCISD under Dr. Cavazos finally starting giving people of color a chance.”

Loredo had heard the phrase “the browning of Baytown” – “I asked Goose Creek to provide the data on the district employee demographics and it’s all bogus.”

The data doesn’t lie – prior to Cavazos , GCCISD employees were 20% Mexican Americans, 15% African American, and 65% were Caucasian. Today’s numbers haven’t changed much – Mexican Americans have moved up a staggering 1%, the African Americans have moved down 1%, and the Caucasian number has stayed the same.

 

Two Years Later

As Acosta puts it, “It all had just blown to a head. At the end of [Cavazos’s] second year, he decided to again reassign and shuffle around administrators. He completed all of the changes with the full consent of the school board. The board knew that they needed to make changes in order to make the district great again. But for some it was too much.”

So, almost exactly two years from his hiring, Dr. Salvador Cavazos’ job was on the line. At a July 14th board meeting, the request to fire Cavasos was made very public. This would be the very board meeting where things would turn ugly. A gathering of over 200 “concerned citizens” — community members (made up of caucasian parents and GCCISD employees) could be heard saying “send him back to Alice,” “get rid of him,” and other colorful remarks (think angry mob stuff). Over 25 people signed up to speak at the board meeting, and only two of those — recent high school graduates from GCCISD — were there to support Dr. Cavazos.

Showtime

“There was only tension in the room if you were a Dr. Cavazos fan,” Acosta recalls. “If you were not, there was a lot of camaraderie, so it was overwhelming when I attended. There were over 200 people in the meeting room — they had to make an overflow room filled with TVs.”

Acosta attended the July 14th meeting with a group of National Hispanic Institute program students who had directly benefited from Dr. Cavazos’ leadership. Cavasos had a history of supporting the program and the students who attended its training workshops, as NHI had a history of helping young Latino students gain leadership skills to and through college. Acosta felt it necessary to show up with students onhand as a show of solidarity with Dr. Cavazos. Two of the program students, Jonathan Guajardo and Alfonso Mendoza, also had an idea — they would not only show up to the meeting, they would sign up and speak to the board.

Of the two, Guajardo, a 20 year old Pre-med major at Baylor University, was up first.

“I was nervous and anxious and didn’t want to bomb,” he remembers. “I didn’t know how the crowd would react.”

Almost as soon as he spoke, as soon as he raised his voice to say he supported Dr. Cavazos, he would have his answer.

“The people in the seats, they booed me, they rejected my statements even as I was speaking. I remember people saying, ‘No, that’s not right!’ People shouting over me, calling me names.”

Guajardo spoke, reading his letter to the editor of the Baytown Sun in full (the Sun had over-edited his words) to make the points he wanted to make. He spoke about the good that Dr. Cavazos had done for the district by way of his support for NHI, the selection of the new principal at Goose Creek Memorial High, his alma mater, and Dr. Cavazos’ (and the board’s) decision to fund the AP exam fees of the entire senior class of 2013. It’s a three page letter. (Take a look on freepresshouston.com.)

Then his two minutes were up. As he walked back to his seat beside Alfonso Mendoza, Jonathan Guajardo looked at the crowd. “People were giving me the evil eye…people I thought I knew, people I do know — teachers and parents. I was astonished at their reaction to me.”

Three speakers later, Mendoza had his turn. His speech was a bit more off-the-cuff.

“I was thinking of the friends I left behind, when I graduated,” he said. “That if Dr. C leaves, they would lose out.”

He was even more nervous, having seen the treatment that Guajardo received from the crowd.

“I was frightened by the reactions, I had never gotten this kind of treatment before – it threw me off. I knew people there, but I didn’t think they would abandon decorum like that. I didn’t know they would be so upset.”

According to Mendoza — a 2014 graduate of Lee High, now an 18-year-old freshman engineering major at Texas A&M University — he decided to take a different angle and not say outright that he was on Dr. Cavazos’ side. He built his case for Dr. Cavasos using logic.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he said. “Give Dr. Cavazos a chance to finish the work he set out to do. We have to be willing to work together. All you see is the short-term, but he has to see the long-term effects of these decisions.”

He remembers the crowd being just as loud yelling “Oh God, here we go again!” and “They’ve been coached!,” or “Not another one!” He tried not to let the crowd or their reactions get away from him.

“Of the two of us,” Guajardo said, “I think Alfonso got it worse.”

As he went back to his seat, Mendoza remembered seeing people all around, murmuring as he walked by, looking at him and whispering to one another, snickering, and he understood: people were talking about him and Jonathan, negatively. Both young men were stunned.

After the meeting was over, both gentlemen took a seat on a bench in the lobby of the school board building. They had to take the time and “check-in” — had this been the treatment they just received for being honest? Had they just witnessed educators flip them off for speaking their minds? Yes, indeed. They had been changed forever – the idyllic sentiment of what their “hometown” was tarnished.

Mendoza said it best “We didn’t do this for us – we did it for the kids we coach [both men now work as mentors for the very NHI program they were once a part of], for our friends, for Jonathon’s little brother. When did this educational system become about the educators and administrators instead of the students?”

Jonathan added “You know, the whole time the other people spoke, it was about ‘I, I, I…my job this, my position that…’ No one had even asked the parents or the students about what they wanted to do about Cavazos.”

The Aftermath

By the next school board meeting , the deed was done. On August 9th, 2014 – Dr. Cavazos was released from his contract and Deputy Superintendent Randy O’Brien took over. The board has not put in a request or begun a search for a replacement.

But on that same evening, in that school board meeting, something strange happened. Another series of students, this time current students, all students from GCCISD’s Impact Early College High School, which had been recently removed from its Lee College campus base, had shown up. They brought signs and they were angry.

Since their school was no longer on the college campus, it was housed in a less-than-adequate facility and the students demanded an answer from the school board — would they honor “Dr. C” and his wish to build a campus for the students of Impact?

One young lady, Cristine Martinez, a junior at Impact, put her voice to good use. “How dare you embarrass yourselves?” She spoke to the crowd, reminding them how they had treated Jonathan Guajardo and Alfonso Mendoza at the previous meeting. “How dare you say these things to the children of this town?!” Then, with as much fierceness, she turned around and addressed the board “And how dare you let these people get away with that?!”

Acosta was there for that meeting as well. “You could have heard a pin drop when she spoke.”

When the vote came about whether or not to build Impact Early College High School, the board unanimously voted yes.

Cavazos’ legacy was short, but if you ask his supporters, his legacy is long lasting. Just look at the 2014 Accountability Summary results for GCCISD from his time there – all 40 schools in the district met or surpassed the measures needed. Cavazos did his job as he was asked to do. The district has the second highest starting teacher salary (save for Barbers Hill ISD) and the lowest employee turnover rate of any school district in the state.

Baytown made the history books by hiring Cavazos. He was the first Mexican American superintendent in GCCISD (a school district made up of over 60% Latino students) and for a time, he was the only superintendent of color among 51 area school districts.

If the majority of the district is in fear of “the Browning of Baytown,” they might be correct. It took three young adults, all under the age of 21 to shine a spotlight on what was right and put voice to what is needed – and that’s just the beginning. The browning of Baytown has already begun, its just not happening as fast as everyone fears. The brown kids are telling the truth. Scary stuff.