Going Above and Beyond
Austin, Texas, teacher says schools must provide a steadying hand
AUSTIN, TEXAS — THE bell at Anderson High School announces second period, time for Channel One. Every classroom tunes in to the 12 minutes of news and advertisements: Pearl Harbor, the Soviet dis-Union, children unprepared to learn, AIDS patient Kimberly Bergalis, Libyan bombing suspects, Trident, Burger King, Certs, the Bill of Rights, Three Musketeers, Nintendo, and extraordinary teen Ellen Bigger.When the broadcast ends, 11th-grade chemistry teacher Janis Lariviere turns the television off. "We have a problem in education in America," says Mrs. Lariviere, the Austin Independent School District's (ISD) 1991 High School Teacher of the Year. Her remark is not anti-boob- tube sentiment aimed at the experimental broadcast: Lariviere herself is an award-winning education innovator. Rather, she's concerned by the rising number of American families characterized by disintegration, low incomes, or both. Such households are not the stable havens of adult-child interaction that stimulate a student to achieve at school, she says. National Merit Scholars, in contrast, eat dinner with their families - the only characteristic common to that group, she has read. Probably such families watch and discuss the news over their evening meal, and the parents are aware of whether homework gets done, she suspects. Jeff Prescott, a spokesman for Austin ISD, agrees that parents are instrumental in a child's learning. Peers are probably second in importance; school only third. As measured by the dropout rate, the problem facing Austin ISD is only slightly smaller than the country's. In Austin, 25 percent of the students who should have graduated in 1990 quit school sometime between their freshman and senior years. Nationwide, 30 percent do so. Minority students predominate the "at risk" category. Austin ISD's student population is 18 percent black, 34 percent Hispanic, and 48 percent other (white, Asian, or American Indian). Lariviere is not about to use demographics as a "cop-out" to feed the dropout rate or to produce graduates who can't find the United States on a world map. "Teachers are the key," she says in the resolutely optimistic tone of one who spent a year as a volunteer in Mother Teresa's orphanage in Calcutta. "We can't become mom, dad, and everything. But we have to do as much of it as we can. We've got to be the stable factor in their lives...probably for the majority of students coming to public education." Anderson High assistant principal Irene Kanter describes Lariviere as "full of pep and vinegar," and it shows in the extra hours she works. Lariviere tutors students before and after class and on her lunch hour. The students call her or she calls them at home until 11 p.m. "They don't make many like that," Mrs. Kanter says. Lariviere calls teaching "my hobby as well as my profession." But she admits: "It's amazing to me that people continue to teach for the little money we get, the hours we put in, the commitment and the caring for the students, the responsibility.... "A certain kind of person goes into teaching that's willing to make that commitment," she says. "Almost all teachers work very hard. Everyone takes work home." Her own commitment is confirmed by the teaching awards that plaster her classroom wall above the periodic table. In 1988 GTE took note of Lariviere as "one of those to go above and beyond," says Rhonda Rathje, a spokeswoman for the telecommunications company. Lariviere and an associate teacher won a $15,000 GTE grant to use for innovative instruction in math and science. Lariviere and her associate teamed up to teach the school's 25 highest-risk freshmen two periods a day. Each gave up her free period to be in the classroom while the other was teaching, so as to increase the attention the students received. The students were "as tough a kid as there is in Austin," Lariviere says. One girl was raped at age seven, shuffled from aunt to aunt, "the worst life you can imagine," Lariviere recalls. "What you have to do with that kind of student is say 'I like you. You're somebody I care about. You're worthwhile, she says. The first thing the teachers did with the grant money was charter a bus and take the students to a special screening of "Stand and Deliver," the true story of ghetto kids motivated by a teacher to excel in calculus. "They'll do anything for you if you set up a rapport with them. They'll do it for you. They won't do it to learn, they won't do it for their future - they don't see a future," Lariviere says. "They think they're going to be dead." All but a few of those students completed the school year. Many transferred elsewhere, but some are still at Anderson and will graduate this year, Lariviere says. David Hill, Austin ISD's assistant superintendent for secondary education, says Lariviere is "one of the best teachers I've ever seen or known or know of." He calls her a model professional, someone who's willing to take a risk, try new ideas, and stay on the cutting edge. "She's very much a leader among teachers in our district," Hill says. Lariviere continues to work on the district's challenges by serving on the board of directors of Project A+, a corporate-sponsored effort to make Austin ISD a world-class school district by 2000. She also is a member of the project's anti-dropout team. Project A+ emphasizes elementary schools, because students in those grades who fall behind mentally "drop out" even though they don't physically leave school until later years. Computer giant IBM, which initiated the project, has spent $4.5 million to put a personal computer into every classroom at several Austin elementary schools. Another element of Project A+ is free parenting seminars based on Dorothy Rich's book "Megaskills: How Families Help Children Succeed in School and Beyond." Low-income parents of elementary school-age children are especially encouraged to attend. Thousands have. Lariviere says she feels fortunate to have had parents who were educated and interested in the world when she was growing up in Connecticut and Illinois. She and her husband, Richard, a professor of Sanskrit at the University of Texas, provide the same experience for Anne, their seven-year-old. Evenings, says Lariviere: "She reads to me; I sit with her while she reads to herself; we do math - not homework that's assigned by the school, but what I think I need to do to keep her up with the other students in her class." "And that isn't the norm in America anymore," Lariviere says. "There aren't many parents whose lives will allow them to do that."