This story is part of an occasional series from KUT called Gender Divide, which will tell stories about the communities in Austin ISD's new single-sex middle schools, while also exploring the debate over single-sex education.
When you walk into the Gus Garcia Young Men's Leadership Academy in East Austin on any given morning, the first thing you hear is the echo of young men's voices bouncing off the walls of the building's large atrium. The atrium is like the heart of the building, connecting arteries of hallways and classrooms in the seven year old campus.
Walking those hallways, it's hard to avoid shaking hands. Young men will approach you, wearing the Gus Garcia Uniform. They introduce themselves and declare they are, "a Gus Garcia man." It's an approach and attitude Principal Sterlin McGruder has instilled in the more than 400 students since it opened its doors as a single-sex school in August.
McGruder was hired to run the reconstituted campus after one year of running a similar school in Grand Prairie ISD, where he spent 15 years as a teacher and principal. Grand Prairie decided to turn a middle school into a single-sex campus after it failed state academic standards. Now, it's academically successful, and Austin ISD is hoping McGruder can repeat history at Gus Garcia YMLA.
Students at Gus Garcia are divided into four houses: Alpha, Beta, Delta and Kappa. House leaders corral the younger students, encouraging them to be successful and even disciplining them when they act out of turn. Students can earn points for their house for academic success or other achievements. They lose points for being disruptive or acting out.
“I feel like my role is a mentor, I feel like my role is someone they can talk to and be around," says McGruder, who didn't let our interview stop him from talking to students. Whenever he addresses a student, he shakes their hand, and he always calls the young men 'sir' or 'gentlemen.' "Just for somebody they can see and try to emulate, [show them] some of these chasms they can fall into, show them where that’s not the right way to do things, but also make sure they get every academic need they can."
More than 90 percent of the students at Gus Garcia qualify for free or reduced lunch. Most of the students are African American or Hispanic and McGruder says many of them are raised by single mothers or grandparents.
“I love students like this," McGruder says. "I love students who nobody feels like they have a chance, but helping them make chances.”