Hearing from youths they’ve helped makes the job worthwhile for GAP drill sergeants
“You might say I’m the last of the Mohicans,” Sergeant Major Danny Mendoza grins, gold-capped teeth sparkling in the light. By “last,” he means that he is the last of the original staff assigned to the permanent Georgetown Alternative Program (GAP), GISD’s Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP). The program began in 1996 for students in grades 6–12 who have violated the Student Code of Conduct. The program is unusual in that it is among the few in the state that incorporate military and educational components.
SGM Mendoza joined Principal Bob Fischer and Linda Taylor, replacing SGM Oscar Gonzales who, as it turned out, was a boyhood friend. “SGM Gonzales recommended me for the job. As soon as I retired from the military, I came here and have been working here ever since. It was a blessing that God provided this job for me,” Mendoza says. The job’s appeal stems from his experience in the military. “In the military, I wanted to work with young people,” he says. “As I was coming up in the ranks, I would see a young private, a sergeant, having hard times. That got me involved in wanting to work with young men and women to try to guide them onto a right path, where they could better themselves.”
“I made a lot of mistakes in my life, we all do,” Mendoza confesses. “To me, there is no such thing as a bad student. It’s just that they make bad choices and bad decisions. Some come in totally lost. They have no guidance and no structure. We tell them that, just because they are here, that doesn’t ruin their lives.”
Working with GAP students is challenging because the kids may be affected by factors including drugs, alcohol, inability to function in the traditional school environment, family issues, academic difficulties, or emotional difficulties. The military-style discipline component of GAP addresses student discipline, character building, decision-making, and self-control, while the educational component concentrates on improving academic skills and performance.
How does Mendoza find the patience to work in this challenging environment? “Through God’s grace,” he says. “It’s one of the skills God gave me. By the grace of God, I’m still here.”
For Mendoza, the job wouldn’t be nearly as “easy” if it weren’t for First Sergeant Eddie Wright, the second-to-last Mohican, who joined him in 2000. “He’s truly a great sergeant,” Mendoza says. “He supports me and I support him. He’s been a true friend and an inspiration for the program.”
Wright also likes working with young people. He worked at a boot camp in Lockhart before coming to the GAP when he retired. “I learn a lot from the kids,” he says, “their likes and dislikes, their challenges. It gives you a chance to communicate. When you deal with them on a daily basis, you can observe if they are a little down. We can pull them aside and get them feeling better.”
Wright is philosophical: “You can’t linger on the bad days because it will cause you to make bad decisions; it’s going to interfere with your day, period. Each day is a new day.”
How do both men know when they’ve made a difference in a youth’s life? It’s when they’re out and about, even as far away as San Antonio, and they hear someone call out, “Sergeant Major, remember me?” or “First sergeant, remember me?” Former students come up and report how they’re doing—and they thank the men for their help in shaping their paths. At such times, the sergeants simply remind former students that while GAP personnel guided them, it was their decision to choose to follow that guidance. And that decision is the true measure of Mendoza’s and Wright’s success.
SGM Mendoza says that from the beginning, he has received support from the superintendent on down. Specifically, he would like to thank Robert Fischer, Linda Taylor, Carlos Cantu, Louis Garza, and all the drill sergeants and staff that he has worked with.