Lessons from the Third Grade

Three years ago, Ashley was branded the worst elementary school in Denver. What’s changed? Everything.

It's ten minutes after nine. Room 205 comes alive.

The children file in to the murmur of the Pledge of Allegiance, recited in English and Spanish over the public address system. They pull their chairs from the tabletops, where they've been stacked overnight, and sit down quietly -- quietly for third-graders, that is. There are no individual desks, just five group tables with nameplates designating each student's place: Kareem. Monique. Ezekiel. Amber. Jorge.

Lisette takes a count of those requesting a hot lunch today. In a tiny voice, Chirelle quizzes her classmates about the day of the week, the date and the weather forecast, then writes the information on a chart. Other students are assigned tasks as book monitors, rug straighteners, paper collectors. Presiding over all of this frenetic purposefulness, directing traffic and dispensing hugs, is a slender, fortyish blonde -- Gayla Tracey, now in her third year as a teacher at Denver's Ashley Elementary School.

"People at your seats, get out your work and get going," she says.

Room 205 is Gayla Tracey's kingdom, and on this crisp autumn morning, just a few weeks into the school year, things quickly settle into a reliable routine. Workbooks pop open, and half the students battle their way through a set of math exercises with the help of a teaching assistant. The rest gather in a circle on the floor in one corner of the room. Mrs. Tracey joins them there, sitting in a small plastic lawn chair that brings her down to eye level.

"I really like the way Hilda's looking at her book and not talking to anybody," she says. "Who can tell me how we use numbers when we're talking about money?"

Today Mrs. Tracey's class will learn how to make change for a dollar and how many bills and coins it takes to make $2.97. They will learn that decimal is the smart person's word for the period that divides dollars from cents. They will listen to a story about the Plains Indians and have to explain the hard words, such as travois and nostrils. ("What are your nostrils? Point to them. Don't stick your fingers in them!") They will be expected to know how many buffalo roamed the plains before the pioneers arrived. ("Three hundred." "Three thousand." "Three million?" "No, I know! Thirty million!")

They will also do some reading and writing of their own. The best papers will be posted on the bulletin board under the heading "Wondrous Work." Today the board is filled with assignments that involved interviewing classmates to learn about their interests, hobbies and background:

Luis's special treasure is his family.

Kashin doesn't know his full name because his mom didn't tell him.

They will leave the room for gym, lunch and a collective bathroom break, supervised by the duly-appointed bathroom monitor. A few will be shifted to other classrooms in the afternoon for extra reading help (known as "double-dosing") or special-education programs. For the most part, though, Room 205 will be their field of operation for the next eight months, the place they will be challenged, tested and tried, steeled to endure the rigors of third grade and what lies beyond.

As classrooms go, it's not a bad place. Like a lot of the teachers at Ashley, Mrs. Tracey puts a great deal of her time and her own money into decorating her room. A string of brightly colored paper leaves hangs above the tables. In addition to Wondrous Work, a board features a "Star Student of the Week"; another wall displays pioneer clothing and tools. There are books and posters everywhere you turn and bright placards touting the kind of "describing words" Mrs. Tracey uses to praise good papers -- "Awesome! Superb!" -- and encourages her students to use in complimenting each other's work.

The overall effect is cheerful, even though the lights are seldom turned on in Room 205. Mrs. Tracey prefers natural light. There's something about the hum and vibration of fluorescent light, she believes, that distracts children. With the overhead lights off, her students are calmer, more focused.

"Let's stay focused!" is the battle cry of Room 205. Focus is a much-invoked buzzword at Ashley. The notion of focus figures heavily in individual teaching methods and in the schoolwide approach to discipline, which has made the place a showcase of order and civility.

Whatever the terminology, though, the basic challenge of Room 205 is the challenge faced by teachers everywhere. It still comes down to this: a teacher and a room full of kids, a match and a random assembly of stubbornly resistant tinder. Mrs. Tracey's mission is to provide not simply light but heat, to impart not just information but a hunger for learning, an aching appreciation that there is so much to learn.

The quest is an ancient one, but at Ashley, the struggle to learn is complicated by forces well beyond the teachers' control. The school is located a few blocks from the Stapleton redevelopment site, in a low-income section of Park Hill. It's a neighborhood in rapid transition, with a strong black but increasing Hispanic immigrant population. Many of the students come from single-parent homes; in others, both parents work and younger children are cared for primarily by older siblings or other relatives, some of whom don't speak any English. Families come and go quickly from the rental properties around Ashley, and the turnover, along with other economic and cultural barriers, has hindered parental involvement in the school, a key factor in student achievement.

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