Lessons from the Third Grade

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

In addition to its transitional setting, in recent years Ashley has had to contend with the distinction of being singled out -- unfairly, the school's supporters insist -- as the dregs of the Denver Public Schools, one of the worst performers in the entire DPS system of 82 elementary schools.

In 1997, the Denver school board decided to "blow up" Ashley and Fairview, a west Denver elementary school, citing abysmally low scores on standardized tests and a general lack of progress in student achievement. The restructuring involved removing almost the entire staff, from the principal to the custodians, and bringing in new teachers and a fresh approach. The move angered some community activists, who viewed it as an overkill solution to a complex problem, but others regarded it as dramatic evidence that DPS was serious about fixing its most beleaguered schools.

Three years later, the basic math and reading scores at Ashley have made modest gains, particularly in the upper grades. That's hardly cause for dancing in the streets; three-fourths of its students are still below the reading level considered "proficient" by state standards. But the most startling changes at Ashley aren't the kinds of things measured in standardized tests -- not at first, anyway. They have to do with the golden silence in the halls, teachers who never seem to leave the building, growing community support, and a hiking of expectations and attitudes that has transformed a chaotic, dysfunctional institution into a place where learning might actually occur.

Preparing students for standardized tests takes up much of her time, but Mrs. Tracey says there's more to learning than what the scores can show.
David Rehor
Preparing students for standardized tests takes up much of her time, but Mrs. Tracey says there's more to learning than what the scores can show.
John D'Orazio took a $20,000 pay cut to teach first-graders. "At some point you ask, 'Why am I doing this?'"
David Rehor
John D'Orazio took a $20,000 pay cut to teach first-graders. "At some point you ask, 'Why am I doing this?'"

"When people ask me what we've done," says Ashley principal Wanda Lydia, "I tell them, 'Come in and look. What kind of work do you see going on?' This year our first-graders are able to write. Not well, but last year we saw a bunch of pictures. Our older children are doing much more. It's taken three years of work and teacher training, but it's really making a difference."

"You can make a failing school successful if you're consistent," says Gayla Tracey. "But you have to look beyond the scores, at how the kids come to school, how they act. They're out on the playground playing, not fighting, and when they're in class, they're working. There have been a lot of changes in the community, not just the school. We've created a learning environment, and that took a lot of effort from everyone."

This month Governor Bill Owens unveiled his $19 million education-reform package, the bulk of it devoted to school report cards, additional student testing and other "accountability" measures. Making schools more accountable is expected to be the dominant topic in the state legislature this year.

Before the pontificating begins, though, lawmakers could learn a lot themselves just by touring the front. A visit to Ashley could show them how, against long odds and with very limited resources, a much-maligned school can find its pride and direction again. They could discover what teachers can do about the crisis in public education and how much depends on parents, kids and bureaucrats.

They might find out more than they want to know about what schools like Ashley need. They might begin to understand why half of all teachers leave the profession within their first five years. They might even learn why good teachers, underpaid and overwhelmed, decide to teach no more.

Gayla Tracey usually arrives at Ashley around seven in the morning. She spends two hours in meetings and preparing for class, then gathers her charges on the playground and escorts them to Room 205. Classes end at 3:30 p.m., but it's rare that she's out of the building before five.

Ashley used to keep misbehaving students in detention after school. But some teachers didn't want to send kids to detention because it meant staying late themselves. Mrs. Tracey continued to participate until she figured out that she was punishing herself more than her students; in some cases, hanging out at school with her was preferable to going home. Now kids who don't do their work are sent to "Lunchroom Academy" -- they have to study during lunch and miss dining with their friends. Still, after-school tutoring and other tasks keep Mrs. Tracey at Ashley until early evening.

She gives herself an hour for dinner, then continues to work at home, grading homework and catching up on paperwork, sometimes until midnight. Sundays are often devoted to preparing for the coming week's classes. In theory, the school year ends in May, but the teacher's summer vacation is largely a myth these days. Last year Gayla Tracey worked until mid-June on various projects and returned to school in mid-August to begin setting up her classroom. During her break, she took enrichment courses that are supposed to make her a better teacher.

For all of this, she earns roughly $25,000 a year before taxes. She figures it works out to about eight dollars an hour.

When her father, a retired DPS teacher, heard about the hours she was putting in, he told her she was overdoing it. "No, I'm not," she said. "I'm just trying to do what they expect, and there aren't enough hours in the day to do it all."

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