Lessons from the Third Grade

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

Her father later observed her class for an entire day and revised his opinion. Now, he says, he understands what she's talking about.

Mrs. Tracey came to the profession relatively late in life, after earning her living in a variety of ways -- cleaning houses, working for a book distributor, marketing her own dress designs -- that were more lucrative and allowed her to travel extensively. But teaching runs in her family, and it was perhaps inevitable that she would turn to it some day. Both of her parents taught in the Denver Public Schools, and her older sister, Lynn Coleman, was a high-powered member of the Denver school board for several years and now works as a consultant with DPS administration. (A point of disclosure: I have known Mrs. Tracey since before she was Mrs. Tracey. I first met her more than thirty years ago, when she was Gayla Coleman and we attended the same junior high school.)

Although she's never followed a predictable career path, tradition and family ties have played a large role in the choices Gayla Tracey has made. She lives in a small bungalow on a large corner lot a few blocks north of the Cherry Creek Shopping Center. The home belonged to her grandparents and was once a bunkhouse for a ranch. Today it's practically the only single-family dwelling left on a block dominated by condos and townhouses, a prize morsel for insatiable developers, though her family isn't selling.

When Mrs. Tracey talks about why she decided to teach, the conversation turns to teachers who made a difference in her life and her desire to have the same kind of impact on her students.

"When I was a kid, I thought being a teacher would be a great job," she says. "I have been told my whole life that I would be great at it. I had taught dance and gymnastics, and people thought I was really good with kids."

She went to France, read Herbert Marcuse's One Dimensional Man, and decided that teaching children to think critically was a more effective path to social change than campus rabble-rousing. But it was years before she got around to securing her Colorado teaching certificate. Even then, she began by substitute teaching only a day or two a week. She wasn't sure she had what it took. "I was scared to death," she says.

Her first assignment was at Lincoln Elementary, where she'd gone to kindergarten. It was almost her last. A rowdy, shrieking group of first- and second-graders left her feeling completely demoralized.

"It was a disaster," she recalls. "I took it personally. They didn't learn a damn thing from me that I could see. I did tell a lot of stories, and they paid attention, but by the end of the day, I was in tears. I was going to quit. But the principal called me into his office. He told me to hang in there, that I'd done pretty good for my first day and that it would get easier."

He was right. Over the next five years she substituted at all sorts of schools, sometimes on long-term assignments. Other teachers told her that she was gifted, that she should pursue a permanent contract. "I knew if I was going to do it full-time, it would take everything I had," she says. "You can't have a life and do a good job teaching. Especially in the inner city, where a lot of kids aren't getting their needs met at home."

When she made up her mind to take the plunge, she applied for a position at Ashley. Friends tried to discourage her. The place had a bad reputation, they said, and the planned "redesign" would only alienate the community and traumatize students. But Mrs. Tracey had already taught at Ashley, substituting for a friend whose class was an oasis of calm. True, the halls were exceptionally noisy, an indication that the teachers had limited control of the place, but this was an opportunity to get on the ground floor of something fresh and challenging. "I figured I wouldn't be walking into some established mess that I had to be part of," she says.

Instead, she became part of the new team that moved into the building in the fall of 1997, with orders from on high to raise proficiency levels. But she soon discovered that test scores were only a symptom of a much larger problem.

"I went in there ready to teach, and I was not able to teach," she says. "Kids are awesome for the first week. But once they feel safe, they start showing their problems."

Many of her students were, in fact, ready to learn, but others were not. Some disappeared from school for days or weeks at a time because their families were traveling. Others were living in crackhouses or in cars. A few were frequently late because their parents were hookers or drug addicts and didn't get up before noon. Some had emotional problems and learning disabilities that simply hadn't been addressed in their first three years of school.

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