Lessons from the Third Grade

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

"I had been in situations with difficult kids, but they'd already been identified as emotionally disturbed, and programs had been set up for them," she says. "What I walked into was a situation with very disturbed kids who hadn't been identified and weren't getting serviced. And it looked like some of the most disturbed kids had been in charge of the building. Their behavior was so extreme that everyone was dancing around them. I wasn't teaching; I was raising these kids."

The teachers were told not to worry, to be patient. There was a plan in place, a plan to bring order and crack down on absences and get the kids who needed special programs into them as quickly as possible so that they wouldn't disrupt the education of the other students. But it was all going to take some time.

How much time? Nobody knew, but Mrs. Tracey had a pretty good idea that the problems weren't going to disappear overnight. She had not been at Ashley long when a little boy threw a chair at her.

Looking for answers: Ashley principal Wanda Lydia presided over a schoolwide "redesign" that stresses discipline and more parental involvement.
David Rehor
Looking for answers: Ashley principal Wanda Lydia presided over a schoolwide "redesign" that stresses discipline and more parental involvement.

For many students, violence and fear seem to be woven into the public-school experience; they are as much a part of the post-Columbine landscape as yellow buses and cargo pants. One grim sign of the times is the recently revised "Emergency Management Plan and Classroom Emergency Procedure Manual" handed out to every DPS teacher.

The booklet advises teachers how to respond to every imaginable crisis situation, from Kidnapping ("remain calm") and Gun/Weapon on Campus ("discreetly call the office if the suspect is not present") to Shootings or Stabbings on Campus ("take cover, if necessary"), Spilled Body Fluids ("wear disposable latex gloves") and Communicating with the Media ("speak conversationally, otherwise your voice will go up and sound strained").

Fortunately, the manual doesn't receive much of a workout at Ashley, where discipline problems, even chair-throwing, have been greatly curtailed over the past three years. The place is smoke-free, gang-free, trench-coat-free. The school has its own dress code, and more than half of the students wear some form of blue and white, a kind of voluntary school uniform that has yet to be approved by the school board.

The halls of Ashley are plastered with bright, bold signs extolling the virtues of positive behavior and academic achievement: "Believe in Yourself." "Kid Power!" The most pervasive feel-good message is also the most literal, a self-help mantra that could have been borrowed from Saturday Night Live's Stuart Smalley or the "mah-velous" Fernando:




Praise and encouragement are doled out lavishly at Ashley. Mrs. Tracey, for example, hands out stamps, stickers and stars to students who write good papers, give good answers or sit quietly at their seats. When the entire class performs well, she tells them, "Pat yourselves on the back," and they do.

These exercises in self-esteem are hardly frivolous. A cornerstone of the new Ashley program is the rather quaint notion that kids have to be in their seats, focused and under control, before they can learn. That requires an emphasis on discipline as well as positive rewards. "I have to teach them how to act right before I can teach them anything else," Mrs. Tracey says.

Accenting the positive also serves to counter the message of failure Ashley has received from the media and, to some extent, from the bean-counters in the DPS administration, who tend to be as obsessed with test scores as any mush-brain education reporter. The official evaluation reports of Ashley's progress since the restructuring are heavy on statistics, and the numbers stretch like mountains that will take years to climb: Nearly a third of Ashley's 420 students speak minimal or no English; almost 90 percent of the students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, a figure that's been increasing for the past five years and is used to determine the percentage of "at-risk" students at a school; and Ashley has one of the highest rates of attrition and mobility (students who've moved in or out of school during the year) in the district and ranks among the lowest in reading and writing scores.

Yet buried within the numbers are trends that indicate the back-patting isn't misplaced. Attendance and other indicators of a stable student population are increasing. So are test scores. In 1998, Ashley's third-grade reading scores on state tests were the worst in the district. Last year they ranked seventh from the bottom -- which may not sound like much of an improvement, but it actually represents a near-doubling of the percentage of students considered proficient (from 11 to 20 percent). Based on preliminary results this fall, the scores are expected to continue upward.

What the staff at Ashley has done, says Wanda Lydia, is set the stage for greater academic progress by concentrating first on discipline. "There was a need to set up expectations for the students," says the principal. "We had to do a lot of working with the community."

Lydia, formerly the principal of high-achieving Asbury Elementary in south Denver, volunteered to lead the restructuring team. Her first order of business was dealing not only with problem students but with problem parents, including a couple of moms who got into a slugging match during a parent-teacher conference. Considerable effort went into training staff in a discipline program known as Refocus, in which misbehaving students are first warned, then ejected -- and not allowed back in the classroom without a written pledge to do better from the offender and, in some cases, a parent's signature.

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