Lessons from the Third Grade

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

"At first parents thought we were being too tough," Lydia says. "We called them frequently. This year there's more awareness. They know the teachers are not going to put up with anything that doesn't allow them to teach."

The first year Lydia was there, the police were summoned to Ashley four or five times to deal with scuffling parents, older siblings with weapons and other disturbances. Last year they came only once. This year she has the luxury of actually sending eight members of her staff out of the building to a training program once a month, with minimal classroom upset. "If I'd done that last year, I'd have had kids hanging out the window," she says. "This year the substitutes are willing to come back."

Gayla Tracey's version of the Refocus program includes a color-coded discipline board, an idea she borrowed from another DPS teacher, who adapted it from a Los Angeles barrio school. Each student's behavior is indicated by whichever color is uppermost in a packet of colored cards with his or her name on it: pink (outstanding), yellow (looking good), green (warning), blue (refocus), red (refocus and write an apology during recess).

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.

The first year she tried the color scheme, defiant kids ripped their packets from the wall and tore them up. But she stuck with it, and now when students are told to go "change their color" -- for talking out of turn, dissing classmates or worse -- they do so stoically, with the stricken look of the busted. It's a serious business, and Mrs. Tracey doesn't try to sugarcoat it.

"I make the kids unhappy when they make bad choices," she says. "If they start crying, my response is, 'You ought to be crying.' They have to learn that there are consequences for their behavior."

But the system has its rewards, too. "On Friday we act better because we want to get points," explains eight-year-old Nadia. "If we get twenty points, we all get a pizza party. But everybody has to be in the pink at the end of the week."


Noon, then 1 p.m., then 1:25. Spelling-bee showdown in Room 205.

On the discipline board, 24 packets are showing yellow. One is green. One is red. Everyone is eager to move up. Everyone is eager to beat the other team in spelling, too.

This week's Star Student is Jose. According to the display, his favorite thing about school is "Everything." His goal for the future: "Astronaut." Something he likes about himself: "How I read." He is proud of himself for "Learning how to write long stories."

There is an intensity, a sense of anticipation about the spelling bee that has nothing to do with grades. Teams assemble and line up at the blackboard. Mrs. Tracey intones a spelling word, and one member of each team scribbles furiously on the board, trying to be the first to spell it correctly. Some words are more problematic than others: probably, remember, quiet -- which has a bad habit of coming out as quite. "No wonder you have trouble with that word," Mrs. Tracey says. "So many of you have trouble being quiet."

A dispute breaks out at the board. One girl complains that a competitor was peeking at her team's answer.

"She cheated!"

"No, I didn't!"

"I want to talk about that," Mrs. Tracey says, cutting off the argument. "Is that a nice thing to say about someone? Do you know that for sure? Then don't say it."

There are other disagreements about scoring, the girls as fiercely contentious as the boys. Players retire from the field shivering with the thrill of the contest, celebrating or ruing their answers.

"I was so nervous up there!" exclaims Tashay. Mrs. Tracey urges her to take a few deep breaths. You don't see this kind of excitement on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

The competition ends with one team slightly ahead, but the results are quickly forgotten. It's time for a written spelling test with still more words, which requires a fair amount of pencil sharpening and frowning concentration. When it's over, the students exchange papers and grade each other's tests before turning them in. It's one more opportunity for the entire class to recite the correct spelling of every word on the test, to get those slippery words nailed down for good.

Moriah raises her hand. "Mrs. Tracey, do we put how many they got wrong or got right?"

Mrs. Tracey smiles. "Right," she says. "Always put the number they got right."


It's a Thursday night in December, and parents are pouring into Ashley for the school's annual Winter Festival of Lights -- a safe, neutral term for what is really a holiday celebration. In another time and place, the event would be called a Christmas pageant, but there is something for just about everyone in tonight's show: stories about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, "Jingle Bells" sung in English and "Arbolito de Navidad" in Spanish.

Two years ago, a similar event drew only a handful of spectators; even some of the student performers failed to show. Tonight is a different matter. The place is packed with moms toting toddlers and dads lugging the obligatory recording equipment, disposable cameras and fancy video rigs, followed by proud uncles and beaming great-grandmas. The crowd quickly fills the small auditorium and spills into the hall.

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