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Lessons from the Third Grade

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

A young mother stands on tiptoe outside the doors, craning for a peek as the second-graders enter from stage right. "Here come my babies!"

Roaming the hallways behind the auditorium, where older students await their turn to take the stage, Mrs. Tracey comes across a noisy group of fifth-graders. Many are kids she had in her class the first year she came to Ashley. She tells them to hush, and they quiet down, but not without some friendly banter.

"Mrs. Tracey," one girl asks, "why are you so mean?"

"I don't know," Mrs. Tracey says. "Maybe it's because you're not doing what you're supposed to do."

She leaves, and there is silence in her wake. Some of these kids didn't like her at all when they were in her class, she says; now they come up to her in the halls and hug her. They recognize that everyone had a tough time that first year. But Mrs. Tracey came back, and that was important.

"That first bunch -- I was probably the best thing going for some of them," she says. "I felt a commitment to them. I wanted them to see I'm still here. If I don't come back, what it means to them is that I don't like them."

Last year was better, she says, and this year's class is the best teaching experience she's ever had. Although her own skills and changes in the school may have had something to do with that, Mrs. Tracey says that one of the principal reasons her job is no longer a daily battle with chaos has to do with the crowd in the auditorium.

In some ways, the most dramatic shift in Ashley's fortunes has occurred outsidethe school. Community groups have worked closely with the Denver police to clean up the neighborhood and close down the seedier motels on East Colfax, havens for drugs and prostitution. As the more troublesome adults have been pushed out, the school has seen fewer deeply troubled kids, too. They've been replaced by an influx of low-income but industrious families eager to secure their piece of the Denver boom, including immigrants from Mexico and Central America. In many cases, there's an adult at home after school, and both parents are insistent that their children learn English as quickly as possible. That means more parents showing up for school events and conferences with teachers and more emphasis on education in the home.

"There's a lot more support this year than last," says John D'Orazio, a first-grade teacher at Ashley. "I still don't see many parents coming into my classroom. If they're working two jobs for hourly wages, they may not have as much flexibility in getting time off as salaried people do. But there's definitely a higher level of involvement in the school."

Wanda Lydia lured parents to school events by offering cookies, punch and a Spanish translator hired by the district. The school's Collaborative Decision-Making team, the group of parents, staff and community leaders who are supposed to guide school policy, is still small. A recent CDM meeting drew half a dozen parents -- most of them using headsets, like United Nations delegates, as they listened to the translator explain the agenda. But the group has demonstrated surprising leverage for its size.

A few months ago the CDM learned that, once again, Ashley's enrollment had outpaced the district's expectations. Hardest hit was a bilingual class that had 34 students, one body less than the district requires to authorize the hiring of another teacher. Members of the CDM headed downtown and demanded that something be done. Ashley got its teacher.

"The CDM erupted," recalls Philip Garvin, a representative of the local business community who is a part of Ashley's team. "That's what it's going to take to get things done."

Garvin is the president of Colorado Studios, a film and television production complex at Stapleton, and a driving force on Ashley's CDM. He became involved in the school three years ago after a decade of working with kids at Valdez Elementary and North High School. To him, the challenges facing Ashley come down to matters the school district doesn't talk about much, matters of dollars and cents.

"I have heard fifteen years of lip service about how to improve the Denver public schools," he says. "I've heard everything except the obvious, which is, 'We need more money to hire more and better teachers.' It's patently obvious that at Ashley they need people to teach reading. They don't have enough."

This year Garvin donated $12,000 to Ashley to hire an extra paraprofessional and persuaded two other individuals in the business community to do the same. The "paras" serve as teaching assistants, helping to grade papers or supervising activities for part of the class, freeing up teachers to work more directly with smaller groups of students. One of the paras in Room 205, for example, is 25-year-old Jesse Tann, an affable presence who used to work in juvenile corrections. ("I figured I could catch some at the other end," says Tann, who is thinking about becoming a teacher himself.)

But there are never enough paras to go around, so other groups have stepped forward to develop volunteer tutoring programs. One program held at school enlists volunteers from the local Optimists Club. Another meets once a week at Montview Presbyterian Church and involves one-on-one reading as well as some music instruction, which the school no longer offers. Most of the Montview tutors are honor students from East High School, but there's a crying need for more tutors of all ages; the program has a substantial waiting list.

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