Lessons from the Third Grade

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

A few minutes later an emotional Mrs. Tracey emerges from the meeting. She embraces another teacher, a reading specialist she works closely with, and bursts into tears.

"They keep giving us more," she says, "and they don't take anything away."

Her friend nods. "I know," she says. "It isn't right. You're one of the best teachers I know. I wish you were staying."

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.

But in May Gayla Tracey is leaving Ashley. She will no longer teach in Denver Public Schools. Although she reached this decision several months ago, recent events have only strengthened her conviction that it's time to go. The school is faring better, much better than when she arrived. She loves teaching, loves her class, gets along well with her colleagues and her principal. But there is also the sense of being caught in a tightening vise. The handle is being cranked at the statehouse and at district headquarters, and teachers throughout the district are feeling it.

At the moment, Ashley's third-graders are gearing up for the all-important CSAP test, scheduled for the end of February. The testing period comes on the heels of a two-day site visit by an accreditation review team, an exhaustive process every DPS school must go through every few years on a rotating basis. The school is also in the middle of changing over from one form of literacy program to another, one of the principal topics of this morning's meeting and an endeavor that's required many hours of training and workshops. Add to this the pronouncements rolling down on the schools from the governor's office -- the declared need for school-by-school report cards, more intensive teacher evaluations, the threat to shut down schools that don't achieve certain performance levels -- and you begin to see the source of Mrs. Tracey's frustration.

In principle, she supports many of the programs tugging at her time, including CSAP and the new approach to teaching reading. But the weight of every reform falls squarely on teachers like her.

"I don't think they consider the teacher when they make these decisions," she says. "I don't think they consider the kids, either. The kids are talked about and brandished like flags, but they're not considered."

The rising demands and the lack of compensation have caught up with her. "If I could figure out a way to make this work, I would go on with it," she says. "But they don't pay me enough money to do this. I don't need to make a fortune, but I have to get a reasonable wage so I don't feel like a martyr. I feel like an idiot, frankly, to work the hours I do for the money I'm being paid. And they expect more and more. All the accountability they're demanding now comes down on us. Where's the accountability for the parents? We have kids who aren't dressed for school, who aren't fed properly. Where's the accountability for that?"

She notes that she's already required to develop an "individual learning plan" for every child who is performing below grade level. "That's two-thirds of my room," she says, nodding at a stack of files beside her desk. "It's just more paperwork, and when do I get to do it? At home."

The prospect of merit pay, a modest incentive DPS is now exploring through a pilot program, doesn't make the day-to-day realities of teaching more bearable, she says. She wonders how such a program could be fairly implemented at a school like Ashley, where so many students come and go in the course of a single year that it's difficult to accurately chart their progress, let alone their teachers' effectiveness. "If I was at a school like Bromwell [an elementary school in the Cherry Creek neighborhood]," she says, "I might look like a better teacher than I do at Ashley. I really don't think merit pay is going to change anything."

Leaving Ashley will be painful, she expects, like a death in the family or the end of a love affair. But she has plans for one last great adventure with her class, a lesson she hopes they will remember for the rest of their lives.

Two years ago, while on a road trip through southern Colorado, Gayla and her then-fiancé, Keith Tracey, passed through La Veta, a rustic hamlet in the shadow of the Spanish Peaks, sixteen miles west of Walsenburg. Taken with the natural beauty of the area and the growing amenities of the town, which has become a hub for mountain bikers and bohemians fleeing the toniness of Taos, the couple returned again and again; they eventually decided to buy the imposing sandstone Masonic building on Main Street and make it their home.

The renovation of the building is still in progress, but this spring, Mrs. Tracey wants to take her class on an overnight field trip to La Veta. The group will visit the local pioneer museum, meet kids who attend the elementary school there, study rocks and flowers and the stars, sack out in sleeping bags. Preparing for the trip will present ample opportunities for lessons in math (budgeting for the school bus and meals, selling candy and making change at fundraisers), reading, history, writing (to establish a pen-pal relationship with La Veta's schoolchildren) and even diplomacy (presenting permission letters to parents and coaxing some of them to come along).

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