Lessons from the Third Grade
It's ten minutes after nine. Room 205 comes alive.
The children file in to the murmur of the Pledge of Allegiance, recited in English and Spanish over the public address system. They pull their chairs from the tabletops, where they've been stacked overnight, and sit down quietly -- quietly for third-graders, that is. There are no individual desks, just five group tables with nameplates designating each student's place: Kareem. Monique. Ezekiel. Amber. Jorge.
Lisette takes a count of those requesting a hot lunch today. In a tiny voice, Chirelle quizzes her classmates about the day of the week, the date and the weather forecast, then writes the information on a chart. Other students are assigned tasks as book monitors, rug straighteners, paper collectors. Presiding over all of this frenetic purposefulness, directing traffic and dispensing hugs, is a slender, fortyish blonde -- Gayla Tracey, now in her third year as a teacher at Denver's Ashley Elementary School.
"People at your seats, get out your work and get going," she says.
Room 205 is Gayla Tracey's kingdom, and on this crisp autumn morning, just a few weeks into the school year, things quickly settle into a reliable routine. Workbooks pop open, and half the students battle their way through a set of math exercises with the help of a teaching assistant. The rest gather in a circle on the floor in one corner of the room. Mrs. Tracey joins them there, sitting in a small plastic lawn chair that brings her down to eye level.
"I really like the way Hilda's looking at her book and not talking to anybody," she says. "Who can tell me how we use numbers when we're talking about money?"
Today Mrs. Tracey's class will learn how to make change for a dollar and how many bills and coins it takes to make $2.97. They will learn that decimal is the smart person's word for the period that divides dollars from cents. They will listen to a story about the Plains Indians and have to explain the hard words, such as travois and nostrils. ("What are your nostrils? Point to them. Don't stick your fingers in them!") They will be expected to know how many buffalo roamed the plains before the pioneers arrived. ("Three hundred." "Three thousand." "Three million?" "No, I know! Thirty million!")
They will also do some reading and writing of their own. The best papers will be posted on the bulletin board under the heading "Wondrous Work." Today the board is filled with assignments that involved interviewing classmates to learn about their interests, hobbies and background:
Luis's special treasure is his family.
Kashin doesn't know his full name because his mom didn't tell him.
They will leave the room for gym, lunch and a collective bathroom break, supervised by the duly-appointed bathroom monitor. A few will be shifted to other classrooms in the afternoon for extra reading help (known as "double-dosing") or special-education programs. For the most part, though, Room 205 will be their field of operation for the next eight months, the place they will be challenged, tested and tried, steeled to endure the rigors of third grade and what lies beyond.
As classrooms go, it's not a bad place. Like a lot of the teachers at Ashley, Mrs. Tracey puts a great deal of her time and her own money into decorating her room. A string of brightly colored paper leaves hangs above the tables. In addition to Wondrous Work, a board features a "Star Student of the Week"; another wall displays pioneer clothing and tools. There are books and posters everywhere you turn and bright placards touting the kind of "describing words" Mrs. Tracey uses to praise good papers -- "Awesome! Superb!" -- and encourages her students to use in complimenting each other's work.
The overall effect is cheerful, even though the lights are seldom turned on in Room 205. Mrs. Tracey prefers natural light. There's something about the hum and vibration of fluorescent light, she believes, that distracts children. With the overhead lights off, her students are calmer, more focused.
"Let's stay focused!" is the battle cry of Room 205. Focus is a much-invoked buzzword at Ashley. The notion of focus figures heavily in individual teaching methods and in the schoolwide approach to discipline, which has made the place a showcase of order and civility.
Whatever the terminology, though, the basic challenge of Room 205 is the challenge faced by teachers everywhere. It still comes down to this: a teacher and a room full of kids, a match and a random assembly of stubbornly resistant tinder. Mrs. Tracey's mission is to provide not simply light but heat, to impart not just information but a hunger for learning, an aching appreciation that there is so much to learn.
The quest is an ancient one, but at Ashley, the struggle to learn is complicated by forces well beyond the teachers' control. The school is located a few blocks from the Stapleton redevelopment site, in a low-income section of Park Hill. It's a neighborhood in rapid transition, with a strong black but increasing Hispanic immigrant population. Many of the students come from single-parent homes; in others, both parents work and younger children are cared for primarily by older siblings or other relatives, some of whom don't speak any English. Families come and go quickly from the rental properties around Ashley, and the turnover, along with other economic and cultural barriers, has hindered parental involvement in the school, a key factor in student achievement.
In addition to its transitional setting, in recent years Ashley has had to contend with the distinction of being singled out -- unfairly, the school's supporters insist -- as the dregs of the Denver Public Schools, one of the worst performers in the entire DPS system of 82 elementary schools.
In 1997, the Denver school board decided to "blow up" Ashley and Fairview, a west Denver elementary school, citing abysmally low scores on standardized tests and a general lack of progress in student achievement. The restructuring involved removing almost the entire staff, from the principal to the custodians, and bringing in new teachers and a fresh approach. The move angered some community activists, who viewed it as an overkill solution to a complex problem, but others regarded it as dramatic evidence that DPS was serious about fixing its most beleaguered schools.
Three years later, the basic math and reading scores at Ashley have made modest gains, particularly in the upper grades. That's hardly cause for dancing in the streets; three-fourths of its students are still below the reading level considered "proficient" by state standards. But the most startling changes at Ashley aren't the kinds of things measured in standardized tests -- not at first, anyway. They have to do with the golden silence in the halls, teachers who never seem to leave the building, growing community support, and a hiking of expectations and attitudes that has transformed a chaotic, dysfunctional institution into a place where learning might actually occur.
"When people ask me what we've done," says Ashley principal Wanda Lydia, "I tell them, 'Come in and look. What kind of work do you see going on?' This year our first-graders are able to write. Not well, but last year we saw a bunch of pictures. Our older children are doing much more. It's taken three years of work and teacher training, but it's really making a difference."
"You can make a failing school successful if you're consistent," says Gayla Tracey. "But you have to look beyond the scores, at how the kids come to school, how they act. They're out on the playground playing, not fighting, and when they're in class, they're working. There have been a lot of changes in the community, not just the school. We've created a learning environment, and that took a lot of effort from everyone."
This month Governor Bill Owens unveiled his $19 million education-reform package, the bulk of it devoted to school report cards, additional student testing and other "accountability" measures. Making schools more accountable is expected to be the dominant topic in the state legislature this year.
Before the pontificating begins, though, lawmakers could learn a lot themselves just by touring the front. A visit to Ashley could show them how, against long odds and with very limited resources, a much-maligned school can find its pride and direction again. They could discover what teachers can do about the crisis in public education and how much depends on parents, kids and bureaucrats.
They might find out more than they want to know about what schools like Ashley need. They might begin to understand why half of all teachers leave the profession within their first five years. They might even learn why good teachers, underpaid and overwhelmed, decide to teach no more.
Gayla Tracey usually arrives at Ashley around seven in the morning. She spends two hours in meetings and preparing for class, then gathers her charges on the playground and escorts them to Room 205. Classes end at 3:30 p.m., but it's rare that she's out of the building before five.
Ashley used to keep misbehaving students in detention after school. But some teachers didn't want to send kids to detention because it meant staying late themselves. Mrs. Tracey continued to participate until she figured out that she was punishing herself more than her students; in some cases, hanging out at school with her was preferable to going home. Now kids who don't do their work are sent to "Lunchroom Academy" -- they have to study during lunch and miss dining with their friends. Still, after-school tutoring and other tasks keep Mrs. Tracey at Ashley until early evening.
She gives herself an hour for dinner, then continues to work at home, grading homework and catching up on paperwork, sometimes until midnight. Sundays are often devoted to preparing for the coming week's classes. In theory, the school year ends in May, but the teacher's summer vacation is largely a myth these days. Last year Gayla Tracey worked until mid-June on various projects and returned to school in mid-August to begin setting up her classroom. During her break, she took enrichment courses that are supposed to make her a better teacher.
For all of this, she earns roughly $25,000 a year before taxes. She figures it works out to about eight dollars an hour.
When her father, a retired DPS teacher, heard about the hours she was putting in, he told her she was overdoing it. "No, I'm not," she said. "I'm just trying to do what they expect, and there aren't enough hours in the day to do it all."
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.
"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.
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:
I LOOK GOOD
I FEEL GOOD
I AM GOOD
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.
"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).
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.
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.
"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.
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 outside the 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.
Tutoring nine- or ten-year-olds from another culture can be daunting, admits Ted Bryant, a former state legislator who coordinates the Montview program. "In some of the families, the student might be the only one who speaks English," he says. "There may not be books at home, not much reading at home at an early age. By the third grade, it becomes a psychological problem. They don't want to admit they can't read. They try to hide it."
But Bryant also sees regular, persistent effort paying off. "We've seen some great differences in the ones that have been here a couple of years," he says. "The principal tells us they see something else in the students other than their reading ability. You can spot them in the halls. They have a greater sense of confidence."
Although paras and volunteers can help, Garvin says he's frustrated that the state and the school district aren't doing more to support schools like Ashley, rather than shoveling money into accountability programs. "Why are we spending all this time and money on testing when what we need are more teachers?" he asks. "There are bad teachers, sure, but I've never yet met a teacher that I thought was lazy. This stuff about them not working hard enough boggles my mind."
Like most teachers, John D'Orazio is wary of the notion that more tests and evaluations can magically raise performance in public schools. It's no secret that much of the school year is now devoted to preparing for the major testing periods, including the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Colorado Student Assessment Program. Teachers are expected to weave material related to the tests into the curriculum, drill their classes on test-taking strategies, hammer away at the importance of the tests.
"I'm really pleased with the direction the school is going in," D'Orazio says. "But we need time to do what we're doing. We don't need people breathing down our necks and giving our school a report card. The more testing we have to do and the more pressure outside the school that's put on us, the less teaching's going to get done."
At 37, D'Orazio is in his second year of teaching. He took a $20,000 pay cut from his job running group homes for head-injured adults to pursue his dream of teaching children. He and his wife, who is also a DPS teacher, have two small children of their own who will be going to college some day. When that day comes, whether D'Orazio or his wife will still be teaching in a public school is an open question.
"I'm not feeling terrible about it now," D'Orazio says, "but older teachers tell me that what wears them down is the feeling of being underpaid. When you're told that you're doing a terrible job and you're underpaid, at some point you ask, 'Why am I doing this?'"
Two in the afternoon. Show and tell in Room 205.
Fall has given way to winter, the string of autumn leaves replaced by a string of paper snowflakes. In front of the wide-eyed class, Mrs. Tracey unpacks a large box on loan from the Colorado History Museum. It's filled with photographs and artifacts she uses to stimulate discussion of how people lived in the state fifty or a hundred years ago, before television and Pokémon.
She holds up a calcium carbide lamp used by miners in the days of Horace and Baby Doe Tabor. "Who knows what a miner is?" she asks.
Anthony raises his hand. "Someone who digs for gold," he says.
Mrs. Tracey asks the students to name other things that miners dig for. Nobody mentions coal, so she does. "What is coal? Nobody knows? Okay, I'll tell you."
The arrival of a new box from the museum is an occasion of great wonder and joy in Room 205. The photos and everything else -- tools of the Plains Indians, pioneers' snuffboxes, miners' kitchen utensils and their children's toys -- are displayed on the wall, where the children can study them, touch them, try to imagine a time that seems terribly exotic and remote.
Among the offerings are some insights into the history of public education in Colorado. A list of rules for teachers, circa 1872: "Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys, and...bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day's session." There are also some personal mementos from Mrs. Tracey's family: A third-grade report card belonging to her grandmother, 1915-16; her grandfather's eighth-grade diploma, awarded in long-vanished Phillips County, Colorado, 1918; pictures of her great-grandparents, who moved to Colorado from a ranch in Nebraska, driving an early jalopy. She has been known to bring in her mother to model a family heirloom, a genuine buffalo robe, so that the children can feel its warmth and thickness.
The history lessons allow students to compare their world to a much larger one. It's also an opportunity for Mrs. Tracey to present some messages about values. One of the objects in today's box is a silver shot glass, which leads into a discussion of saloons, a word nobody knows. But almost everyone nods vigorously when Mrs. Tracey uses the word bar. She tells them about lonely miners going into town and getting drunk and losing their money to cardsharps. The story turns into a treatise on money management and temperance. Money should go into savings accounts before it's wasted, Mrs. Tracey says, and people who feel sad should "go find someone and talk to them" rather than trying to drown their sorrows in alcohol.
She shows them a picture of children working in a coal mine. "Do you think you're better off than these kids?" she asks. "Would you rather be reading or digging?"
Several voices roar at once: "Reading!"
"Digging!" shouts one smart aleck.
Mrs. Tracey finishes unpacking the box and reads the class a story about a young girl in a mining town. This is followed by reading and writing assignments. Soon, she says, they will be making puppets, and she will be teaching the class how to sew. The announcement provokes some titters, but she silences them with a wave of her hand. "This is something that artists do," she explains.
History lessons and art projects may not have much to do with standardized test scores, but Mrs. Tracey believes they're essential. "We're supposed to be spending all our time on reading, writing and math," she says. "The system tells me these are the important things. But I don't really agree. I think social studies and art are important, too."
So are values, she adds. "I've had kids in my class who were coming from homes where there were drugs being used right in front of them. If they trust me and hear another perspective from me, it's like planting a seed that could grow, something that could show them there might be another way. If they fall in love with me the way I fell in love with my teachers, it could make a huge difference.
"I'm giving these kids a lot more than how to read and write," she continues. "How do you make good choices? How do you take responsibility for what you're doing? If they don't have these values, the reading and writing are hindered. If they feel like they're capable, then they do learn and excel."
Reading scores, she says, tell her "absolutely nothing" about the most critical question of all: What motivates children to learn? "These are kids," she explains. "They need things to touch and feel, experiential stuff. Then they want to read. You can't just sit them down in front of a book. That's not how I learned."
The teachers Mrs. Tracey remembers most fondly taught music, art and social studies and made her learn how to do research and write many papers. The best ones were "very strict and had incredibly high expectations." She wants to be the same way, even though the district seems to care only about what can be demonstrated on tests.
So she assigns homework four days a week, a wave of paper that comes back to swamp her every morning. She has parents sign contracts, agreeing that they will see that their children read at home for at least twenty minutes each night. She pushes her students to write "third-grade sentences" that have more than one clause, sentences bristling with adjectives and cause and effect. She requires multiple drafts of major writing assignments, a refining process that winnows out bad grammar, misspellings and leaps of logic. She warns slackers to beef up on their vocabulary, telling them, "You guys are supposed to be getting ready for fourth grade."
The children in Room 205 who have been to other schools say they like Ashley better. Their reasons aren't always clear, but perhaps it's because of all this intensive effort expended on them. Nine-year-old Boubacar, who was born in Senegal and went to public school in New York City, knows what kind of teacher he prefers.
"They wouldn't give me homework in New York," he says. "I just sat down and watched them and didn't do anything. This is more fun."
But tending to the mechanics of reading and writing is not enough for Mrs. Tracey. There is more, much more, she says, that her students need to learn.
"These kids are so limited in what they know, what they've been exposed to," she says. "They don't know what coal is. They watch Jerry Springer. That's their frame of reference."
Half past nine in Room 205. On most days, class starts promptly at ten minutes after, but on this particular Friday morning the room is empty. So are most of the other classrooms at Ashley.
The girls are in the auditorium, getting some common-sense tips about protecting themselves -- what Lydia calls "stranger awareness." The boys are in the gym, learning about sportsmanship. The teachers are in a planning meeting.
"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."
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).
Many of the kids in Room 205 have never been to the mountains or even outside the city, but they're game. Several say they're going for sure and so are their mothers, even if there are still some details to work out.
"I have slept over at my cousin's, but not out of town," says eight-year-old Monique. "I just want to know how I'm going to change. Is there a big girl's bathroom?"
Whenever she talks about the trip to her class, Mrs. Tracey is careful not to promise too much. There's a chance it won't happen, she says. That's the thing about goals. You set them, but you don't always achieve them.
But Wanda Lydia has told her that failure is not an option, that the resources for a 360-mile overnight field trip will somehow be found. And every day, Gayla Tracey believes a little more in the trip. It will be her final gift to her class, her statement that hard work and a desire to achieve can take you to new places, offer a glimpse of an outsized horizon.
"We can do this," she says. "We will do this."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.