Built on the basics, Wesley now striving for more

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Wesley Elementary, a large school in a poverty-stricken section of Houston, Tex., had been using Direct Instruction to teach reading since the early 1970s, with success from the start. But it was not until 1991, when scandal struck, that Wesley became a star.

Over the years, Wesley regularly outscored some schools in wealthier Houston neighborhoods, leading some skeptics to suspect cheating. At one point, the central administration called a teacher downtown for a grilling but found nothing amiss.

The tension increased in 1991, however, when the district mandated a literature-based, whole language approach, and Wesley Principal Thaddeus Lott refused to abandon phonics-based DI. Soon, two officials from central office showed up to search a Wesley classroom for evidence of cheating. Again, they came up empty-handed. But this time, Wesley’s community rose up in arms, charging racism. The superintendent apologized publicly. And, in a fateful turn of events, ABC-TV’s “Prime Time” picked up on the story.

Overnight, Wesley became a Mecca for back-to-basics advocates across the country. From Chicago, increasing numbers of curious school district officials, principals and teachers are heading south in search of inspiration and guidance.

Wesley’s population mirrors that of many Chicago schools: 1,150 pupils in kindergarten through 5th grade, 99 percent minority, 79 percent low income. Almost 80 percent live in the surrounding crime-infested neighborhood—where dingy frame houses rest atop cement blocks—or in a nearby housing project.

While Wesley’s teachers name DI as the central reason for their success, DI is only part of the story.

“Some people think ‘Wesley, it’s just drill and kill, drill and kill,'” complains 3rd-grade teacher Susie Fisher.

“People think we’re just Direct Instruction, we’re just worksheets,” seconds 5th-grade teacher Glenda Larson. “That’s the biggest misconception that people have about us.”

When DI reading lessons are through, students delve into literature from trade books or basal readers. Their DI arithmetic problems mastered, kindergartners arrange blocks in sunburst patterns on the floor of Wesley’s new math lab. And as a reward for good behavior, 1st-graders in Julie Bennett’s classroom get to meet her Boston terrier. Then, they estimate his length and build cardboard doghouses to scale.

While “hands-on” math is new at Wesley, literature has supplemented the DI program for quite awhile. Now everyone trumpets this balanced approach as the best way to teach reading, notes Lott. “Well, hell, I knew that 10 years ago.”

Today, Wesley is striving for a more balanced approach in all areas of the curriculum, according to Lott, now superintendent of the subdistrict that includes Wesley, and his successor, Principal Suzie Rimes. This change is being fueled by more money, better teachers and new ideas, they say.

In 1994, the Houston school district awarded Wesley magnet school status, which brought funding to staff math and science labs, now stationed in trailers behind the main building.

Children in 2nd through 5th grades visit the science lab several times a week, and lab staff help kindergarten and 1st-grade teachers plan science units in their classrooms.

“Open your textbook to page 32 and look at the plant,” is how Rimes describes science in days gone by.

In contrast, small groups of 3rd-graders last year researched types of wetlands found in different regions of the United States, presented their research to the class and illustrated their collective findings in a mural. Second-graders worked in teams to build propellers out of drinking straws and explain what makes them spin.

A math lab, serving children in kindergarten through 2nd grade, also emphasizes “hands-on” learning. For example, students count money to add and subtract, or fill in a shape with wooden tiles to grasp the concept of area.

The math lab is intended to supplement other programs—including DI Arithmetic in preschool through 1st grade—that stress computation and drill. Drills are good for quick recall of number facts, Rimes explains, but students need “hands-on” activities to understand what the computations really mean. Now upper-level teachers are being trained to use math “manipulatives,” too.

Writing will get similar treatment at Wesley. Soon every student will keep a daily journal, and all will get lessons in creative and expository writing. To prepare, teachers are sharpening their own writing skills in after-school workshops. “If teachers can’t write, they can’t teach writing,” Rimes notes.

What took Wesley so long to get beyond the basics? Rimes says the faculty and administration didn’t want to try something new if they couldn’t do it well.

For one, the school lacked money to buy materials for hands-on math and science. New funds from central office took care of that. Two, they lacked time for planning new endeavors. Until recently, most staff development time and energy were spent teaching staff the basics: How to teach a DI lesson, keep up with the paperwork, manage the classroom. Now that the school is “running like a well-oiled machine,” says Rimes, there’s time for innovation. Three, and most important of all, “We haven’t had a staff capable of doing all these [creative] things,” says Rimes. “It has taken 20 years to build a team like this.”

On a Wednesday afternoon in March, a faculty training session—the first of its kind at Wesley—is underway in the school cafeteria. Teachers from each grade level have set up stations to share creative ideas for teaching math and reading.

At one end of the room, a group gathers around an overhead projector, where lead teacher Evelyn Blanton demonstrates how to solve a long-division problem using a handful of wooden cubes. “You can teach kindergartners to divide,” she says, gesturing excitedly with her marker.

Around a lunch table, 1st-grade and kindergarten teachers trade ideas for spelling games. One has taught her class to practice DI spelling words using the sign language alphabet.

Back in a corner, teacher Doris Evans plays a tape with a song she uses to teach her kindergartners their multiplication tables. “We get a little beat going. They enjoy that,” she says to a group of 3rd-grade teachers who begin to clap and sway like a gospel choir.

“We need a preacher for you people,” Evans quips.

Wesley teachers often comment on how well they get along with each other—gossip and petty rivalries are not “the Wesley way.”

“Everybody’s too busy to worry about things that just don’t matter,” observes librarian Laura Palmer. She adds, “That’s probably part of the master plan.”

Frequent firings

Hard work is certainly the foundation. Teachers unwilling to toe the line are quickly dismissed—on average, six teachers a year. “Sometimes we can get them out in a few weeks,” says Rimes. “I bet we changed kindergarten five times.”

Not surprisingly, many teachers bail out first.

The seven-hour school day begins with drills at 8 a.m. and proceeds at a rapid pace until 3 p.m. DI reading lessons follow an emphatic rhythm of call and response. With no time to stray, students rarely miss a beat. And one subject leads to another without pause.

Teachers are required to grade students in five subjects every day—reading, language, math, spelling and handwriting—and twice a week in science and social studies. Every scrap of student work must be marked and returned the following day, the idea being that children learn faster when they don’t repeat mistakes.

Teachers grade papers in the cafeteria at lunch time, continue through a prep period and finish up in the evening. Some put in 12-hour days; many show up on weekends.

“They work their buns off,” Lott says with gusto.

The Wesley workload is renowned and much commented upon throughout the Houston district. Elva Bryant, a computer teacher, recalls a few remarks: “How can you stay there? How long have you been there? How can you stand it?”

It’s student progress that keeps them going, the teachers say. For example, 3rd-grade teacher Susie Fisher took transfer students who were at the kindergarten level and brought them up to 3rd-grade level in a year. “It’s rewarding for you,” she says. “You can pat yourself on the back.”

Teachers do not carve out success on their own. Before the school year begins, new teachers receive two days of DI training. During their first week, the principal and assistant principal pop in daily to offer support and advice. Each grade level has a chairman who gets two extra planning periods each week to assist new teachers in their classrooms. And any teacher may request time to observe in other classrooms.

Rimes herself hits every classroom twice a day, sometimes to evaluate but often to remedy small problems: a troublesome student, an empty paper-towel dispenser, a broken pencil sharpener. “It’s the simple things that will drive a teacher crazy.”

Wesley’s students get extra support, too.

Teachers often take on the role of substitute parent. “More than half my class’s parents are in jail,” says kindergarten teacher Mary Abeysayed. “With those kids, it’s not just teaching them to read and write; you nourish them, you mother them, you baby them, you love them.” For one, she scavenges garage sales for stuffed animals to give away.

Also, on Lott’s orders, a janitor buffs the hallway tiles until they shine. Children, especially those in poverty, deserve a school that has “everything that a home should have:” shrubbery, flowers, cleanliness, he explains. “It does a lot for their self-esteem to come to a beautiful school. “

Children with the most serious difficulties get counseling and other support from Communities in Schools, a social service agency on campus.

Academics the focus

Academic progress, however, is the focus of the school’s attention.

At the beginning of each school year, students are grouped by ability level into classes of 25 and then grouped again within classrooms for intensive instruction in reading and language. Children showing progress may switch groups or classrooms.

Wesley singles out few children for special education, rarely more than two a year. Rather, children who might qualify are placed in regular classrooms and get up to three hours of additional tutoring in a resource room each day.

Accelerated classrooms have the most time for work outside of DI. A 4th-grade class that has completed the program altogether reads Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The top 1st-grade class spends roughly half their classroom time on DI while a low 1st-grade class might spend all but half an hour.

Teachers with low-level students don’t expect them to stay there, however. First-grade teacher Janette Mills, for instance, pitted her lower students against a top class for a spelling competition, selecting words like “obsolete” and “demolish.” All but 3 of her 26 students placed in average or top classes for the current year.

Rimes, in fact, is convinced that all students at Wesley can reach the accelerated level, if only they are taught early and well.

Direct Instruction begins in preschool. In a trailer behind the main building, 42 preschoolers sit in rows of desks for 2½ hours each school day. They go through DI language and math lessons and do other seat work, like tracing letters. Some language worksheets have pictures to color. When children draw outside the lines, a teacher marks the paper “messy.”

Even in preschool, every task must be “done to perfection,” says Rimes, because that work sets the standards for “all of the work that they are going to turn in for the rest of their lives.”

Such exacting standards seem to come out of both a belief in student potential and perhaps a respect for the challenges the children will face. Hearing Wesley’s strict structure criticized, Lott has been known to retort that if children don’t sit still and learn to read now, they’ll have plenty of time to learn later on—in the penitentiary.

Lott grew up just down the road and attended Wesley as a boy.

“This is his neighborhood,” says Rimes. “These are his kids.”

Perhaps this connection, more than anything, fires his determination to see every child succeed regardless of parentage or poverty or other circumstances.

“You’re working with human beings who are capable of doing the impossible, depending upon the kind of teacher they have,” Lott insists. “Whether or not a person really believes in you— therein lies the difference.”