Helping Kids Make It in a Benchmark Year

With winter vacation looming, teachers are scoring their first-semester progress. In Part 2 of a year-long series, the Monitor looks in on two urban educators to see how they have fared in motivating students and reaching goals.

Behold the class of 2006.

Your average bunch of eight-year-olds. Mischievous. Giggly. Utterly restless. But they bring to the third grade a lifetime of challenges.

One was born addicted to heroin. A few have been diagnosed with serious learning disabilities. Another lost a father to suicide.

At John Jacob Astor Elementary School in Portland, Ore., teacher Susan Pulford has learned to work with what she has. But in her 26th year at the school, she is dealing with perhaps her neediest class. "I don't think I've ever felt more like a mom," she says.

Like a mother, she prods them to do their best. But unlike a parent, she is paid for and judged by how well she does her job.

Ms. Pulford has spent the first three months of the school year assessing her students' abilities. It is perhaps her most important task; the third grade is a benchmark year that will set the tone for her students' academic careers.

Some of these children could barely read when they came to her. Yet by February, when the first round of state tests begins, they must be able to distinguish between expository and persuasive sentences, and write examples.

So large a task, so little time

"It's a lot," Pulford says. "I always feel rushed. I feel like I'm under a lot of pressure."

Astor sits in a middle- to lower-middle-class north Portland neighborhood. Almost half of its students use the federal lunch program. But their test scores compare favorably to elementary schools in more affluent areas of town. Last year's third-graders tested higher in math and reading than the state averages.

While no teaching formula fits all students, the goals are the same: Give them a safe environment in which to learn, and try to make education fun. But apart from being a place to learn, schools such as Astor have become a sanctuary for some kids. "You're protecting them," Pulford says, "from a big terrible world out there."

The responsibility means Pulford takes her days home with her.

"I wake up in the morning thinking about them," she says. "Someone asked me if I had another life. I really do have another life. But I think about them all the time."

She knows she has so little time with them. Just nine months. Five-and-a-half hours a day. So little time to make an impact.

Reaching every child

One of Pulford's students, James, dresses his two younger brothers every morning and makes sure they catch the public bus to school. Often he is late. But always he comes.

"He's a responsible adult," she says, "and he's only eight years old." Teachers at the school suspect his mother is a prostitute.

When James came to school last year he could barely read. Now, he is one of Pulford's best students. He has the intensity of a Wall Street trader.

"He's a joy to teach," she says. "He's so interested in everything."

James is not his real name. School officials have asked that it not be used to protect his identity.

Once, his mother kept him out for a couple of days because his older brother had been suspended from school. James was furious.

When he returned, he wanted all his assignments. At recess that day, he demanded to be taught everything he had missed, Pulford recalls.

James qualifies for the free-breakfast program. But often he doesn't make it to school in time to eat. So Pulford gives him the breakfast she brings for herself. When the class went on a field trip, James didn't have a bag to carry his belongings. Pulford bought him a backpack with her own money.

James was so grateful, she says. He carries it to school each day, loaded with his books and those of his younger brother.

When it came time for teacher conferences, it looked as if James's mother wasn't going to come. But a school secretary tried another approach. She called his mom to tell her what a wonderful job he was doing and asked if she didn't want to witness his great work.

Pulford smiles as she remembers James proudly showing his mother his drawings and other assignments. "It was probably the first time they sat down together like that and talked," she says.

Pulford says she cries often. Sometimes over her students' accomplishments. Sometimes because she can't do enough to protect them.

"Some days I just sit there shaking my head and I say I don't know how they are going to make it," she says. "Look at how hard their life is now."

Cranberry math

On a recent Wednesday, just before school let out for Thanksgiving, Pulford's students worked in groups to measure and weigh cranberries.

"They didn't know they were doing math," she says.

Students absorb information better, she has found, when she weaves lessons together. When the class studied the sinking of the Titanic, they learned that many of the passengers were immigrants. That led to lessons on immigration and the Pilgrims.

If there is a film that relates to her lesson, she gets it. If a student has a special interest in a subject, she'll buy him a book on it. Whatever it takes.

Pulford's up-close, low-pressure teaching style - she rarely sits at her desk - makes learning fun for her students. But the veteran teacher must also adhere to a strict schedule to prepare them for tests - reading, writing, math, and literature.

It is expected that students will answer half of the questions wrong on some of the tests. And it's painful for Pulford to watch them struggling with their answers, fidgeting in their seats. Some become so frustrated they make up anything and turn their tests in 20 minutes after they have started.

"I don't understand why they have to miss so many for the test coordinator to get an idea of what they know," she says. "I don't understand why it has to be so hard."

There has to be a better way, she says. Four of her students cannot work independently. One has been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and can't read. Another student can't write coherent sentences. One little girl is just a few IQ points away from qualifying for special education.

Before budget cuts, Pulford used to have several part-time teacher's aides who worked one-on-one with learning-disabled students. Now she must find ways on her own to bring the lesson home to those children as she teaches the rest of the class.

"I put a lot of thought into each child and what their potential is and what we can do to get them there," she says.

Kids seem drawn to her. On the playground, former students cling to her. At least once a day, one child or another tries to braid her long, blond hair. She always seems at ease. It's as if she remembers what it's like to be eight years old.

She disarms them with laughter. She can turn a crisis into a light moment. One day recently, a student diagnosed with cerebral palsy came to her, crying. A school administrator had scolded her for scraping her coat against a wall and she was very distressed.

Pulford took her in her lap and wrapped her arms around her. The girl looked away. She knew what was coming. "Let me look at you," her teacher teased. "I want to see you cry."

The girl struggled not to smile, but gave in.

Last year, the child cried often. This year, she's wept twice. Maybe she's a little older. Maybe she feels a little more secure. But for Pulford, it's a small victory, one of dozens each week that sustain her.

"I hope I make each child feel like they're worth something,that they have something to offer the world," she says.

Part 1 in this series ran Sept. 9.

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