'No excuses' is the motto at this urban Texas star

WHAT'S A STANDARD? As of December 1998, 40 states had standards in the core subjects of math, science, English/language arts, and social studies/history. The goal is to define the knowledge and skills students should master by the end of each year. Increasingly, state tests are aligned to these standards and students must pass them to graduate. Many state guidelines have been criticized as too vague, prompting reform efforts to spell out goals more clearly.

If you want to know why a school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Houston is outperforming suburban schools with more resources, keep an eye on the center line between the linoleum floor tiles.

The kids do. That's what they use to keep the lines so straight, as they walk through the halls. How to walk in a line (arms folded, no talking, eyes ahead) is one of the first skills taught at the Mabel B. Wesley Elementary School.

Wesley Elementary was one of the standouts when Texas started measuring its schools. A high-scoring, high-poverty school with rigorous expectations of kids, it's becoming a beacon for activists around the United States who are convinced that poor students can meet higher standards. And they're taking stories of their visits home and challenging their school districts to replicate Wesley's success.

"You can see the difference when you go out there. The success they're getting is hard to argue with," says P. Michael Wells, a Houston banker and chairman of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which is financing a $4.4 million pilot project to bring Wesley methods to 10 Houston schools.

Wesley ranked No. 12 out of 182 Houston schools tested for first-grade reading in the most recent Stanford achievement tests, a leading national indicator. Other high-ranking schools had much more affluent students and experienced teachers.

At Wesley, getting the details right counts. Janitors polish the floors every day, twice when it rains. Teachers correct student notebooks every day - even to the point of red-penciling over lapses in penmanship. Students are taught the rules of how to behave as assiduously as they are taught the rules of phonics.

"We spend a full two weeks on very careful direction on how to walk into a room, pull a chair out, sit down," says the current principal, Wilma Rimes.

Early critics said that replicating Wesley would be tough, because you can't clone Thaddeus Lott, the larger-than-life former principal who came to Wesley in 1975, or the meticulous school culture he created. Dr. Lott still looms large at Wesley, even after the Houston Independent School District bumped him up to oversee three additional schools. But Ms. Rimes insists that what's important is his method, not his personality.

"We teach. That's it. We have a program guaranteed to work with children. If you open the book and present the lessons, the children learn," she says.

Lott pioneered the no-excuses motto even before it became a mantra for accountability movements nationwide: If a student isn't learning, don't blame the student, the parent, or the neighborhood; make sure the teaching fits the need. Diagnose problems early, group students according to their current achievement, and reevaluate often.

"New teachers are trained and mentored; and all teachers are closely monitored and held accountable for the progress of their students. We expect teachers to know the range in their classroom down to the lowest-performing students," says Rimes.

Wesley Elementary is located in Acres Homes, one of the oldest black neighborhoods in Houston and the first area within city limits where African-Americans could buy property . In the 1940s, when Lott attended schools here, the only books were hand-me-downs from the white schools. When he came to Wesley as principal, there were no phonics books.

"The teacher put a picture on the board, and kids talked about it and made up sentences. But kids couldn't read," says Lott. "It was criminal, what happened to these kids."

He researched alternative reading programs and settled on the DISTAR program, now known as Reading Mastery. The method involves direct instruction, or tightly scripted lessons that teach kids how to attack (sound out) words. This approach was out of favor in the schools of education and in the district, so Lott had to use federal funds and raise his own money to pay for books and kits. Soon, kindergarten kids who had never seen a book were reading first- or second-grade texts.

Kindergarten is still where the Wesley difference is most pronounced. Teachers fire off questions, directions, and lots of them. Students answer in complete sentences. A typical reading lesson sounds like a pep rally on fast forward. "We can't afford to fool around in kindergarten. We have to make up for the 4,000 hours that they have not been read to at home," says Rimes. "The older they are, the harder it is for them to go on and have the confidence to try."

It's a regime that demands a lot of teachers, who manage formidable amounts of paperwork to document student progress. Lead teachers also go over student work, help flag kids who are falling behind, and step in to teach if a class falls too far behind expected gains.

But turnover is high. There are 20 new teachers this year, out of 49. Some leave because the paperwork is crushing; others bristle at the philosophy, which allows little scope to break away from the text. Those who stay are fiercely loyal.

"Parents never ask whether we're stifling creativity. They just want their kids to learn to read," responds Rimes. "Reading is a science. We know how to teach it. Teachers don't have the right to be creative with children who can't read."

The claim that direct-instruction methods stifle creativity has been one of the main obstacles to adopting the Wesley model more widely. But principals looking for ways to break into an exemplary rating in the Texas system are beginning to take the approach seriously.

Wilma Wilson-Harmon says that she asked to visit Wesley soon after she took over Foerster Elementary School, a low-performer in Houston. She took busloads of parents to visit the school and arranged for her teachers to spend three days observing classes.

Teachers opted to try out the Wesley model because they saw some kids perform at much higher levels than they thought possible, she says.

Their experiment is financed by the Rodeo Institute for Teacher Excellence (RITE), an offshoot of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which uses profits from the rodeo to fund reform. "We're not trying to clone Wesley," says rodeo chairman Wells. "[Schools are] signing on to adapt a successful reading program, not to adopt Wesley's personality."

The lines in Foerster, for example, aren't quite as straight or quiet. Ms. Wilson-Harmon says she no longer requires teachers to correct workbooks daily. "That wears teachers out."

Former Wesley teacher Dianne Morris is advising the RITE project. "None of us realized how difficult it was going to be to get the teachers to grade the workbooks," she says. Another former Wesley teacher consults in the school four days a week to help teachers improve.

Despite these challenges, preliminary results for kindergartners in all RITE schools are dramatic, according to a report to be released this month. Virtually all the children in the RITE and comparison schools began the year unable to read words. By the end of the year, children in the RITE schools were able to read three times more words than the children in the other programs.

Church and community groups in Louisville, Ky., and Jacksonville, Fla., cite Wesley as the inspiration for their efforts to improve teaching for poor and minority students. Curiously, the leader who may have the toughest time replicating Wesley's success is Lott. He is struggling to boost poor performance at the M.C. Williams Middle School, where 79 percent of fifth-graders weren't reading at grade level at the beginning of the sixth grade. Lott pores over the latest reports on low-performing classes in his office, which state that about one-third of students in some classes still can't sound out a new word.

But he dismisses as nonsense claims that Wesley students lose it when they get into junior high school. He points to the fact that most of his charges at Williams were not trained at Wesley.

He insists that his biggest problem has been the lack of qualified teachers. "I don't mean certified," he adds. "I mean teachers who really care and are able to teach with economy."

*Send e-mail to chaddockg@csps.com

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