Emphasizing ABCs at LBJ

Education Beat

Reading: In the hometown of the `original education president,' old and new teaching methods work.


JOHNSON CITY, Texas -- The county is Blanco, and it's about the only thing hereabout that's not named for Lyndon Baines Johnson or his family.

The local public school, naturally, is LBJ Elementary. It's where the 36th president went to grade school, though he learned to read at age 4 in a one-room school 14 miles and a million flowering bluebonnets west of here.

It was in that school, now restored, that Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The "original education president," the National Park Service guide tells a group of us on tour, signed 50 major pieces of school legislation and believed "the only valid passport from poverty is an education."

It seemed appropriate to visit Johnson's beloved Hill Country exactly 34 years after he signed the ESEA on April 11, 1965. Congress is struggling with reauthorization of Title I, the cornerstone of the Great Society program. Though Title I has funneled $120 billion into low-income schools, conservatives maintain it has done little or nothing to improve the relative achievement of poor students.

LBJ Elementary isn't a Title I school, though about a third of its pupils are eligible for free lunches (another program bearing the LBJ brand). Nor is the school on the National Park tour, though maybe it should be. The marquee out front proclaims LBJ an "exemplary school" in Texas' statewide testing program.

This means LBJ pupils scored 90 percent or better in all of the tests of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). Ninety-six percent of Lyndon Johnson's spiritual descendants here passed the TAAS reading test in 1998, and 94 percent of the school's low-income youngsters aced the reading test.

In a classroom not far from where she learned to read, first-grade teacher Corrie Craig attributes her school's success to a combination of old-fashioned and newfangled instruction. Craig, 57, isn't stuck on phonics. She has her pupils reading stories as soon as they are able, and she sings the praises of "whole language," or literature-based teaching.

"Children these days are lucky to have a much richer collection of literature than we did," says Craig, who grew up with Dick and Jane.

On the other hand, Craig uses an old Laidlaw "basal reader" that's full of phonics. The text was published in 1966, while LBJ was president. "It's still perfectly usable," says Craig, who's been teaching first grade for 15 years.

Teachers at LBJ Elementary devote plenty of time to reading. Craig covers the language arts from 8: 30 to 10: 15 daily, then tacks on 15 minutes of phonics for good measure.

LBJ's cousin, Ava Cox, taught Craig to read in the first grade. Johnson, a classmate of Craig's dad, spoke at her high school graduation in 1960. Lady Bird Johnson, 86, spends a third of the year on the LBJ Ranch. She visited Craig's mother in a nursing home over Easter.

"She'll always be a part of this town and close to our hearts," Craig says of the former first lady.

I don't know if it's a Texas affectation, but Craig and her principal, Emma Jean Becker, both refer to their pupils as "kiddos."

Of Gov. George W. Bush's "Texas Reading Initiative," Becker observes, "It gives us great credibility to have our kiddos reading by the third grade. That's what we're pledged to do, and that's what we intend to do."

If there is a secret formula to LBJ Elementary's success -- something in the Hill Country water, perhaps? -- Becker isn't revealing it.

"We read, and we read, and we read, and we read some more," she says.

"And it worked."

Pub Date: 5/02/99

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