El Paso schools join forces to raise scores

Collaboration targets teacher training

February 18, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

EL PASO, Texas -- When educators in this border city hear that poor kids can't learn, they reply, "All we have are poor kids, and look at us now."

They have a point. Schools in the nation's fifth-poorest congressional district, where two-thirds of students live in poverty and half enter school with limited or no English, are on a seven-year roll.

El Paso's reading and mathematics scores for grades three through eight on state tests have been steadily rising until they are now in the middle among Texas schools, while the historic gap between minority and white achievement has narrowed considerably.

"It's more than something in the water out there," says Robin Gilchrist, the Texas reading director from her office in Austin. "It's a community coming together, and it's a lot of hard work."

Whether El Paso's success is transferable to a city such as Baltimore -- with similar poverty and low performance -- is a matter of conjecture. But Gilchrist and others say lessons can be learned from the schools in this West Texas border town.

No single reform, no single new philosophy, explains El Paso's success.

Instead, the city's three major school districts have spent millions of dollars training teachers. The city's only education school, the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP), has become a national leader in bilingual education -- a necessity in a district where Spanish is the first language of most children.

At Helen Ball, a year-round elementary school in northeast El Paso, 6-year-old Aaron Escajeda huddles with three fellow first-graders over an essay he's just written. Aaron is in a "writer's workshop," in which pupils help each other in small groups as they learn to write and read.

"The writer's workshops are as much about reading as they are about writing," says Patricia L. Swaney, one of a squad of "literacy leaders" -- seasoned teachers freed from regular classroom duties to help less experienced teachers with reading instruction. Similar mentors work in El Paso math and science classrooms.

The collaborative

Swaney attributes much of the city's success to the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, a partnership that includes UTEP, El Paso Community College, the city's three largest districts and local business and civic leaders.

The collaborative was formed in 1992 by 11 key leaders -- including the mayor and UTEP president. The group concentrated at first on math and science, adding heavy emphasis on reading in recent years.

The collaborative's first order of business was to form "leadership teams" that went into failing schools and pounded home the message that "all children can learn," says Alicia Parra, deputy director. M. Susana Navarro, the group's director, says another early mission was to improve teacher education and make teacher preparation a priority at the university.

In part to keep UTEP-trained teachers at home, the collaborative opens El Paso public schools to UTEP teachers in training, as many as 400 each semester.

"It's a hard job convincing university faculty that teaching is the Lord's work," says Arturo Pacheco, dean of the UTEP education school. "You have to convince them one by one, and you have to be in it for the long haul."

Though the collaborative works intensively in about 80 schools in the city's three biggest districts -- El Paso, Socorro and Ysleta -- its programs and enthusiasm spill over into schools not part of the program, local educators say. (There are six other small districts in the El Paso area. Each district is independent.)

Rick Luna, principal at one of those schools, Alta Vista Elementary near downtown El Paso, remembers the day in 1993 that he heard his school was at the bottom in a ranking of city scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). Today, Alta Vista, living up to its name in Spanish ("high view"), is near the top -- though it remains mired in poverty.

Many of Alta Vista's strategies are borrowed from the collaborative. The school focuses on reading and mathematics, the subjects tested by TAAS. It offers extensive after-school and summer programs. A tutoring program gives 30 minutes of individual attention each day to struggling first-graders. Teachers train year-round -- even on Sundays.

There's also a parent center, offering everything from computer training to classes in stress management -- and, as an unstated but deliberate side goal, teaching English to the adults so they can help their children at home.

"It's been like a reorganization of a state of mind," says Teresa Chavez, who teaches second-grade reading in Spanish and English.

Across town at Alicia R. Chacon International School, fifth-grader Stephen Clarke reads aloud -- and confidently -- in his second language, Spanish. Stephen's mother is Mexican. Having learned two languages in a "two-way immersion" program, he's studying Chinese and says he's becoming conversationally proficient.

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