- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2000

This is the final of a three part special report.

PORTLAND, Ark. Finding Portland Elementary School takes a bit of doing, as they say in this part of the country, but Principal Ernest Smith is getting used to giving directions.
All sorts of folks, including the governor, have come calling. They're eager to discover just what makes this rural school in the heart of Arkansas' Delta region one of the state's educational gems.
Drive east then south out of Little Rock, the big city, for about 2 and 1/2 hours. When you come to Lake Village, take a right at the town's only stoplight, Mr. Smith instructs. Continue 12 miles through the sprawling cotton fields and shimmering catfish ponds near Bayou Bartholomew.
Turn at the railroad tracks and drive straight. Pass the John Deere store, and you'll see the sign. The school is on the left.
"If you have any trouble, now, just call," urges the energetic Mr. Smith, a sharecropper's son and veteran educator who embraces Southern hospitality like a code of honor.
At 65, he has been a teacher and principal for 43 years. But the last five, he confides, have been the most rewarding.
The reason: His school in this town of 600 residents has rebounded, even though 77 percent of his 150 students are from low-income homes.
Half of them used to score two or more years below grade level on national tests. Now, under Mr. Smith's guidance and a demanding new curriculum, the school is setting benchmarks for academic success.
"We believe that if the learner has not learned, the teacher has not taught," the principal says.
The results are drawing news reporters from around the country and educators from six states. They come to see for themselves how tiny Portland Elementary is doing what many other schools can't: Making sure poor children excel.
Mr. Smith's "willingness to eschew politically fashionable but academically weak programs in favor of practices that get fast, measurable results is being emulated across America," wrote one reader to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican who visited Portland Elementary and successful sister school Wilmot Elementary in January, publicly touts Mr. Smith, calling him a hero and naming him Arkansas' Resident of the Week, or "Starkansan." The governor also regularly compliments the school's staff and students.
"Over 50 percent of its top-performing students are African-American and now even private school students are asking Mr. Smith to let them come to Portland," Mr. Huckabee said in a speech before the Republican Governors Association in November. "Why? Because he as a principal has insisted that poverty is no excuse for failure and skin color is no cause for underachievement."
Hearing that assessment makes Mr. Smith shake his head in amazement.
"We're so proud of our youngsters," he says, deflecting the accolades.
This series examines how Portland Elementary and two other public schools an academy for seventh- to 12th-graders in Harlem, N.Y., and a charter school in tiny Durham, N.C. succeed in encouraging children to excel despite their poverty.
The Washington-based Heritage Foundation spotlighted the three schools as among the best in the country as part of the conservative think tank's "No Excuses" campaign advocating higher standards in public education.

'All children can learn'

Central to the turnaround at Portland Elementary was its adoption of Direct Instruction, called "Distar" when introduced in the 1960s.
Aggressive, in-your-face and demanding for both teachers and students, DI as Portland officials refer to it is an intensely scripted and regimented teaching method with a strong track record of accelerating learning.
Children are grouped by skill level and tested every seven or eight days in reading, language, math and science until they master each subject. The assessments continue until each child is ready to move up to a higher level.
"DI has taught us that all children, when placed at their appropriate instructional level, can learn," Mr. Smith says.
Initially, Mr. Smith was leery of using Direct Instruction. County school officials urged him to visit Wesley Elementary in Houston. There he met Thaddeus Lott, a celebrated educator on the scale of the legendary Jaime Escalante of California, who achieved unparalleled success using DI with his poor elementary students.
After returning home and selling the program to his teachers, some of them reluctantly, Mr. Smith made a commitment to the new curriculum. He hired a New York consulting firm to train his staff and follow up with monthly visits.

No little robots

The first year Portland Elementary used DI, things were rough.
"By the end of the day, teachers were exhausted," Mr. Smith recalls.
No wonder.
Watching teacher's aide Charlotte Lassiter drill her youngsters in vocabulary is tiring, even to an adult visitor.
Sitting in a semicircle, nearly touching the tall and curly-haired Mrs. Lassiter, tiny kindergartners reply eagerly in unison to her crisp commands.
"What is a contraction?" she asks quickly.
"Ready, go," she prompts from a DI script.
"A contraction is two words put together with a letter or letters missing," the small ones say, their southeastern Arkansas accents pronounced as they linger over vowels that are long.
"Excellent," affirms Mrs. Lassiter, as dimples flare, tiny pony tails bob and excited giggles fill the room.
In the second-grade classroom across the hallway, teacher Becky Smith puts her pupils through reading lessons.
"Everybody touching," she commands, as the children use their fingers to mark where they will read aloud.
"Keep reading," she clips, snapping her fingers to create momentum as a small boy takes his turn.
"One of the criticisms is that we're creating little robots, that this is so structured we take away any individuality," says Mr. Smith, observing this class on an unseasonably warm February morning. "But [teachers] ask a lot of open-ended questions, and the children have to think."

The turnaround

Guidance counselor Sheila Greene says DI helps to raise self-esteem in struggling students.
"There's a lot of positive reinforcement," she says. "They are not singled out to be ridiculed, and the students don't realize they are in a lower group ability-wise. They aren't stigmatized as underachievers."
Before DI was adopted in 1994, 18 percent of students were assigned to special-education classes. That percentage dropped to 5 percent.
"Watching the turnaround at Portland has been amazing," Miss Greene says.
"Even to us, it's hard to imagine," she says of the national attention, which included an award in 1998 from the U.S. Department of Education for being a "Title 1 School of Distinction."
The guidance counselor credits Mr. Smith's vision and says area residents, including parents, actively raise money and help the school move ahead.
A strong character education program, in use districtwide, complements this environment of achievement, she says. Violence is rare and church is central to the lives of children and their families.
"We're beating the statistics with a lot of hard work," Miss Green says.

Accountability at the core

The payoff has been enormous, particularly in lower grades where children have been exposed to Direct Instruction for their entire academic careers.
Last year, first- and second-graders scored in the 78th percentile in math on the Stanford-9 achievement test. Sixth-graders did equally well, scoring in the 72nd percentile in reading and the 84th percentile in math.
All students have risen to grade level or above and are improving five points annually on national tests.
"We do not do special things to prepare for the standardized tests," Mr. Smith says. "We teach our curriculum."
Also key is a "no excuses" policy on learning, says Ray Simon, director of the Arkansas Department of Education.
Portland and other high-achieving schools like it are leading the way for a statewide school reform effort, Smart Start, that Mr. Simon describes as focusing on learning the basics and having accountability at its core.
"I think the secret of their success is a strong belief that their children can achieve high standards and a commitment on the part of the staff to make that happen," Mr. Simon says.
Portland, Mr. Huckabee says in an interview, "is a classic case study in proof that public schools can and do work and work very effectively when people refuse to make excuses.
"That's the single reason that we've been so injured in education across the years," the governor says. "We have made excuses for poverty, race and geography."

Not yet satisfied

Mr. Huckabee suggests an "attitude adjustment" for education.
"It's not easy," he says, "but rather than assume our students can't succeed, we need to assume that they can and will succeed."
Central to Portland's efforts, the governor adds, are parents who are buying into the vision that the highest standards are attainable, even at a small, rural school.
"My daughter comes home and she's teaching what she's learned to anyone who will listen," says Missy Hicks, 37, of her oldest child, Molly, 7.
Molly started Direct Instruction in pre-kindergarten at Portland and was reading by the time she entered kindergarten. She continued to do so well that she was able to bypass first grade, Mrs. Hicks says. Now a second-grader, Molly has no problems keeping up.
"It's because of Mr. Smith and the teachers. They take such an active role in being sure that they learn," Mrs. Hicks says.
Like many other successful principals, Mr. Smith is not yet satisfied. "I tell them the 100th percentile is our goal," he says.
Several variables have made all the difference at Portland, Mr. Smith explains. Those include intensive teacher training, a strong in-house pre-kindergarten program, academic kindergarten classes and increased time on task.

Unusual challenges

Other schools around Arkansas now use DI, including Wilmot Elementary some 12 miles away. Mr. Smith hopes state legislators will be impressed enough to fund DI statewide.
Bobby Harper, superintendent of the Hamburg district, is watching closely as both schools make enormous gains. He hopes to be able to bring the teaching method to other schools in his district, Arkansas' third-largest geographically and a place where one-hour rides on the school bus are common.
But though DI has rolled up an impressive track record for remediation and acceleration, the approach is not the only reason schools like Portland are doing well, Mr. Harper says.
"This school was small enough, has a good staff and a good instructional leader," he says. "They never quit teaching all day long. They have looked at all variables that it takes to make a school successful and they have controlled many of them."
Still, the Hamburg district faces unusual challenges in educating low-income children, many of whom come from farm families and never have traveled out of Ashley County. Most families do their shopping at the local Wal-Mart; the closest mall is 60 miles away.
On a field trip last year to Mud Island in Memphis, a group of schoolboys "did not know how to sleep between sheets on the bed because they had never slept on beds with two sheets," recalls Marilyn Chambers, the district's special programs director.

The money chase

Finding money to recruit and hire strong teachers and start innovative programs is also hard. A new teacher earns about $22,000 per year; $32,000 is at the high end, says Mr. Smith, who makes about $50,000 as principal.
Most residents earn their living working crops, but education provides a stable income even though salaries are low.
"I'm always chasing money," Mr. Smith says of his vigorous search for grants.
The district receives a little more than $452,000 in federal Title 1 money, which funds programs for low-income children.
"What Title 1 money has allowed us to do is incorporate some programs that are very expensive, like Direct Instruction," Mrs. Chambers says.
In its first year at Portland and Wilmot, DI cost about $80,000, which covered the costs of consultants as well as materials for 300 students.
Was it worth the expense?
"It's taken ordinary teachers and made them extraordinary teachers," Mrs. Chambers says.

Signs of success

DI also brought hope to the lives of children like Salud Torres, 8, the daughter of migrant farm workers.
Two years ago, Salud spoke no English. Neither did anyone in her home. Her chances of academic success in a new country looked dim. On paper, she was at risk.
Taught only in English, today Salud reads a year above grade level. She is able to master accelerated reading programs on the computer, which she demonstrates without help from a teacher.
Reading is her favorite subject, Salud hair in braids, brown eyes wide softly tells a visitor.
"I take books home and read them and bring them back to school and read them again," she explains as Mr. Smith beams.
"Isn't she great?" he asks minutes later as Salud skips down the hallway from the library to her class, knowing her skills have been recognized.
He sighs, shaking his head in disbelief that his no-frills school, in a tiny farm town in southwest Arkansas, is beating the odds.
"This," Mr. Smith says, "is the most exciting period of my life. I have no intention of retiring anytime soon."

Please visit the first two parts of this special report.

Part I: Charter school gives children 'Healthy Start'

Part II: Academy in Harlem enforces strict rules

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