G.L. Wiley staff and students trying to prove their grit as they respond to 'unacceptable' label By Katherine Heine Tribune-Herald staff writer January 22, 2006 Clarence Symank resists all temptation to be his students' friend. A friend would excuse away failing grades and let the kids slip by with a C. A friend would grant students permission to leave class on a whim. A friend would want to impress. Peer alliances form and dissolve each week in the halls of G.L. Wiley Middle School in East Waco, but Symank's presence is unconditionally reliable. The math teacher provides structure amid the chaos. He conveys trust to skeptical kids many of whose lives are defined by abandonment. He offers discipline in place of unchecked freedom at home. They have tried to test his boundaries with apathy and outright defiance â€“ even cursing or throwing erasers at him â€“ but he is unwavering in his resolve to cultivate their minds. Whether they like it or not, the former air conditioner repairman will stand before them 175 days each year. This is no popularity contest. Good fortune is working against the 265 students at G.L. Wiley. Ninety-six percent of them are considered economically disadvantaged, and nearly one-third are hampered by special needs. Some students have parents in prison; others trudge groggily through the day, tired from cooking dinner and looking after their younger siblings. The resentment that comes from carrying such heavy loads manifests, at times, in deviance at school. But don't project isolated incidents of misbehavior onto the entire student population. The kids determined to resist the good life were long ago sent to alternative schools or jail, Symank said. The students who fill the neon blue chairs in his classroom each day exude resiliency and a longing to be understood. Symank expects success but appreciates failure. Everyone falls short of his potential at times, he said. It is from those missteps that most education comes. What he doesn't accept is a lack of effort in class or the opinion that the school is resigned to the "academically unacceptable" label the Texas Education Agency has given it for the past two years.
"These kids are smart kids, and they want to learn. It is just a matter of giving them a guiding light that will convince them to put forth the effort," he said. Student scores on the last two rounds of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills have placed the school under the scrutiny of the Texas Education Agency. The school's 2005 performance on the math portion of the test, which 26 percent of students passed, has particularly bedeviled the campus. The state passing rate on the math test to avoid the "academically unacceptable" label was 35 percent in 2005. The standards for all core subjects are scheduled to increase gradually. This year, at least 40 percent of all students, in all racial and economic categories, will have to pass the math portion of the test for the school to avoid the label, which would likely bring stiff sanctions. A state-mandated intervention team evaluated the campus in November and drafted recommendations to improve scores at the middle school and its neighbor, Doris Miller Elementary School, which also received an unacceptable rating. The three-member team stopped short of recommending closure, but suggested all personnel, except for the principal, at the middle school be required to reapply for their jobs at year's end if test scores fail to improve. The panel also found gross discrepancies between lessons in math class and those reviewed in the math lab designed to supplement math curricula. As staff and state officials argue the specifics, rumors about poor test scores and possible school closings have reached a confused student body. "When all of this about the ratings and possible school closing got out, I had about 10 kids corner me and ask whether the school was going to close and whether I was going to be here next year," Symank said. "I said to them with as much sincerity as possible that 'Yes, I will be.' And as for the unacceptable rating, I told them it is like a math problem: There is a problem and we are working to find the solution. I was so struck by their concern." Triston Bell, 14, and his younger brother, Pierson Hannah, 13, huddle in front of an aged computer in the math lab. They are researching the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. for a social studies project, but say the fate of their neighborhood school has been at the forefront of their minds. Triston is quick to blame the substandard performance on a minority of students who disrupt class and think it's cool to talk back to teachers and start fights. But the aspiring football star said the rating has convinced many of his peers they aren't good enough.
"I don't want them to close Wiley because it is an East Waco school and it's the closest one to where we live," said Triston. "I come here so I can get an education and be successful in life. "And I don't know why they keep saying it's the teachers' faults. Look at this," he said, pointing to a mangled computer desk mended with duct tape. "The bad kids break stuff. We can't never keep nothing looking nice here. People have to start caring about this place before we can change." The insightful eighth-grader admits causing trouble in class last year when, he said, he was "less mature." The support of his mother, a school custodian in Waco, and a desire to play football have motivated him to keep education a top priority in his life. Wiley administrators bar students with discipline problems from playing school-sanctioned sports, which, Triston said, keeps a majority of students out of trouble. ---- A change in tactics ---Dell Math TAKS lab instructor Debbie Griffin grades papers as students complete the math practicum designed to prepare them for the next round of standardized tests, scheduled for April 18. Teachers like Griffin don't come to the East Waco campus to while away their years until retirement. They come to make a difference, but learn quickly that improvement is easier to plan for than to accomplish. Griffin's lab has come under scrutiny since the intervention team toured the campus. The panel found gross discrepancies between the curriculum taught in math classes and the problems reviewed in the lab, designed to supplement math lessons. "They came in here to observe, but I only had about three or four minutes to get across all I wanted to say. I wish they had stayed longer," said Griffin, who taught at University and Robinson high schools for a combined 22 years before transferring to Wiley three years ago. "But the math teachers are now giving me their lesson plans every week, and we now have tests every Friday to review skills." The stress, particularly with the probability of having to reapply for a job, hangs in the air. To keep her sanity, Griffin attends teacher support group meetings. She also has begun meeting with math teachers to assess each student's areas
for growth in hopes of drastically boosting math scores on this spring's round of testing. "Yeah, it's been rough. But these kids make it worth it," Griffin said. "They just need one person in their life who believes in them. We teachers try to be positive for them." ---- Recapturing pride ---The bell rings and students rush out the door. It's lunch, a favorite "subject" for many. The school's principals roam the halls to ensure orderly chaos toward the cafeteria. "Tuck in your shirt, boy," shouts Lester McDowell, a retired principal who volunteers at the school, as he follows students to the cafeteria. The dress code is strictly enforced. He wanders the halls with belts of assorted sizes to pass out to boys with baggy pants. Assistant principal Lori Fields dismisses tables to fill their plates with the day's chicken fried steak, green beans and mashed potatoes. Administrators opted for a more orderly lunchtime because of food fights last semester. Daisha Robinson, 11, Shanitavia Gunn, 13, and Jasmine Burton, 12, sit at the edge of a table and talk about going skating. If their dreams come true, and they are certain they will, the girls might one day be a computer analyst, a pediatrician and teacher, respectively. They are the daughters of Wiley students and don't want the neighborhood school to close. Jasmine, the future teacher, especially sees the good the educational institution brings to the area. The reserved girl said teachers help the students see themselves for what they want and can be. Fields' voice, amplified by a microphone, blasts into the conversation from across the room to dismiss tables. The trio wipe up little spills of pink lemonade and pile napkins on their plates. On their way through the double doors back to their classrooms, they smile at McDowell as they pass. It's a moment of past meets present. The girls are in the early stages of their educational journey, and McDowell is in his 46th year doing everything from sweeping the floors to leading assemblies at Waco schools. He came out of retirement last year to help Wiley. "We're going to be all right," he said. "I tell the kids not to worry about past tests
or whether the school is going to close. All they can do is focus on their academics and staying out of trouble. "You know, this is a proud area, a proud school. These are some of the smartest kids in Waco. It's just getting them to want to do the work. This used to be one of the top schools in Waco in band, choir, basketball and academics. We'll get back on track. Just you watch." But the decline to unsatisfactory didn't happen overnight, and McDowell doesn't expect the journey back to excellence to progress any faster. The downward spiral of the neighborhood from a proud haven where kids could play kick-the-can outside to a place where drug dealers peddle their trash has negatively affected life within the school. McDowell said he sees the neighborhood making improvements, though, which he believes will reflect positively on the school. The construction of the Doris Miller YMCA down the street has brought new faces to the area and a haven to the area youth. The high teacher turnover rate and three principals in the last three years have contributed to the lack of a bond among students, teachers and parents, McDowell said. Principal Dean Frederick, who took on the post in early 2005, said he recognizes the school's image problem within the community. For example, many parents have expressed to him that they are only called to the school for negative reasons. The school will hold its first parental involvement meeting Thursday at Doris Miller YMCA. The informational session will review parenting skills and explain outreach and tutoring options available to their kids. ---- 'Give him a chance' ---Symank is helping a student combine like variables on the overhead projector. The student misplaces a negative sign, which garners snickers from his peers. "We must be patient, give him a chance," Symank said. "I get nervous or confused up here and get stuff wrong all the time. He's doing great." Symank uses Mister and Miss when addressing his students. They return the favor. He grants them freedom to sit where they best learn. Three students moved their desks in a huddle near the front chalkboard, and two sit in the far back corner of the room near a wall of pictures from Symank's travels with his wife, Marlene, a third-grade teacher at Meadowbrook Elementary School. He
shares the snapshots of ski trips to Colorado and busy streets of Hong Kong to convey the rewards of sticking with an education. "I remember when I was lost and how I got found. It was my teachers that made the difference," said Symank, who admits he barely graduated high school. His voice is stern, but he is patient. It is his slow pace and composure that earn him the respect of his students. His lending of personal books from his desk, like "Number by the Stars" and "Minute Motivations for Leaders," has earned their trust. "We're a bad class sometimes, but Mr. Symank never gets frustrated with us," said Jaleesa Shemil, 13. "Some of the teachers don't explain stuff good enough, but he takes it slow and breaks it down so we understand." The bell rings for lunch. The students rush past Symank, who is wiping away an algebra problem from the projector screen. Behind him, "TAKS Test April 18" is written in capital letters on the chalkboard. The inspirational quotes from basketball legend Michael Jordan and interactive math bulletin boards that dot the room are just a few of the steps Symank has taken to inspire enthusiasm for math, in hopes of bringing up the scores. He sits down at his wooden desk, opens a neatly sealed paper bag and pulls out a chicken salad sandwich and banana. He looks outside at the poverty of Live Oak Street and takes a deep breath. "They have everything going against them," he said. "If a teacher just shows they care for them, they'll cling to them like peanut butter. They need nurturing and praise before we can expect them to excel. That is the answer." firstname.lastname@example.org 757-6901 (c) 2006 Cox Newspapers, Inc. - Waco Tribune-Herald