By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Given their humble backgrounds, it would seem these kids were headed for a future in blue-collar work. But Miles Jones has always seen beyond society's low expectations--because he had to fight against some of his own.
Sitting and drinking fruit juice at his kitchen table, Jones tells the story of his own early school days.
"I would have been classified as a very poor learner," he says. "I used to give my teacher so much trouble, I remember praying that God never make me a teacher. He must have heard," he adds, chuckling.
Jones, 46, a sandy-haired, slightly built man, lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Oak Lawn. He is a self-proclaimed "single mother" to his 15-year-old daughter, Michelle, who lives with him. One is immediately struck by two things about his environs: the huge numbers of books on one apartment wall and the scads of diplomas and certificates on another. Jones, who holds a Ph.D. in bilingual and foreign language education from the University of Texas, seems to be certified to teach just about anything.
Jones says he grew up in an alcoholic home in Baytown, near Houston. There he became involved with gangs and drugs and ended up totally rejecting authority. He even did some time in jail for writing hot checks.
Jones' gang buddies--who called themselves the Ghoulie Hawks and wore an emblem of a man with booze in one hand and a joint in the other--recently held a reunion of sorts, and he was surprised to find only half of the members still living. One of those who'd died was his brother--the gang's leader. Jones says his brother's death in a motorcycle accident while under the influence of drugs and alcohol served as a wake-up call to his family, all of whom eventually recovered from alcoholism and turned their lives around.
"Now I don't drink or do any drugs," Jones says. Education was his way to overcome an unpromising start in life, and he's very much aware of what awaits children who are found lacking in learning. "A very high percentage will end up in prison," he says. "Education is the one ticket out of what I went through. I am driven by a very personal and real demon."
Jones ended up making it through high school with decent grades. Afterward, he decided he wanted out of Baytown and chose to travel the world. In doing so, Jones made an important discovery: He had an amazing aptitude for picking up foreign languages--such as Spanish, which he learned on the streets of Spain. "So I decided to go back to school and study accelerated learning, how to learn a foreign language in the fastest amount of time," he says.
Jones enrolled in college at the now-defunct Austin campus of Antioch University, where he earned a B.A. and an M.Ed. After pocketing those two degrees, Jones went on to UT for his doctoral work.
"From the day I went back to school, I had already formulated exactly what I wanted to do my doctoral thesis on," Jones says. "And I ended up doing it 12 years later." Jones wrote his dissertation on rapid learning and language acquisition.
Now a 46-year-old first-grade teacher, Jones still knows exactly what he wants. He gravitates towards inner-city schools and always requests that he be placed in one--because that's where the problems are, he says.
This school year, Jones is teaching at Rogers Elementary on Abrams Road. "It's a step away from the inner city, although it still deals with minority children," he says. (Rogers is 57 percent Hispanic and 30 percent black.) "You tend to get the teachers and the principals that are least well-prepared congregated in the ghetto schools," he adds. "It's structural discrimination."
Jones launched Genios during the 1995-'96 school year while he was teaching first grade at Sam Houston Elementary. Remarkably, he didn't pick and choose his gang of math whizzes, but simply sought to get the best out of his assigned class of 6-year-olds. That was no easy task.
"When I met these kids, none of them spoke English," Jones recalls. Children who don't speak English "are considered one of the most at-risk populations," he adds. So Jones, an Anglo, conducted most of first grade in Spanish. "It's an ideal language that is very regular phonetically, and most of the rules transfer into English anyway," he says.
The first-graders didn't immediately dig into difficult math problems. Instead, Jones hammered the basics, putting in place the building blocks that would enable some of the children to move on to more complex work. He employed phonics, teaching the children vowels and sounds. Eventually they put together syllables, then words, then simple sentences.
The children spent about half of the day learning to read. Then they added numbers and divided wholes into parts to pick up basic math skills.
Naturally, some children learned more quickly than others--or showed more enthusiasm for schoolwork. Jones responded by gathering them into after-school sessions that became Genios. Here, he taught them simple techniques for solving complex math problems.
To calculate the cube root of 474,552, for example, the kids would start by memorizing all of the single-digit numbers cubed, from 1 x 1 x 1=1 to 9 x 9 x 9=729. They'd already learned to arrange these figures in their heads on the outside of an upside-down triangle, with three cubes on each side.