Too Smart For Their Own Good

"Jones' Geniuses" can calculate difficult math problems in their heads. But DISD hasn't always liked the answers.

After being given a six-digit number like 474,552, the kids would draw a line separating the 474 from the 552. Then, they'd find the cube closest to 474. Since they'd memorized the cubes of the single-digit numbers, they knew 474 fell between the cube of 7 and the cube of 8. Therefore, the first digit of the cube root had to be 7.

A look at the last three digits of 474,552 quickly yields the rest of the answer. The only single-digit cube that ends in a 2 is 8 cubed. So the cube root of 474,552 has to be 78.

Accelerated learning exercises such as these foment a "can-do" attitude in students, Jones says. If a kid can wrap his mind around the cube root of 474,552, he finds that he can absorb much more material than he'd get in the traditional classroom. Jones makes the learning go down easier through the use of games, songs, or anything else that helps.

While his students may appear to be doing very advanced math work, they are, in reality, using basic techniques to grapple with large numbers. The same goes for reading. Jones believes 99 percent of students should be reading by the end of first grade--not 90 percent reading by the end of third grade, which is the current national standard.

Part of the reason that kids don't pick up these basic skills earlier is that teachers don't know how to teach them. "This stuff is not taught in teacher's college," Jones says.

Some teachers are even afraid of numbers--which hinders them from teaching children how to control numbers, Jones says. For example, in Texas, children no longer have to learn their multiplication tables in third grade, but in fourth--and only up to 12 x 12.

Standards are being raised on paper, he says, but not in practice, he says. "When they lower standards, when they simplify the test, the children will do better on them, and everybody looks good."

Jones boasts that his 1995-'96 first-grade class at Sam Houston worked hard and was learning to read after six weeks. They did so well, in fact, that Jones requested that some of them be double-promoted--to the third grade. The principal at the time, O.D. Vega, agreed.

Thirteen of the 20 were bumped up to third at the start of the next school year, and several of them ended up in the same teacher's class. Six weeks later, however, the children were receiving low grades. Veronica Martinez was one of those pupils. Her mother claims the teacher called Veronica "slow and lazy." (The teacher declined to comment on the children's third-grade performance.)

That teacher did say, however, that Jones' kids were the first to skip a grade at Sam Houston in more than 20 years. And by now, Sam Houston had a new principal--Ricardo Weir. Ultimately, Weir sent back six of the original 13 to second-grade classrooms for the 1996-'97 school year. The district had decided the children couldn't handle third-grade work.

Weir would later tell The Dallas Morning News that the kids had learned to work complicated math problems, but hadn't acquired basic real-world skills. Weir declined an interview with the Dallas Observer.

Jones doesn't attribute any malice to the school or Principal Weir. He does, however, hold the district responsible for failing to aim higher. "Their hearts are in the right place," he says. "But most of them don't know what to do, and they're not beating down the door of those that do."

The casualties of the 1996-'97 school year included Veronica Martinez and Arturo Sanchez. Both were double-promoted from first to third grade. Both faithfully attended Jones' after-school practice sessions and can find the cube root of massive numbers in their heads. But only one of them will be attending the fourth grade at Dan D. Rogers Elementary this year--and that's because Veronica Martinez's parents decided to fight the district's decision to demote her.

There are only two children remaining in Miles Jones' apartment this sweltering August afternoon. Camila Ramirez, having heard a musical car horn, has just jumped up and run out, yelling, "That's my grandpa!" She leaves Veronica Martinez behind her.

Moments later, Veronica's mother, Victoria, and 3-year-old sister, Jasmine, arrive and grab a seat on one of Miles Jones' tan couches. The somewhat shy Victoria agrees to talk about Jones and the effect he's had on her daughter.

As Veronica plods through an out-loud reading of Tom Sawyer in soft-spoken English--shrouded in a wispy Spanish accent--Victoria brushes aside her long thick hair, smiles, and speaks in lilting Spanish.

"He made us mothers feel comfortable," she says of Jones. "At first we were surprised, because he spoke very good Spanish," she says. The affection between Jones and his pupils is clear, she adds. "He wants to do this for the kids."

Martinez recalls, with a twinge of guilt, the time Jones asked parents to pitch in $5 for school supplies for Genios. She still hasn't given him one dime, she says sadly.

What they lack in money, the Martinezes make up for in support. From Michoacan, Mexico, the family has been in Dallas for seven years and has always played a strong, encouraging role in Veronica's education.

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