Too Smart For Their Own Good

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

From the beginning, the Sanchez family supported Arturo's participation in Genios. And Argelia insists she's grateful to Jones for all he's taught Arturo. "But it's become too much. I'm not going to force Arturo if he doesn't want to continue," she says. "Besides, children should stay with others their same age."

For her, the conflict between DISD and Jones' Geniuses has taken its toll. As she puts it, "Ya voy a dejar eso por la paz"--"We need some peace, so we're letting it go."

The Sanchez family remains optimistic about Arturo's future. "I know that Arturo is a good student, and he'll be somebody, with or without the program," she says.

Children like Veronica and Arturo represent more than just hard work and lots of practice, Jones says. Their skills will determine the nation's future. And if standardized scores count for anything, the future looks bleak.

In 1991, U.S. 13-year-olds scored lower in math than 13-year-olds from all but two other industrialized countries, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in Washington, D.C. Thirteen-year-olds from this country also did less homework and watched more TV than kids from most other countries. And closer to home, only 35 percent of Texas high school students could pass an Algebra I test last spring.

"We've got a lot of work to do," Jones says. "We're in bad shape, frankly, and everybody knows it." But there is something else Jones wants everybody to know, and that's just how incredible his Geniuses are. He periodically holds made-for-TV math demonstrations that showcase the children's work--and he's quick to offer soundbite comments that sum up his favorite theories.

One such demonstration, held this past January, pitted Jones' Geniuses against members of Mensa--the international intelligence society of which Jones is a member. The two groups calculated powers and roots, with Mensa members employing calculators and the children using their heads. The children clobbered the Mensa team by a score of 14 to 6.

"It is an amazing method of teaching," says Ray O'Connor, a Ph.D. and Mensa member who participated in the event. "People have certain styles of learning," O'Connor says. "What [Jones] has done is come up with a way of taking advantage of the learning styles of these children."

O'Connor is nothing short of astonished by Jones' Geniuses. He even enrolled his own 8-year-old daughter, Monica O'Connor, in the program. She got the same jolting results.

Still, O'Connor cautions that "this is not a magic wand." Not only do the kids have to work hard and practice, but parents must help them with drills and support their efforts.

"This gives them a taste of what they can do," O'Connor says. "It gives them enormous confidence to see them beat Ph.D.s" in math demonstrations. And once they've mastered a slice of accelerated learning, O'Connor says, "it would be a sin to expect them to be average performers thereafter."

O'Connor warns against the perpetuation of low standards in public schools. Expectations, he says, are so low that children often perform at that level. "Miles is running against that current, and I would say with great pride that the Dallas school district is also running against that current," he adds.

Jones sees his efforts as a 1990s attempt to capture what's left of the American Dream. Surviving in the barrio, he says, is a struggle in itself. Add to that parents who are barely literate themselves, and it's tough for Spanish-speaking children like Veronica Martinez to succeed in school, he says. But her parents do value education, and he can work with that in Genios.

"It's a big awakening for the parents--that their children can have a real future," he says. "That's the reason for going into the inner-city schools and working. It's not because I don't have the credentials to get a higher-paying job in administration. But the problems are inside the classroom, and that's where the answers are going to be found."

Veronica Martinez, he's sure, is part of that answer.

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