Too Smart For Their Own Good
Eight-year-old Veronica Martinez is calculating the cube root of 474,552 in her head. At the same time, she is attempting to devour a cheese sandwich--between gulps of water from a tan-rimmed coffee cup.
It takes less than eight seconds to consume the mathematical problem, slightly longer for the sandwich. She wriggles a hand free and slams it down hard on her bell. "Seventy-eight!" she yells out.
"Seventy-eight what?" asks Miles Jones, her teacher.
"Seventy-eight feet," she answers coyly.
Veronica continues to ignore the scratch pad in front of her as she moves on to other problems. Like 75,500 squared. (Answer: 5,700,250,000.) Or the fifth root of 2,887,174,368. (Answer: 78.) Sometimes, as she's working through the numbers in her mind, her eyes glaze over a little through pink plastic glasses. But eventually, the pigtails start swinging, and she smiles again. She's got the answer.
Jones, a Dallas Independent School District first-grade teacher and accelerated learning expert, stands at one end of his living room and uses a fat, blue marker to write down math problems on a large white pad. On this hot August afternoon, when they could be out playing, four of Jones' students have chosen to gather at his Oak Lawn apartment to practice math. The reward for their sacrifice? Homemade cheese sandwiches, and something else--something a bit more elusive.
It soon becomes clear what that is. When Veronica gets an answer right, she gets lots of praise. And she clearly revels in it. "That's my girl!" Mr. Jones will say. When one of the children takes too long or blurts out the wrong answer, Jones gently corrects them. "Now what are you going to do to redeem yourself? How are you going to earn your sandwich?"
Accuracy is key today. When Arturo Sanchez writes down the wrong problem and, logically, gets the wrong answer, Jones works through the exercise with him one-on-one. The others respond with the typical frankness of 8-year-olds: "We thought Arturo was dumb," one of them says.
"No," Jones says, correcting them. "We thought he just wasn't doing his homework."
Not accustomed to having a reporter in their midst, the kids seem a little antsy at times. "Give her a problem, teacher," they cry out together. Jones proceeds to honor their request, but after a lot of futile scribbling and no apparent answer, they start giggling at me. It's clear to them that a regular old reporter--even with the aid of Jones' gentle prodding--just can't do what they can do.
Veronica and the other children are zipping through problems most educated adults would have trouble solving even with a calculator. Surrounded by wall charts depicting the Periodic Table of Elements, the history of world civilization, and multiplication tables up to 100, these children come to Jones' apartment-turned-classroom three or four times a week to learn how to learn.
It's been two years now since Jones started teaching complicated math problems to his first-grade class at Sam Houston Elementary in Oak Lawn. Since then, 13 of his original 20 pupils have gone on to skip one or two grades in school.
You'd think that DISD--plagued for years by poor test scores among precisely the population Jones works with, working-class Hispanic kids--would embrace "Jones' Geniuses," as the children have come to be known. But that hasn't always been the case. While the "Geniuses"--or "Genios," as Jones sometimes calls his pupils, employing the Spanish word--regularly stun observers with their lightning-fast mathematical calculations, their teacher clearly has posed a challenge to the status quo in DISD.
Indeed, soon after the children vaulted from first to third grade, Sam Houston's new principal busted them back down again--supposedly because they couldn't handle basic math. Jones and some of the children's parents responded last fall by filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, claiming that the pupils were discriminated against because of their ethnic background.
Just last week, DISD officials agreed to a settlement in the case--allowing the children to skip a grade after all, providing that their parents approved. Jones, who transferred this year to Dan D. Rogers Elementary in East Dallas, is pleased with the decision. But he wonders whether DISD is more interested in maintaining mediocrity than in promoting excellence.
"The kids need to be accelerated--we don't need to be making simpler tests for them," he says. "We need to be speeding them up. When you give the district racehorses, you don't want them out to pasture."
In their two short, controversial years, it seems that Jones' Geniuses have had a crash course in more than just mathematics.
Far from being math machines, Veronica Martinez and her peers are typical children who enjoy watching cartoons and playing outside. They attend grade school, complain about homework, and beg Mom and Dad for expensive, useless toys. But their family backgrounds set them apart from the average DISD pupil.
Born mostly into Mexican immigrant families, these children learned to speak Spanish before English. Most of their parents lack even a secondary-school education and work for wages that place them at or below the poverty line. Some of them are not even authorized to work in this country.
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.
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.
Victoria has actually learned the techniques Jones has taught her daughter and frequently sits in on math drills at Jones' apartment. "He teaches us how to do the process. We do it together," she says.
Although all of the children targeted in the demotion were Hispanic, mostly Mexican, Victoria Martinez gives DISD the benefit of the doubt. "I do feel that this was a case of discrimination," she says, "but not racial." Martinez thinks perhaps the children were demoted because their teachers simply didn't know how to handle their precociousness.
While she questions some teachers' abilities, she doesn't question Jones'. "He did everything for us, and he did it all for free," she says. She isn't just talking about math sessions and cheese sandwiches. She's talking about Veronica Martinez, et al., Complaint No. 06971152, which Jones helped the parents file last October with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.
In the complaint, Jones and the families allege "educational discrimination against Hispanic schoolchildren by the state of Texas, Dallas Public Schools, and Sam Houston Elementary School in particular" stemming from the demotion of the children from third to second grade, "despite the fact that they are academically more advanced in reading and math than their third-grade classmates."
Last week, the district settled the complaint, making two major concessions to Jones and his Geniuses. The first allows all the children who were previously demoted to pass on to the fourth grade if their parents so choose (normally, they'd be starting third grade this year). The second provision of the settlement allows DISD principals the option of setting up accelerated learning programs on their campuses.
Juanita Madrigal, employee relations specialist for DISD, refused to comment on the settlement. The Observer obtained a copy of the agreement from one of the children's parents.
These days, it's easy to find educators who laud Miles Jones' accelerated learning efforts. Indeed, some describe him in almost messianic terms.
Dolores Chavez is a 37-year-old administrative site coordinator for Mi Escuelita Preschools, a nonprofit entity that prepares Spanish-speaking preschoolers to attend regular district schools. Earlier this year, Chavez was a pupil of Jones', along with several other Mi Escuelita teachers and staff. Studying to get her associate's degree from El Centro College, Chavez found she was having trouble with the math requirements. She took a three-month tutoring course that Jones regularly offers to teachers at Mi Escuelita.
"I think he's wonderful," Chavez says. She thinks the classes, which Jones teaches for two hours a week, will help her get her degree within a year.
Shirley Yarbrough, the principal at Jones' current school, Rogers Elementary, says teachers have embraced Jones. "He appears to be a truly dedicated teacher who is child-centered, child-focused," she says.
Currently, Jones is conducting staff development sessions at Rogers in which he acquaints teachers with accelerated learning techniques. Yarbrough is considering implementing an accelerated learning program at Rogers once she learns more about it. "Whatever works for the kids is what we'll do," she says.
Yarbrough, however, does know firsthand about the mixed bag of double-promotion. As a child, she skipped second grade and, although she did fine academically, there were days she wished she hadn't been double-promoted. Developmentally, she says, it wasn't always easy for her. "We would certainly have to look at each individual case," she adds.
The DISD settlement has allowed Veronica to enroll in fourth grade at Rogers this year. (Sam Houston only goes up to third grade.) The Martinez family could have chosen to place Veronica in Travis--the neighborhood elementary school. But, her mother contends, without offering specifics, "Travis has a bad reputation; the kids are rude there." She is confident that Rogers will provide a better atmosphere for her star student.
Although Veronica's experience with accelerated learning has been fraught with rules-and-regulation overkill, her mother says it's been positive overall. "I would like to have more teachers like him," she says of Jones. But sometimes it takes more than a willing teacher and an eager pupil to make programs like this work.
Arturo Sanchez, another one of Jones' original Geniuses, will not be attending Rogers Elementary with Veronica this year. He and his parents have decided that staying in third grade at Sam Houston is the best thing for him. Although he's been accepted into fourth grade at Rogers, he won't be going. His parents aren't able to drive him that far.
Also from Michoacan, the Sanchezes have lived in Dallas for more than eight years. Arturo Sr., 33, works in a factory in Carrollton, earning about $1,000 a month. Little Arturo's mother, 26-year-old Argelia, describes herself as "just a housewife." A sparsely furnished wood-frame house with a sagging roof and rotting stairs is home to the family of five--soon to be six.
Argelia, possessing only an elementary-school education and meager English, doesn't seem quite sure what to make of her son's involvement with accelerated learning. "They're learning so much," she says, somewhat suspicious, somewhat in awe.
Either way, Arturo's father goes in to work each morning at 5 a.m. in the sole family car and doesn't return home until late. For now, Arturo will remain in the third grade at Sam Houston, which is within walking distance from his home.
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.
"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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