Longform

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.

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Rebeca Rodriguez