Mo Excuses: Houston Educator Thaddeus Lott Puts Failing Schools to Shame

Article excerpt

Gayle Fallon wanted to give her 10-year-old godson a measure of stability in life. With a father who had compiled a long record of felony convictions and a mother imprisoned for shoplifting after two prior convictions for drug possession, the boy had shuffled in and out of foster care since birth. To worsen matters, he was languishing in the chaotic environment of a dismal urban school. Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, knew that without a decent education, her godson might stumble along the same destructive path his parents had followed. So in 1994 she secured him a spot at Mabel B. Wesley Elementary, an innovative public charter school on the outskirts of Houston.

"I love that program," Fallon says. "I wouldnAEt invest my godson in it if I didnAEt."

FallonAEs praise evokes a sun-dappled public school set against a leafy suburban backdrop. And so would WesleyAEs manicured lawn, pristine brick facade, and buffed floors--if you ignored the barbed-wire fencing and boarded-up houses encircling the school. In fact, Wesley Elementary serves the violent, drug-infested Acres Homes section of Houston. All of its students qualify for federal Title I education funds earmarked for disadvantaged children, and its student body is 99 percent minority (93 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic). The lives of many closely mirror that of FallonAEs godson.

We have come to expect mediocrity from schools whose students are saddled with such tragic circumstances. But since Thaddeus Lott became its principal in 1975, Wesley has graduated thousands of children whose reading and math scores rival those of their suburban peers. Before Lott introduced his educational philosophy, only 18 percent of WesleyAEs third-graders were scoring at or above grade level in reading comprehension on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. By 1980, 85 percent were achieving at or above grade level. In 1996, 100 percent of WesleyAEs third-graders passed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) in reading. Statewide, fewer than 70 percent of third-graders in schools with similar demographics passed.

To achieve this astounding turnaround, Lott eschewed popular nostrums--computers, school-to-work initiatives, parental involvement--for the basics: a proven curriculum, rigorous teacher training, strict discipline, high expectations of teachers and students, and a fervent belief that any child can learn.

"ItAEs a myth," says Lott, "that if youAEre born in a poor community and your skin is a certain color that you canAEt achieve on a higher level."

Having succeeded at Wesley, Lott wanted to vindicate his beliefs at other troubled schools. In this desire the community saw an opportunity to have every Acres Homes child schooled by Lott. So its residents petitioned the Houston school board to allow Lott to manage Wesley and three neighboring schools as a separate district of charter schools. The contract was signed in spring 1995, making LottAEs district the first charter-school arrangement of its kind in Texas, predating even the state law encouraging communities to establish charter schools. The charterAEs goal: To have 70 percent of all children who have spent three years in the charter system scoring at or above grade level.

The charter gives Lott total freedom to train staff, develop a curriculum, and make hiring, firing, and promotion decisions at the four schools. The charter "allows us to feel like weAEre not committing a crime by doing things differently," says Lott. "It does not release us from accountability, though. We have a three-year contract, and the community expects results." As the equivalent of a district superintendent, Lott reports directly to the superintendent of Houston schools, enabling him to sidestep several layers of bureaucracy.

Only $2,500 Per Child

It is 8 a.m. at Wesley, and Mary OAEConnorAEs third-graders are in a hurry. They are leaving on a field trip at 9, and thereAEs plenty of learning to do before then. …