Anatomy of an Intervention

HISD has a plan for reforming problem schools. But when it reached Bastian Elementary, not everything went smoothly.

Those warnings suggest just how hard it is to be a child at a place like Bastian. You can't quite see it in their faces, as they march down the hall in swerving lines, but it is there -- the drugs, the violence, the neglect. The children here have special needs, teachers say. Tired, hungry and poorly clothed, many of Bastian's families seem to come and go like the wind, to wherever the rents are cheaper or the relatives more reliable. For too many of the parents, living is enough to worry about; their children's education is an afterthought.

It wasn't always that way. Bastian once served a stable, middle-class neighborhood. The change began in 1969, with the opening of the Wesley Square public-housing development. The Square, as it's known in the community, was built hard against the south boundary of Bastian, pinning the school against a recently completed section of Loop 610. The Square triggered a shift in the neighborhood's socioeconomics, and a huge increase in the number of kids. Veteran teachers remember years when Bastian had 1,000 students -- about double the present number -- many of them in shacks thrown together to serve as temporary classrooms.

New schools offered some relief, but Bastian was defenseless against the poverty and indifference festering around it. Unlike up the road at East Sunnyside Court, a predominantly middle-class black subdivision that feeds Sunnyside Elementary School, the Square had no civic club to put new nets on the basketball hoops and to give homeowners Yard of the Month awards. The streets around Bastian got tougher while discipline, and the school's physical condition, worsened. For years now, Bastian has been among the worst-performing schools in HISD. Test scores there are abysmal. Its retention and turnover rates exceed district averages. Stories abound of Bastian children who leave school Friday and come back Monday not having bathed, changed clothes or eaten all weekend.

"You can talk about test scores," says PTA president Green. "But in an area like this, come Monday morning, you've got to feed that child, clothe that child, clean that child, listen to that child and love that child. Then you got to try and teach that child."

No one had reason to expect that Joyce Andrews would end the cycle of despair when she took over as Bastian's principal in September 1990. Andrews' predecessor lasted just two years before joining the long list of principals and teachers who have either burned out and quit or fled to the relative safety of a suburban school. In her nearly 20 years as an HISD employee, Andrews had never been a principal. But her background as an educational diagnostician working with emotionally disturbed children seemed to make her uniquely qualified to make a difference at Bastian, which has a high percentage of children with learning disablities.

"When I went there, I was overwhelmed at the number of surrogate parents in the community," says Andrews. "Maybe there is a cousin raising a child, or an aunt -- even children raising their siblings. Because many parents are incarcerated or just not there. I immediately realized that we could not continue to educate children the way we had. Our schools really had not changed to meet the needs of the child in a changing society. We needed social services on campus, we needed the whole community to become involved and we really needed to educate the parents."

As a special-education teacher, Andrews had worked with children many thought were hopeless. She sensed the same lack of expectation at Bastian, where 95 percent of the students come from poor families. "I see very bright children [at Bastian], but children who could turn out to be a Charlie Manson or whatever if not redirected in some way," she says. "Just give them the emotional support. Break down the instruction, make learning fun. And you'll see children rise far above what people would ever have thought they could."

James Bonner became a believer after just one visit to Bastian. Bonner is a former NASA engineer who left his job at the Space Center to be a substitute teacher. "I was concerned about my lack of understanding of education and what my kids were receiving," he says. After a few months, Bonner had seen enough of Houston schools to know that something good was happening at Bastian. So he quit substituting and became a full-time volunteer at the school.

"What I found was an administrator who understood that you're teaching each child individually," says Bonner, a tall, graceful man with three school-age children. "To do that, you have to understand where that child is, what kind of carrot you can hold out for that child, and to know when they're not reaching out for the carrot."

To do that, Andrews implemented a teaching philosophy known as "Developmentally Appropriate Practices," or DAP, a cooperative learning strategy that recognizes that children learn in different ways and at different paces. At Bastian, children from kindergarten through second grade were placed in a Primary Learning Community, where they worked together in peer groups. They were still expected to meet state academic standards, but the way in which the necessary skills were taught varied from group to group.

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