The Curriculum Question

Businessman John Privett thought he had a solution to the problems of some of Houston's troubled schools. The parents wanted to try it. The teachers wanted to try it. But HISD administrators said no.

Besides, Hicks says, other schools have had impressive results with the same kinds of children that Lott teaches without depending on a phonetics-based program such as DISTAR. As an example, she points to Bessie Hickman at J. Will Jones Elementary, which uses a teaching strategy called Accelerated Learning. In that program, Hickman says, teachers are "empowered to be creative and use different teaching styles to meet each child's learning needs rather than the 'drill and kill'" of direct instruction.

The key to success, Hicks says, is for teachers and principals to carefully match curriculum to the needs of their children. A former teacher and principal, she said she has had to adapt different strategies for children who live only two miles apart. That's why site-based management is so important. Every school makes its own choices. But no question, Hicks says, "Thaddeus is a pacesetter."

Privett was impressed with Lott's achievements all right. But being interested in systems, he saw that Lott's students weren't learning just because Lott was a great leader. It was the curriculum that was working. Privett determined that he would try to see that curriculum made easily available in other HISD schools. When Frank Petruzielo succeeded Joan Raymond as superintendent in the summer of 1992, Privett showed up in his office within two weeks, offering a deal Petruzielo couldn't refuse. Privett had talked with seven school principals who were tired of failing with the whole language approach; they wanted to try Lott's methods. Would Petruzielo help them with a special grant of $70,000 for materials and training? Petruzielo, who had to remember Joan Raymond's embarrassing performance on Prime Time, agreed.

The grant helped, and within a year reading scores had risen dramatically. But, Privett says, he and the principals were naive about how much it would cost to actually put DISTAR in place. Houston schools were just getting part of the program. For the complete system a full-time on-campus trainer was needed -- and that would require more money.

By 1992, Privett had been leading the Tax Research Association for 13 years and he was ready for a change. His wife had completed graduate school and his stepson was out of college. He resigned his $70,000-a-year post and ran as a Republican for Harris County Tax Assessor against one of the oldest incumbents in local politics, Carl Smith. He thought that Smith, then in his early 80s, was likely to step down, but he didn't. Privett says he enjoyed the campaign in which he promised to modernize the office, but didn't have a chance against Smith's name recognition.

With the November campaign over, Privett learned that HISD was soliciting proposals to improve the schools. He started phoning and faxing Siegfried Engelmann, DISTAR's creator, and the program's chief trainer, Jerry Silbert. By now Privett knew much more about the system. He told Silbert and Engelmann to ignore the costs for the time being and help him design a system that was guaranteed to turn a school around.

Privett says he didn't begin with the notion of creating a private business, but he knew he would have to get a contract that would enable him to circumvent the HISD bureaucracy. The reasons, he says, are practical. In January a principal begins drawing up a budget for the following academic year and passes it on to the next division. For months the budget trickles up through the system to the districtwide budget in July. By August, the school board approves the budget, and the school doesn't get its materials until December, all of which makes innovation a slow affair.

A business, on the other hand, could move more swiftly, something essential with a program such as DISTAR, where students may move through more than one grade level in an academic year and have to have follow-up materials immediately available. He could have organized his company as a nonprofit, Privett admits, but nonprofits, he says, don't tend to grow. If his project worked, he wanted to make it available to lots of schools as quickly as possible, and only a profit-making entity, he decided, would attract the investment that could make this happen.

He spent four intense months figuring out his concept -- which included the notion of financial penalties if his business, which he named Performing Schools, failed to achieve specific test-score gains. Then Privett had to see if he would have any takers. On March 3, 1993, he and Jerry Silbert conducted a districtwide briefing for principals and staff. It was held with only one-day's notice from the school district, but 54 staff members representing 14 schools turned out regardless.

Among them was Ramon Alvarez of Wilson Elementary in Montrose. An ex-Marine who came from a large family in South Texas, Alvarez had spent his entire career as a teacher and administrator at the high school level. He had no preconceptions about the best way of teaching reading. But soon after he took over as principal in January 1990, he realized that whole language wasn't working.

"What we were doing was memorizing," he recalls. "I asked a little boy, 'Can you read?' and he said, 'I can, Mr. Alvarez, I can read.' I noticed that he was not really reading. He was looking at the pictures and coming up with the words he had memorized. So I asked him if he could read some with his eyes closed. And he said, 'I can.' And he started reading me the story although he was not looking at the text."

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