The TAAS Buster

For years, Harriet Ball miraculously boosted the test scores of academically at-risk kids in Houston. Finally, educators across the country are taking note.

Harriett Ball is in full flight, and the entire fourth grade of Charles B. Scott Elementary in Galveston is caught up in her swing and sway. Wearing a tawny, Tina Turner-like wig, she throws every bit of her six-foot one-inch, 258-pound frame into her "Rap, Rhythm and Rhyme" routine for teaching units of liquid measurement.

"Here's my gallon," shouts Ball, indicating her whole body. As she prowls the front of the classroom like a rock diva, a buzz of delight rises from children who have been through this routine before. They're a tough audience: mostly low-income, mostly African-American and highly at risk of failing the state student-achievement test. Ball has them riveted.

"Got two bones in here and got two bones here," she calls out, slapping first her upper arms, then her lower arms, and moving to the rhythm of the Macarena. "Got two bones down here," she chants, slapping the thigh and calf of one leg. "And two bones down here, right?" she asks, slapping the other. "These are your pints!"

Several children turn to watch a photographer shooting the scene. Ball jerks her audience back in with a command: "Keep your eyes on your teacher! Keep your eyes on the prize! I am your prize!"

"Now these are going to be your cups," she shouts, extending her hands and folding each thumb to leave four fingers up on each. The children are now on their feet, repeating the gestures. "Now pull in your big toe on each of your feet and walk like a duck," she calls. "All right, you got four down here on each foot and four on each hand. Now count your cups!" Ball stabs the air with each hand, then stamps her feet.

The children shout, "Four! Eight! Twelve! Sixteen!"
"So there's sixteen cups in a gallon," Ball continues. "Now how much in a half-gallon?" she demands, extending her thumb-in hands.

"Eight!" comes the response.
"Now count the pints in a half-gallon," commands Ball, slapping her upper and lower arms.

"One! Two! Three! Four!"
"How many in a whole gallon?" Ball slaps her legs, and the kids count to eight.

She repeats the drill, moving faster and faster until she's at Nintendo speed, and the class keeps up, shouting the right answers in unison. With a smile that seems to encompass the whole room, she pauses to shower praise on her co-stars.

"Give yourself a hand," Ball tells the children, mopping beads of sweat off her cheeks. The kids repeat after her: "I'm the bomb! I'm the bomb!"

It could be argued that, in point of fact, Harriett Ball is the bomb. For the last decade, the 51-year-old has been one of Houston's best-kept educational secrets. Long before multisensory teaching became the rage of the education establishment, Ball noticed that her elementary school classes learned more and faster when she added music and movement to her lessons. Over the years, she developed routines to teach kids everything from subtraction to grammar.

After years of laboring in relative obscurity, she finally seems poised to receive national exposure. KIPP Academy, one of Houston's most acclaimed charter schools, bases much of its curriculum on her teaching strategy, even employing the same chants. And Ball, who retired as a teacher last year, has been wowing audiences at national teaching confabs. One such conference led to her biggest gig so far: Later this year, she's scheduled to appear via videotape at a presidential education forum.

But for now, Ball is focused only on the fourth graders in front of her -- and on the test that she's preparing them to take. "You scared of that TAAS?" she challenges the class. She's referring to the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the standardized test by which students, schools and teachers are judged. Some critics worry that schools' emphasis on the fearsome test places too much pressure on fourth graders. But these kids, whose demographics would predict failure, radiate confidence. Scared of the TAAS?

"No!" the class roars. The kids break into one of Ball's motivational chants: "We are the TAAS busters, and we're here to say, we're going to beat that TAAS in a major way."

"She gave us strategies in all areas: math, reading, language arts," says Scott Elementary principal Terri Watkins, a 36-year-old Galvestonian who in 1996 took the helm of the school in its first year. She faced a daunting task: educating a student body composed of at-risk students drawn from the island's low-income neighborhoods.

Watkins first saw Ball in action at a conference sponsored by Texas Southern University's Center for the Effective Pedagogy of African-American Learners. Immediately, Watkins decided that her school had to have Rap, Rhythm and Rhyme. She signed Ball to a five-year agreement; the consultant was to work with Scott's at-risk students and to train its teachers to use her techniques. In the second year, when the school ran out of funds to pay Ball, she volunteered to continue for free.

Watkins points with pride to the TAAS scores achieved last year by a school designed to gather low scorers on one campus. In math, 74.5 percent of Scott's students passed the test -- surprisingly close to the state average of 80.1 percent. And in reading, 79.7 percent passed, compared to the state average of 84 percent. In writing, a particularly impressive 92.5 percent of Scott students passed -- a percentage higher than the state average of 85.3 percent.

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