School recognized for personal touch; Teachers at Irving campus team up to focus on student needs

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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To call the boy shy would be understating the case. When he arrived at Irving’s Lamar Middle School, the sixth-grader sat in the back of his classes. He spoke to no one.

“He’d just sit down with the hood of his sweat shirt over his head,” math teacher Beth Visentine said. “That was his shield.”

He was plenty bright: When pushed, he could multiply three-digit numbers in his head. But in a lot of schools, he’s the kind of kid who falls into the cracks.

At Lamar, a team of teachers didn’t let that happen. All his teachers gathered regularly in a small room near the principal’s office and talked about ways to draw him out. They compared notes about what worked and what didn’t. They talked about paying more attention to him in class, tapping him on the shoulder when they walked down his aisle so he knew that they were interested. It worked. “It got to the point where he would actually smile once in a while,” Ms. Visentine said.

That’s the kind of story that has made Lamar one of the state’s most successful campuses. Despite dealing with a largely poor student body, Lamar prides itself on personal attention to student needs.

“If people ask me about good middle schools in the state, I give them Lamar’s name,” said Cecil Floyd, executive director of the Texas Middle School Association. “People can visit it and see a school in that sort of economic situation and devoted to helping kids, but still getting good test scores.”

Kids in the middle grades have always posed challenges to educators. Traditionally, they were treated as mini-high school students, with much the same freedom and independence as their older brothers and sisters. A year removed from the mothering world of elementary school, they were set free in a large, unstructured environment, moving from isolated classroom to isolated classroom. Logically, their schools were called junior highs.

A new approach

But in the 1970s, a group of educators around the country began to believe that early teens needed a school experience closer to what they had in elementary school, where one teacher typically was responsible for a child’s entire education.

They pushed for what became known as the middle school model. Middle schools were most distinguished by teaching teams and coordination among various subjects.

“People recognized that kids who are 12, 13, 14 years old are unique,” Mr. Floyd said. “You have to have programs that are appropriate for those ages. You can’t treat them as if they were older.”

In Irving, Lamar was the strongest early adopter of the middle school model, dating to the late-1980s.

Irving is a suburb, but its student population doesn’t fit suburban stereotypes.

About half of Lamar’s students are minorities. This year, for the first time, a majority of Lamar students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. For Lamar principal Cynthia Goodsell, a former principal and Teacher of the Year in the Dallas schools, it’s a familiar student body.

“Coming from Dallas, I thought the kids here would be better off,” Ms. Goodsell said. “But the kids here are the same. If you can convince them you care about them, they’ll work hard for you.”

When kids have problems – academic or personal – they often come out in teacher team meetings. Each grade level is divided into two or three teams, with names such as the Wildcats, the Claws and the Big Cats. (Lamar’s mascot is a lion, and the group names tend to be feline-based.)

Each team is assigned a half-dozen teachers, one for each of the major academic subjects. The teachers don’t teach anyone outside their team. Teachers meet every day during a planning period to coordinate when they’re giving tests and what units they’re covering.

More important, they talk about their students – how they’re doing, where they’re weak, and how they can help individually or as a group. Some deride “teaching the whole child” as too touchy-feely. But teachers say that’s the strength of the system.

“We don’t lose children through the cracks,” reading teacher Susan Reagan said.

“It makes us better at changing behavior, so you’re not always just putting out fires,” said Melany Ash, a teacher of gifted and talented children.

Take the girl who was always acting up and earning demerits in her reading class. “Just in reading, not anywhere else,” English teacher Carol Holder said. “If we weren’t talking to each other, we might think she was just a problem. But we realized it was just who she was sitting near. On a team we can figure that out and talk it through.”

‘More attention’

The students seem to notice the impact of teaming. “It separates the kids so they can get more attention,” said Spencer Shrum, 13.

Sometimes the problems are more serious: threats of suicide or violence, deep depression, or issues in the home.

“You know as a kid this group of adults is always going to be looking out for you,” said reading teacher Kitty Kennedy, who often is asked to help Lamar children who have drug or alcohol problems. “It’s a kind of security a lot of these kids don’t get elsewhere. Here, you teach the kid. You don’t just teach the subject.”

If a parent has a concern, she usually meets with all her child’s teachers at once, giving perspective and ensuring that problems are being attended to.

“The teachers are enthused about helping the kids out,” parent Joni Mueller said.

In Texas today, this sort of attention to a child’s social and emotional needs would mean little if the test scores weren’t strong. At Lamar, they are.

The education research group Just for the Kids uses a mathematical formula that compares schools with others that have similar or greater numbers of tough-to-educate kids – those who can’t speak English well, are poor and were ill-prepared by their previous schools.

Among its peer schools, Lamar finishes first in the state in reading and writing. It also finishes second in math and science and fourth in social studies.

It has been named a Blue Ribbon school by federal officials and was recently named to the state honor roll of the Texas Education and Business Coalition, which honored the 12 middle schools with the strongest sustained academic record.

While the state rated Lamar as “recognized” – the state’s second-highest mark – this year, it was only five passing students from the “exemplary” rating.

“We’ve got to get better in a few areas, like writing,” Ms. Goodsell said. “But we have terrific people doing terrific work here.”

The philosophy that Lamar helped pioneer is used at each of Irving’s seven middle schools as well as at several other area districts.

Mr. Floyd says it’s difficult to know how popular the middle school model is in Texas.

“There are lots of schools that have ‘Middle School’ on the outside of the building, but they’re not doing middle school things,” he said. “It says Baptist on the outside, but it’s Methodist on the inside.”

Unflagging dedication

But Lamar’s dedication to the model has been unflagging, through three principals, dozens of teachers and more than a decade of students.

“Lamar really bought into the concept early on,” said Chuck Chernosky, Irving’s director of secondary curriculum and instruction. “All around the state, people know Lamar. They look at the school as a small learning community. It’s really a family.”

GOP’s Hensarling wins; area incumbents sweep

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 26A

Republican businessman Jeb Hensarling defeated Democrat Ron Chapman in the contentious race to represent the 5th District in the U.S. House, and incumbents of both parties swept to easy victories across North Texas on Tuesday.

Mr. Hensarling topped Mr. Chapman, a retired judge, by a comfortable margin, with Green Party candidate Tom Kemper and Libertarian Dan Michalski trailing far behind.

The district was one of two Dallas-area races not featuring an incumbent, and it was considered the region’s most competitive contest. In the other race, obstetrician Michael Burgess easily won the seat being vacated by Rep. Dick Armey.

The 5th District stretches across 11 counties, from southern Dallas County south to Athens and points beyond.

Mr. Hensarling said his victory reflects the region’s backing of President Bush.

“This district is conservative and I’m a conservative,” he said. “They knew that I’m a guy who wakes every morning to see what I can do to help the president.”

Mr. Chapman, a visiting state district judge, says he has no plans to run for office again.

“I think I’m just going to leave that to young guys like Ron Kirk,” he said.

3rd District

Plano Republican Sam Johnson, who has represented the district since winning a special election in 1991, easily retained his seat, defeating Democrat Manny Molera and Libertarian John Davis. The district covers parts of Collin and northeastern Dallas counties.

4th District

Ralph Hall, a 79-year-old Democrat, easily turned back two challengers, Longview Republican John Graves and Plano Libertarian Barbara Robinson.

Mr. Hall said before the election that if voters returned him to Washington, this would probably be his final term. The district includes Sherman, Rockwall, Tyler, Longview and Kilgore. Mr. Hall said he was surprised by the margin of victory because work on Capitol Hill kept him from campaigning.

6th District

Incumbent Republican Joe Barton won another term, defeating Democrat Felix Alvarado, Libertarian Frank Brady and the Green Party’s B.J. Armstrong.

Mr. Barton has represented the district, which includes southeastern Tarrant County and all of Johnson, Ellis, Hill and Navarro counties, since 1985.

12th District

Former Fort Worth Mayor Kay Granger handily won re-election to her fourth congressional term. She defeated political newcomer Edward Hanson of Euless, a former Republican turned Libertarian.

“I’m thrilled,” said Ms. Granger, who was in Austin on Tuesday night. “I was surprised to have essentially one opponent. It gave me some time to campaign for some other candidates to make sure the House has some good people in it.”

Ms. Granger said that in her fourth term she would continue to focus on national security matters. Her district includes defense contractor Lockheed Martin, maker of the new Joint Strike Fighter. 24th District

Democrat Martin Frost won his 13th term, defeating Republican Mike Rivera Ortega and Libertarian Ken Ashby.

“I feel very good,” Mr. Frost said. “I’m very pleased with the margin. I ran a positive campaign, and I think people respond to that.”

Mr. Frost, chairman of the Democratic caucus, was closely monitoring the battle for control of the House on Tuesday evening. If the Democrats take control of the House, Mr. Frost would become House majority leader, with Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri moving up to speaker. If the Republicans maintain control of the House and Mr. Gephardt leaves Congress to run for president, Mr. Frost would be a candidate for minority leader.

26th District

Dr. Burgess, a Highland Village obstetrician, defeated Democrat Paul LeBon for the seat of the retiring Mr. Armey.

Mr. Armey, R-Flower Mound, announced his retirement barely three weeks before the election’s filing deadline. His son, former County Judge Scott Armey, ran for the Republican nomination but was defeated by Dr. Burgess in a runoff.

Dr. Burgess did not want to jump the gun and declare victory before most of the vote was in. “This is my first general election,” he said. “Let me savor it.”

30th District

Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, retained control of the historically Democratic district, defeating Republican Ron Bush and Libertarian Lance Flores.

Ms. Johnson enjoyed national exposure during her last term as chairwoman of the Black Congressional Caucus. She has represented the district since 1992.

32nd District

Pete Sessions was elected to his fourth term in Congress, but his first in the newly drawn 32nd District. Mr. Sessions defeated Democrat Pauline Dixon.

The district includes East Dallas, North Dallas and northwest Dallas, the Park Cities and some northern suburbs within Dallas County. Mr. Sessions had served three terms representing the sprawling 5th District, but chose to run in the new district because it was more convenient to traverse. He lives just outside the district borders.

Statewide

Before Tuesday’s elections, the Dallas-Fort Worth area was represented by five Republicans and three Democrats. With Mr. Hensarling’s victory in the 5th District, those totals change to six Republicans and three Democrats.

Across Texas, only two incumbents appeared to be at risk of losing office. Waco Democrat Chet Edwards was locked in a close race with Republican Ramsey Farley of Temple. In South Texas, incumbent Republican Henry Bonilla trailed Democrat Henry Cuellar.

Before the election, the Texas delegation included 17 Democrats and 13 Republicans. The state gained two new seats in Congress through redistricting caused by the 2000 census.

It’s last call at UNT fraternities; Officials cite ‘culture’ of drinking for ban; students wanted input

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Animal House at the University of North Texas just got tamed.

Officials have banned alcohol from all common areas of the university’s seven fraternity houses because of a rise in underage drinking.

In addition, UNT announced Thursday that it was suspending the local chapter of Lambda Chi Alpha for the rest of the school year because of a hazing incident involving underage drinking.

“We just finally realized that a culture was formulating that was not a healthy environment for our students,” said Bonita Jacobs, UNT’s vice president for student development. “We very much needed to get their attention.”

Consider them attentive.

“People are upset,” said Nick Carter, vice president of UNT’s Interfraternity Council. “I don’t think underage drinking is any worse in the houses than in the college as a whole.”

The policy says that fraternity members older than 21 may drink alcohol in their rooms. But drinking in the halls, dens or any other common area is banned.

Dr. Jacobs said that the ban is temporary and that if fraternities show a commitment to improved behavior, drinking might be allowed back within a year.

The university was pressed into action by a marked increase in the number of underage drinking incidents. So far this semester, six of the 10 fraternities have faced university charges for violations of alcohol policy. In previous years, typically only one or two fraternities would be facing such charges at this point, Dr. Jacobs said.

“We’ve been keeping an eye on it all semester, and it was getting worse,” she said.

She said the campus’ Greek groups had made significant progress in recent years toward a more controlled atmosphere, but that “something changed in the culture this year.”

One of the six fraternities accused this semester is Lambda Chi Alpha. The university said the group violated a number of school policies, including those on hazing, public intoxication and intimidation, and unspecified state laws. It’s the third fraternity suspended by UNT since April 2000.

Lambda Chi Alpha members could not be reached Thursday. A phone number listed for the chapter has been disconnected.

During the last decade, a number of hazing- and alcohol-related incidents on campuses nationwide have led to a backlash against the excesses of Greek life. Some universities have banned fraternities and sororities; others have insisted that their houses be completely dry.

“Everyone is concerned about the risk management that goes on in the houses,” said Stephen Hirst, Texas Tech University’s fraternity adviser.

Dry by choice

Fraternities often have been willing to go along with stricter rules. Several national fraternities demand that their chapter houses be alcohol-free, and several of the UNT houses are dry by choice.

“We want other people to take pride in our houses as much as we do,” Mr. Carter said. “So we’ve all been becoming more politically correct, you could say.”

The new policy applies only to members of the Interfraternity Council, which includes the school’s 10 historically white fraternities. It does not apply to the campus’ sororities or its historically black or Latino Greek organizations, in part because none of those groups have houses of their own.

Only seven of the 10 IFC fraternities have houses, meaning the policy’s impact will be minimal on the other three.

Historically, universities have had a stronger hand in regulating on-campus fraternities than those with houses not on university property. But the new policy applies equally to the five on-campus frats and the two off campus.

The university also announced that fraternities may still hold events with alcohol at places other than their houses, but only if they hire a third party such as a bar to serve the alcohol and check IDs.

Mr. Carter said that fraternity members were concerned less by the new policies than by how they were imposed.

“It’s the fact it was handed down to us without our input,” he said.

He said that the fraternity council is not informed when alcohol-related allegations are made against members, meaning the group cannot be proactive in fixing the problem.

What’s next

The next step will be an evaluation of the existing rules governing fraternity parties to determine if they’re strict enough. Already, many fraternity events must be approved by university officials, including advance submission of a guest list, designated drivers, and someone to check students’ identification.

“I don’t think it will be a lot of new rules and regulations as much as making sure they follow the rules already in place,” Dr. Jacobs said.

In January, UNT plans a “leadership summit” with local, alumni, and national representatives of all the campus fraternities. Dr. Jacobs said she didn’t want to estimate when drinking might return to the houses, but she said she hoped it would be measured “in months, not years.”