School defies labels; Frazier Elementary’s poor minority students excel in face of adversity

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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One in an occasional series

Students who enroll at Julia C. Frazier Elementary check their last names at the door. All day, they wear their teachers’ last names like adopted kids.

“We treat them like our own kids,” said third-grade teacher Leslie City. “We tell them, ‘From 8 to 3, your last name is City. I’m your mama. I’ll love you and teach you and protect you.

“At the end of the day, you can get your last name back.”

It’s that kind of personal bond between teacher and student that has helped Frazier become one of the state’s greatest education success stories.

Conventional wisdom holds that race and poverty go a long way toward determining how a child performs in school. If you’re white and live in the suburbs, you’ll probably be fine. If you’re black and poor, there’s not much anyone can do to help.

Julia C. Frazier Elementary, next to one of Dallas’ most run-down housing projects, has turned that wisdom on its head. Its student body is 94 percent black, 100 percent minority and 98 percent poor. But Frazier students somehow outperform many of their wealthier, suburban peers across Texas. A third-grader at Frazier is, on average, more likely to pass the TAAS test than one in Plano.

“If you don’t have clean clothes for your child, I’ll wash what you have or find you some new ones,” said Rachel George, principal of the South Dallas school. “If you don’t have school supplies, I’ll get them for you. If you can’t wake your child up early in the morning, she can sleep at my house.

“The idea is to get rid of all the excuses so children can come here and learn.”

‘No child left behind’

Frazier’s success – it has been rated exemplary by the state two years running – draws on a number of factors. It has unique support from a nearby preschool and a corporate giant. It has teachers who view their work with a missionary zeal. And it uses data and individual attention to ensure that students’ weaknesses are targeted early and forcefully.

“Everybody’s saying ‘no child left behind’ nowadays,” said Ms. George, Dallas’ current principal of the year. “We’ve been living that for years.”

The success at Frazier begins before children arrive at the 72-year-old brick schoolhouse. At age 3, future Frazier Lions enroll at the Margaret Cone Head Start Center, a preschool a few blocks from campus.

Texas Instruments opened the Cone Center in 1990 as part of a philanthropic effort. The idea: Provide health care and social services to the poorest of the poor, and they’ll be as ready for kindergarten as rich kids.

It didn’t work.

“We weren’t really preparing these kids for kindergarten,” said Ann Minnis, director of the TI Foundation, which has committed $3 million to Frazier and the Cone Center since 1990. “We found that 20 to 30 percent of these kids were in the bottom 1 percent of the U.S. when they entered Cone. We realized we needed to focus on getting them ready academically, not just with services.”

In 1993, TI asked Nell Carvell of Southern Methodist University to assemble a pre-reading program for Cone. Her Language Enrichment Activities Program boosted test scores immediately; it’s now promoted as a model for Head Start programs across the country. Kids who spend two years at the Cone Center “are right there with Highland Park kids” on test scores, Ms. Minnis said.

The work done with 4-year-olds at Cone translates into higher performance at Frazier as those children get older. “You can definitely see the difference between the Cone kids and the others when they get here,” said Emily Jenkins, a kindergarten teacher. “The Cone kids are ready to learn to read the day they get here. They know their colors, their numbers. The other kids are half a year behind.”

But the connection isn’t as direct as one might think. Because Frazier draws its students largely from housing projects, its students move around a lot. About half of kindergartners went to the Cone Center. By the time they’re ready to take the TAAS in third grade, only about a third of Frazier students are Cone

Still, Cone’s presence has an impact even on the kids who didn’t attend its programs.

“We have different expectations for children here because of Cone,” Ms. Jenkins said. “Having these strong kids means we raise the bar for everybody else. Cone sets the expectations.”

Order amid chaos

If you have stereotyped expectations of urban schools, you’ll toss them aside after a visit to Frazier. First, it’s quiet: Frazier is more orderly than many suburban elementary schools. When it’s time for lunch, kids line up peacefully in the sparkling-clean halls, dressed in their blue and white uniforms; there’s no chaos in the classroom.

That’s a contrast to the surrounding neighborhood, which Ms. George acknowledges “can be rough.” Across the street is the 60-year-old Frazier Courts housing project, a complex so dilapidated that the Dallas Housing Authority wants to tear it down and rebuild it from scratch. Weeds grow next to rusty clothesline poles. Shirtless men wander around, apparently intoxicated, at 11 a.m. Teachers view getting their cars broken into as a risk of the job.

Many of the school’s parents are not far removed from school age themselves. Many have troubles far greater than the TAAS test.

“We have a 29-year-old grandmother here,” Ms. George said. “Some of our parents have substance problems, or they’re not home a lot for a variety of reasons.”

Because of the environment, Frazier staffers are more active in their students’ home lives. If a mom doesn’t return a phone call from Ms. George, the principal will be on her doorstep soon enough. “I wait until school lets out, grab a buddy teacher, and follow the child when he walks home,” she said.

Parents appreciate the staff’s dedication and discipline. “The teachers here don’t let the students run over them,” said Nakita Walker, mother of first-grader Davonte. “They keep control of things. They care about if your kid gets home safe. It’s a real good school.”

It’s not uncommon to see the principal or teachers walking through neighborhood, knocking on doors and meeting people.

“We have to get them to trust us, or else they’ll find ways to fight us,” Ms. George said.

Like many successful schools, Frazier is a big believer in diagnostic testing. Students are given standardized tests – some nationally known, some created by the school – several times a year. The data they generate are immediately distributed to teachers, who know precisely their students’ weak areas.

By the time they reach third grade, those weaknesses are rare. Last year, 97.6 percent of Frazier’s students – all but one child – passed the reading TAAS test. In math, the number was 97.7 percent – again, only one child failed.

Teachers in every grade meet several times a week to discuss their students, what skills they’re having trouble mastering and how best to help them. The lowest achievers are placed into special reading classes for one-to-one help.

The individual attention lets students know an adult is deeply interested in their progress.

“Once kids find out their teachers care, they’ll do anything to please them,” Ms. George said.

This kind of attention is easier in a small school such as Frazier, which has only about 230 students. (Unlike many Dallas elementary schools that go up to sixth grade, Frazier stops at grade 3.) The personal involvement means that teaching at Frazier can be stressful. Long hours, normal for teachers anywhere, can be particularly long at Frazier.

“When the day’s over, we stay here for a while and tell jokes because we don’t want to be driving on the highway when we’re all stressed,” said Ms. George, who is in her sixth year as principal.

But the teachers say the family environment led by Ms. George draws them together. They support one another in everything from curriculum to discipline. The result is stability and little teacher turnover. Last year, the school had only two openings for teachers, both caused by long-time teachers retiring. “They’ll have to drag me away from here,” Ms. Jenkins said.

The staff members at Frazier use words like “calling” and “mission” to describe their work, and there’s an almost religious devotion.

“I consider this a ministry,” Ms. George said. “These kids were given to us to do something with. When you go to bed at night, you better be sure you’ve done all you can.”