Friday, April 25, 2008 | Five years ago, suspensions abounded at Webster Elementary. Fights regularly erupted during recess and teachers feared violent outbursts from gang-involved 6th graders. New principal Jennifer White was shocked to learn that Webster had 70 suspensions the year before she arrived, and 80 the year before that.

“My first year, [one day] by 10 a.m. a substitute was up front in tears,” said Becky Tewalt, a speech therapist who began working at Webster in 2000. “She’d had it.”

Fast forward to 2008. Students cheerfully greet their teachers by name, line up quickly, and listen respectfully to each other in class. The endless procession of kids to the principal’s office has stopped. White now spends her mornings ranging freely between classrooms to observe teachers and videotaping their best lessons to share.

“It’s a changed school, I’m telling you,” said Lydia White, no relation to Jennifer, a guidance assistant who has worked 30 years at the school. Her eyes suddenly welled. “They’ve blossomed. It amazes me.”

Teachers chalk up the turnaround to a homegrown program that explicitly teaches students how to behave in class. Building on Buguey’s initial efforts to improve discipline, Jennifer White and her teachers crafted the Webster Way, which teaches “scholarly behaviors” such as eye contact, cleaning up your trash, and greeting teachers by name. Such skills are usually expected but not actively taught, White said.

Teachers at Webster devote 10 to 20 minutes daily to role-playing those behaviors and discussing why they matter. Throughout the day, they invoke the Webster Way.

“Schools assume that a student will come in, and just know what to do,” school psychologist Steve Franklin said. “At Webster, teaching a student how to be a student is really important. We don’t expect them to already know how to read, to do math or write. So why aren’t we teaching these things, too?”

It sounds elementary, and hardly radical. Yet the results have been dramatic. Webster has seen suspensions plummet and test scores surge since instilling the Webster Way. Only 10 students were suspended last year. Test scores ranked Webster in the top echelon of demographically similar schools statewide.

Students now flock to the science-themed school. Magnet schools like Webster center their curriculum on a theme and pull students from across the city. In 2003, few students came to Webster from elsewhere; today, half its students have chosen Webster over their neighborhood schools. Educators from Visalia and Los Angeles and even Michigan have visited to see Webster’s transformation.

“This is new. This works,” said Susie Althof, a kindergarten teacher who has worked 14 years at the school. “And if it can work here, it should be working everywhere.”

The Webster Way originated in a school-wide effort to understand poverty and its impact on education. Most teachers at the school are white. Their students are mostly from low-income Latino and black families. Teachers read and reflected together on sociological texts about poverty and the achievement gap, but the Webster Way emerged from their own efforts to observe and document what set their best students apart. They jotted down notes about their highest-achieving students, then pooled their research.

Top achievers, they found, had mastered a behavioral code that equaled school success. They spoke up in class. They balanced when to speak and when to listen. They turned toward the speaker. Those behaviors — not their brightness — separated them from their lower-achieving peers and enabled them to absorb information. If the school explicitly taught students those behaviors, White reasoned, wouldn’t they do better?

Research on school readiness has largely focused on children’s academic skills and how they correlate with their parents’ education, said Pamela Davis-Kean, an assistant research professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. Children of lawyers, doctors and professors are more likely than their disadvantaged peers to know numbers, letters and hear a wider range of vocabulary before school starts.

“If you’re the son of a basketball coach and you start basketball, you understand it better than kids who’ve never been around the game,” explained Ruby Payne, author of A Framework for Understanding Poverty, which Webster teachers read before developing their approach.

Accordingly, efforts to close the achievement gap have traditionally centered on getting disadvantaged kids up to speed academically. But Webster has extended that quest to proactively teaching “soft skills” and behaviors that bolster learning. Other San Diego schools have also focused heavily on behavior, including the Gompers and Keiller charter middle schools, which instituted uniforms and were influenced by the Amistad Academy in New Haven, Conn.

“They don’t teach this in any teacher education program,” White said. “Too often with behaviors we just tell them” to speak up or not whine. “How do we have an actual classroom lesson around eye contact?”

One method is role-playing. Instead of simply handing down the Webster Way as a list of rules, teachers act out scenarios with their students. Afterward, they encourage students to explore why the rules matter. Before Teri Coker’s 1st grade class embarked on a group research project about ladybugs, Coker and the children acted out how to respectfully share the ideas they found in library books. While performing the skit, Coker jokingly announced, “Group, I found a fact!” whenever she discovered a fact about ladybugs.

“Then in the library we actually heard them saying, ‘Group, I found a fact!’” Coker said. “We couldn’t stop laughing! But look — it’s working!”

Webster’s turnaround has dramatic implications about the tools necessary to overcome the achievement gap between kids rich and poor. By proactively teaching behaviors to disadvantaged students, Webster believes it has “decoded” school for low-income kids, freeing school time for learning instead of discipline.

“Nobody had really explained it [to them] before,” kindergarten teacher Susie Althof said. “Within a week, the results were dramatic. It was as though a calmness settled on our school. And the children felt acknowledged. They knew what was expected of them, and they were getting positive feedback because of it. And the children just walked with their heads high. Somebody broke the code for them.”

That tranquility paved the way for teaching methods that allow students more independence and spur surprisingly intellectual debate among grade schoolers. White urged teachers to increase classroom discussion so that English learners, who make up more than 40 percent of Webster’s enrollment, will spend more time talking. Students read and chatter in pairs.

Instead of calling on a single student to answer a question, 3rd grade teacher Jeralyn Treas asked the partnered kids splayed on the rug to discuss what kind of sentences — declarative or interrogative — were on their spelling test. The room went abuzz. A minute later, they regrouped.

“I saw a really cool conversation happening — a discussion — and I’d like them to fishbowl for us,” Treas said. Two girls reenacted their chat, in which they disagree about the answer. After talking with her partner, one girl changed her mind.

“Is she making you think in a different way now?” Treas asked. “Sometimes if someone bullies you with an idea, you think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to defend my answer.’ But (she) made it really comfortable, didn’t she?”

Kids seem to glory in the Webster Way. In class, they gently correct each other’s behaviors. At home, they remember the code. Parent volunteer Angela McPhatter now invokes the Webster Way when counseling her daughter on how to deal with bullies. Vice principal Marisol Marin recalled a truancy hearing where a 2nd grader was asked why he hadn’t missed school since transferring to Webster.

“He said, ‘They have this Webster Way.’ And the truancy officer asked, ‘What’s the Webster Way?’” Marin said. The child rattled off the rules, startling Marin. “It works because you don’t want to disappoint your teacher or yourself. That’s better than a piece of licorice or a star, at the end of the day.”

Some teachers were initially skeptical, White recalled. One questioned whether the Webster Way was inappropriate for kids who came from cultures that discourage eye contact. It’s the one memory that seems to genuinely ruffle White as she describes the program’s rollout.

“If you believe any parent would be unhappy, call them and ask,” White recalled saying. “Because otherwise, you’re perpetuating poverty. My husband the businessman will not hire you in the business world, if you don’t make eye contact.”

Visitors often tell White, with surprise, that their students are like any other students. That comment lays bare the stereotypes that have dogged schools in southeast San Diego, and the assumption that disadvantaged kids can’t surmount their circumstances, White said. They can, she insisted, and with methods like the Webster Way, they will.

Correction: In the original version of this story, teacher Susie Althof’s name was spelled incorrectly.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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