Step inside John Tyler Elementary, and follow Principal Joan Kelly as she roams the halls, struggling to explain why her school is one of the District's worst.

So far, nothing is obvious. Kelly points to Tyler's think-big slogans, touts its student awards, praises the teachers she spots in command of their classes. Then she stops and shrugs.

"I wish I could pinpoint it," Kelly said as a troop of second-graders weaved past her on their way to lunch. "But when I look around, and see all of our hard work, I don't know exactly what the problem is."

Fact is, there are plenty of problems: Tyler's classes are crowded. Its PTA is weak. Kelly's job has been on the line for two years. Most Tyler students live in harsh poverty. Tyler's test scores are abysmal and the promotion rate is low. And the school system, in many ways, hasn't seemed to pay much attention.

For three years, Tyler -- at 10th and G streets SE, on the edge of Capitol Hill -- has finished at or near the bottom in D.C. rankings on national achievement tests. In reading, its third- and sixth-graders are about two years behind and at risk, educators say, of never catching up. In math and science, it's nearly the same story.

There is no easy answer to what's going wrong, or any obvious culprit. But Tyler's plight is all too common in the District's public schools, which in spite of a half-billion-dollar budget and endless chatter about reform, remain sunk in mediocrity, or worse.

Scores released last month, for example, show that students at 10 of 16 District high schools again lagged two grade levels behind in reading. School officials say they know those problems don't begin in high school, but take root years earlier, in places such as Tyler.

At first glance, though, Tyler belies the usual image of a school in crisis.

Its windows are not smashed or boarded, and its halls overflow with bright banners, posters, even a life-size portrait (drawn with crayons) of the week's best student. It has a tutoring program. The faculty, which follows the same lesson plans that teachers citywide use, is experienced and upbeat.

In one class recently, as a boy solved a math problem on the chalkboard, his teacher, Robin Stoep, laughed and shouted, "What am I going to do with all you stinkin' smart kids?"

Yet Tyler has abundant problems, which seem as much due to inefficiency as to the unstable lives of its students. Until a few weeks ago, it had no assistant principal. It has one science teacher. Teachers complain that the school lacks aides and at times cannot get enough books or supplies.

"I didn't have phonics or math books until three weeks after school began this year," one teacher said. "We have to fight like hell to get anything from the system."

Tyler, which draws nearly all of its 390 students from public housing complexes, also has had serious attendance problems. On average, about three dozen children were absent each day last year. And it cannot offer much one-on-one instruction to those who attend; most classes have about 24 students.

Yet last fall, despite its dismal record, Tyler received only one of the 72 administrators that Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins sent to schools to boost student performance. The official, a clerical aide to Jenkins, became Tyler's reading coordinator.

A few months later, he retired. He has not been replaced.

Like many other elementary schools, Tyler has trouble finding substitute teachers. A third-grade teacher who left to have a baby last year could not be replaced, so students were taught by a school aide for months.

"I think sometimes the school system forgets all about us," said Anna Jackson-Boller, president of Tyler's PTA, which she said has no more than a dozen or so active members. "If we had more help in the last few years, it wouldn't be this bad now."

A year ago, about 20 percent of Tyler's students either were forced to attend summer school or were retained in the same grade. That's an exceptionally high number. The average rate of promotion among D.C. elementary students is about 90 percent -- and even that has caused officials to worry.

Still, some Tyler teachers refuse to believe the school is ineffective. One said students simply don't test well. Another said students "maybe just blossom later." A third listed former students who have gone on to succeed. "We even had a girl become the valedictorian of her high school," she said.

Kelly, who has worked for nearly 30 years in D.C. schools, contends that there is little wrong with Tyler's classroom strategy. Instead, she and much of the staff blame the school's poor showing mostly on where students live: apartments hostage to drug dealing and persistent violence.

There, Kelly said, students lead turbulent lives. They don't get proper rest or nutrition, and have short attention spans. Many are raised by only their mothers or grandmothers. Dozens of them once were homeless.

"Test scores are not everything," said Margaret Payton, who has taught at Tyler for 18 years. "We have to accomplish a lot just with their lives."

"It's hard for these children to keep school on their minds," said Jane Bryant, the lone counselor for Tyler's 390 students. "We try very hard to help. There's just so much in their way."

Another key obstacle, it seems, has been a debate among Kelly, Jenkins and Ward 6 school board member Bob Boyd about who should run the school. Kelly has no job security; she has been acting principal for two years.

Jenkins nearly removed her last year, but decided against it a week before classes began. Kelly, who would not discuss the issue, has the support of faculty and parents. But Boyd remains unhappy with the school's work.

"I don't see a sense of mission being projected there," he said. "It's being treated as if it were just business as usual."

A few weeks ago, Tyler opened its doors with renewed hope for success. It has been selected as one of 12 troubled District schools to take part in an improvement plan created by Yale University child psychiatrist James Comer.

As part of Comer's model, pychologists and social workers will work at the school, and teachers will help shape policy. Parents also get a chance to improve their academic skills in a "family learning center."

The premise: If parents are enthusiastic, so are their children.

School system officials say enacting projects like Comer's has never been more important, for many city classrooms are being filled with students scarred emotionally by violence or who are learning disabled because they were born to mothers addicted to cocaine.

The Comer program begins later this fall at Tyler, but at this point the drive to lure more parents is not extraordinary. Along with a monthly PTA meeting, Kelly is giving students a parent bulletin to take home every few weeks.

That's not likely to bring much support; the school system knows that an occasional letter or meeting usually won't rouse a poor community because many parents, though wanting the best for their children, often doubt they have much to offer, cannot read or are preoccupied with other burdens.

Tyler's staff has not gone to parent homes, or met at public housing complexes or neighborhood churches, as other D.C. schools in impoverished areas -- and with higher test scores -- have done.

"We may have to do that," Kelly said. "But a few other schools have tried, and they still didn't get many parents to come out."

Kelly said she believes support for Tyler is growing. For example, upon her request, scores of parents send their children to school in uniform. Also, some teachers wear the school's colors to keep spirit up.

Last week, about 60 parents came to Tyler's back-to-school night.

Another good sign, Kelly said, is that Tyler's neighbors on Capitol Hill -- most of whom do not have children enrolled there -- have begun to lend a hand by matching volunteer tutors with students.

The after-school effort is led by a woman who lives across the street from Tyler, Jan Eichhorn. It includes about 50 volunteers. Eichhorn, who is still recruiting volunteers, has received a $15,000 private grant to hire staff and buy supplies for the tutoring.

"Before we got started, there wasn't much community support," said Eichhorn, who works in the mayor's policy office. "People didn't know what was going on at Tyler, and the school system didn't ask us for help. But it's really needed. Many of these kids are so defeated. They get so far behind."

Nearly 75 percent of its students qualify for federal free lunch programs because their families are impoverished.

Nearly one-fourth of its students in 1989 were kept in the same grade.

Score on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, which is a nationally administered test. The average national score is 50. Maximun possible - 100.









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