Imani Lee says she wants to be an environmentalist when she grows up. She hates seeing trash on the ground, especially all the Katrina debris that is still lying about. Among the things she really wishes hadn't wound up in a trash heap were the thousands of books that she lost during the flood. Reading was her favorite subject.
But last week, there was Imani, doing her homework for KIPP Believe College Prep, a new charter school that started the academic year early with its first summer session.
"I actually cried," says Imani's mother Terice. "I wished I had an opportunity to go to a school like this."
Imani, 10, is one of thousands of New Orleans kids to re-enter the public school system as registration began for newly opened charter schools across town last week. (A list of all the charter schools and their registration dates are available in a form that is easy to download at www.nolapublicschools.net). The opening of charter schools marks the latest phase in the massive realignment of the Orleans Parish Public Schools.
The realignment began when the state took over operational control of 112 out of 128 schools from the Orleans Parish School Board last November. State lawmakers, long tired of high costs and low performances in the Orleans district, transferred all public schools in New Orleans that were performing below the state average to a newly created "Recovery School District" under the aegis of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).
In the wake of last November's legislative action, the educational landscape in New Orleans is hardly recognizable. In addition to the creation of a second governing authority, old schools have closed, new schools have opened, existing schools have switched buildings, and some kids have yet to return while others have relocated across the city. Amidst all those changes, the daunting task of enrolling kids, hiring teachers and repairing damaged buildings remains.
"My advice," says Terice, "get your kids in school quick because there is a lot of great opportunity out there."
Charter schools have emerged as the new paradigm for the future of New Orleans public education. That change has brought the national debate over charter schools to the local level -- along with new issues that accompany the unprecedented creation of a school system based primarily on the charter school model.
The reinvented Orleans Parish Public School system is the latest development in a nationwide movement that began with the first charter school in Minnesota in 1991. Since then, strong federal backing (including money and programs developed by the Department of Education) has fostered more than 3,000 charter schools nationwide, each with varying degrees of success.
Charter schools began as a response to some public schools' inability to meet the specific needs of certain students who didn't quite fit into bureaucratic designations or guidelines. Whereas many traditional school boards oversee huge districts weighed down by regulations, charter schools represent a publicly funded alternative to address the specific needs of schools and kids.
The "charter" that a school adopts is actually a performance contract between the school and the governing body (usually the local school board) that grants them legitimacy as a public education institution. The charter identifies the school's mission, methods of education, students served and means of assessment. A charter school is held accountable to strict testing requirements for its students each year.
In return, the school is free of the school board's day-to-day oversight and regulations and can carry out its mission as it sees fit -- much like parochial or independent schools. Funding comes from the state's education budget on a per-student basis, and additional fundraising and federal grants are also available. Charters are typically negotiated as five-year contracts, but any violation of that contract could result in closure of the school. Essentially, the charter school concept borrows its campus governing structure from the private school model but remains tuition-free as a relatively autonomous public school.
Much of the charter school debate focuses on the matter of individual schools' independence. Each charter school has its own board and administration to manage that school's needs. That is a double-edged sword, as each school must negotiate, for example, its own contracts for transportation, food services, building maintenance and other basic services that normally fall under the school board's larger umbrella.
For some new charter schools, running the "business" side of the ledger can prove too difficult a task and even lead to mismanagement -- the very problem many charter schools were created to solve. Other critics say charter schools don't provide enough opportunities for special-education students, that they squeeze underperforming kids out to bolster their testing results, or that they too often use selective admissions and thereby undercut the "public" nature of the institution.
BESE, the state's educational governing body, oversees the 112 New Orleans public schools that were organized into the Recovery School District and has tried to anticipate those criticisms. For starters, BESE hired the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) as a consultant to guide it through the process of granting charters. BESE also adopted guidelines stipulating that every charter school must have at least a 10 percent special-education population and open admissions for charter-eligible students. The board also requires a state hearing before any student can be expelled to ensure that schools are not squeezing out underperforming students. The Orleans Parish School Board, which has chartered 12 schools, does not have those guidelines.
The upside for charter schools is flexibility. Teachers and school organizers can address the specific needs of their student population. For example, if a school consists of a lot of English-as-second-language students, it can fashion its curriculum to meet those needs. Charter schools also can adopt unconventional methods to be more effective, such as lengthening the school day, mixing grades or creating more hands-on activities.
Additionally, charter school advocates say that their schools foster levels of parent, teacher and overall community involvement that are unmatched in many public schools. As teachers become more involved in shaping the curriculum and the direction of the school, they have a greater incentive to see kids succeed. After-school volunteer programs and opportunities to provide additional funding give the larger community a direct stake in a charter school's success. And parents have direct access to the people who run the schools -- not to mention a menu from which they can pick their kids' schools. The traditional system typically limits a student who doesn't get into a selective admissions campus to just one choice: his or her district school.
That freedom of parents to choose their kids' schools is what many cite as the best chance to improve the New Orleans public education system. The city's public schools now have "pure parental choice," says BESE vice president Leslie Jacobs. "Schools in a very real way are competing for students. If they're not operating well, parents can vote with their feet."
Jacobs also points to the charter schools' performance contract as an advantage for ensuring that failing schools are dealt with swiftly, as opposed to the old system in which failing schools continued to exist. "When a charter fails because enough people aren't going to it, or because the state shuts it down because of its poor test scores, one could argue that it's not a failure but a vindication of the model," says Jacobs, a former member of the Orleans Parish School Board who is a staunch advocate of charter schools and other educational reforms.
After years of underperforming schools governed by a politically fractured local school board, the individual efforts of charters presented the fastest and most efficient way to get New Orleans public schools up and running in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The federal government, recognizing the chance to affirm the Department of Education's recent preferences for charters, kick-started the process by allotting $29 million in funding for rebuilding education efforts -- but stipulated that the funds could only be used for charter schools.
"It was less about charter schools than it was about change, but the vehicle to drive change ended up being charter schools," says Dr. Tony Recasner, the city's first charter school operator and president of the Louisiana Charter School Association.
The result was a system of charter schools. Some of the charters converted existing schools, while others are new schools created by national charter organizations. Only a handful of schools existed as charters before the storm.
The local charter system faces its own unique struggles, starting with the natural confusion -- and discord -- brought on by having two public school systems operating in the city at the same time. While individual schools strive just to reopen, educational officials from two boards -- BESE and the Orleans Parish School Board -- still haven't brought a consistent, unifying vision (and operating system) to the many autonomous charter schools.
BESE and the Orleans Parish School Board operate independently of one another, with different rules and resources. The two boards, pitted against one another when the state takeover began, have tried to improve their communications and working relationships -- but the fact remains that New Orleans has two competing public school systems.
"We ultimately have to become a unified Orleans Parish school system. We have two fragmented systems and within those systems we have other fragmentations like charter schools," says Orleans Parish School Board president Phyllis Landrieu.
The first opportunity to combine the two systems will come in five years. At that time, according to the law creating the Recovery School District, the state superintendent of education must present a detailed progress report on schools in the Recovery District and recommend a course of action for their future.
At that point, anything is possible, ranging from a complete return of all schools to the Orleans District to continuation of the two separate systems to some new combination of authorities. Add to that the Bring New Orleans Back Commission's proposal for a brand-new appointed Orleans Parish School Board, and the system's future governance becomes even more uncertain.
Recasner looks at it from the standpoint of creating a consistent experience for kids. "We need to develop a unified vision of consistency of schools in curriculum and standards so that, as kids and families live in one house and relocate to another, kids are getting a fairly consistent experience in school," he says. "It doesn't mean the same experience. It just means consistency of experience."
Recasner remains confident about charter schools' viability. "In the long term, we'll prove through the outcomes, through the accountability results, that we have created effective schools that are uniquely different and serve kids and families better."
Jacobs says her immediate concern remains getting schools open and ready. "Charters by their very design don't determine that it's going to be a better school," she says. "What determines the quality of the school is the quality of school leadership, quality of the teachers, the delivery of instruction and the school climate."
That, as advocates of charter schools have learned, can vary from school to school. Meanwhile, students and parents remain hopeful that New Orleans' most recent foray into educational reform will produce better results than what they've seen in recent years.
As students filled hallways and classrooms to register at dozens of charter schools last week, they got their first taste of the brave new world of New Orleans public schools.
For Rosylin Carter, mother of three children who hope to attend the Samuel J. Green School in the fall, it's a positive experience. "I think the New Orleans school system has a chance to come back right," she says. "It can't get any worse than it was."
Following are three examples of charter schools, all of which are nearly 100 percent African American and roughly 85 percent free-lunch students, just as it was in most public schools before the storm. They were created by various sponsors -- one by a national charter school company, another by a group of alumni seeking to preserve their alma mater, and a third by Recasner, who launched his first local charter school in 1998.
KIPP Believe College Prep
KIPP Believe College Prep school leader Adam Meinig remembers the moment he decided it was time for a change. He was at his first teaching job, at Langston Hughes Elementary School in Mid-City in 2001, working with kids who had failed the fourth grade. His official task was to catch the kids up, but Meinig says his main objective was to get them to feel that success was possible.
Meinig and his fellow teachers got the students' passing rates up and saw a boost in their enthusiasm for learning by the time they were ready to apply to their next school. It was a short-lived feeling of achievement, however, as every one of his kids was denied admission to a selective admissions school. The kids were left with only one school choice -- one in which, on average, only 8 percent of the kids passed the eighth grade.
"I watched the faith and the confidence burn out of their eyes," says Meinig. "It was gone. That was the moment that I said, 'We've got to do something different, this isn't fair.'"
Meinig now leads a brand new school at the site of the old McNair School on South Carrollton Avenue. The new charter school is backed by a national charter school outfit called the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), which offers its own model for education. With 45 charter schools around the country, KIPP schools are open-admission public schools in typically under-resourced communities. The schools cultivate an attitude of tough love with hard work as a means for success.
The KIPP motto is, "There are no shortcuts." A typical KIPP school day lasts from 7:20 a.m. to 5 p.m., with classes every Saturday and a mandatory summer session as well. KIPP Believe College Prep, Meinig's local charter school, plans to follow the traditional KIPP format of grades 5 through 8. He opened with just a fifth grade last week and will add one new grade each year. By fall of 2007, KIPP plans to have three schools in New Orleans.
Meinig says he has been planning to open KIPP Believe College Prep since the day he watched his students at Langston Hughes Elementary lose hope. In his personal search for a long-term solution to the problems of education in New Orleans, Meinig learned that KIPP schools around the country took kids who tested on average in the 24th percentile nationally when they entered the fifth grade -- but typically scored near the 80th percentile when they left KIPP.
"I realized that there's no magic solution to urban education, it just takes really hard work, whatever it takes," says Meinig.
Meinig left New Orleans in 2002 to become a founding teacher at a KIPP school in Denver to learn the craft of building such a school. He returned to found KIPP Believe College Prep in 2005 after Katrina hit. In the days after the storm, he and another KIPP eighth grade team from New Orleans joined forces to search for displaced students in Houston. They found kids in the Astrodome and in other areas of that city, and within two weeks started a makeshift school for New Orleans evacuees in Houston.
Meinig eventually returned to New Orleans -- as a school director with no teachers and no kids. He admits it wasn't easy trying to create a school that no one had heard of, and then trying to sell the concept to a displaced student population. He didn't even have an office.
Then Mardi Gras rolled around and it became Meinig's most effective recruiting tool. He strolled up and down St. Charles Avenue during almost every parade with his homemade "KIPP Beads" that contained all of the vital KIPP Believe information, including his cell phone, and placed them on kids necks while talking to their parents.
At the same time, Meinig sought a very particular kind of educator. Four hundred applicants, 60 interviews and 30 in-person teaching observations later, Meinig found his five teachers. "I was looking for some pretty crazy teachers," he admits. "They're here because they believe."
Believing their methods can work is the hallmark of KIPP Schools. They have a hands-on, hard work culture that may not be a perfect fit for some teachers. Behind the long hours stands an attempt to make the education institution the centerpiece of a kid's life. KIPP does this by creating its own universe of sorts.
In addition to school uniforms, group chants to learn math tables and school mottos, every KIPP grade is known by the year they will enter college. This year's fifth graders are thus known as the class of 2014. "Fifth grade is perfect," says Meinig. "You're catching them while they're still kids, but they get it. You can talk to them. You can be very real, very honest -- but they're still a kid. They're still excited. They get into it."
A rewards system simulates a professional environment for the kids. For good behavior and schoolwork, kids earn a "paycheck" that allows them to acquire things at the school store. Kids also work towards a year-end bonus -- a 10-day field trip based on the main subject of the year. By the time a student leaves the eighth grade, he or she will have had the opportunity to go to 20 different states, 30 colleges and 15 national parks.
It's not a soft rewards program, says Meinig. Some kids don't make it.
"We work to make sure kids understand why they didn't make it, and to work for next year. We want them to learn from their mistakes."
Becoming a big factor in students' lives requires a serious relationship with parents, says Meinig. He personally visits the home of each student to tell the family exactly what to expect from school. After addressing concerns, he always says, "Sitting at this table, I believe we have everything we need to build an amazing school."
Meinig and his team face many challenges as a new school, mainly having a group of kids whose abilities will span a wide range of educational proficiency. Meinig welcomes that challenge.
"All kids are the right kids," he says.
Warren Easton High School
From the roof of Warren Easton High School at 3019 Canal St., you can see the skyline of New Orleans just as generations of students at this Mid-City landmark have done since 1911 -- most of them as band members practicing in their makeshift rehearsal space. Warren Easton, named for the city and state's first supervisor of education, began as a school for boys of the working class.
Over the years, it evolved into a coed school for whites only, then integrated in the 1960s, and finally became an all-black school. In the 1980s, Warren Easton became a magnet school. Since then, it has been one of the few New Orleans public high schools where kids consistently performed well on standardized tests.
Warren Easton took on 5 feet of water during Katrina, and when the Orleans Parish School Board announced that the school would not reopen until 2007, the historic campus' future seemed about to wash away with its past. There were even rumors that the magnificent edifice would be converted to condos.
That's when a handful of dedicated alumni -- most of them white -- decided to step in to try to save their now predominantly African-American alma mater by getting it reopened. Organized as the Hall of Fame Committee, which originally was formed in 1991, the alums quickly searched for ways to ensure the school's reopening this fall. They concluded that becoming a charter school was their best shot.
"It would be a great condo building, but over my dead body," says Arthur Hardy, alumnus, Hall of Fame Committee member and vice president of the Warren Easton Charter Foundation.
The committee's first step was getting a charter approved. Because Warren Easton was not a failing school, it was still under the control of the Orleans Parish School Board -- the same group that said it couldn't open until 2007. Much to the committee's surprise, the board granted Warren Easton a charter. With that, the oldest public school in the city had jumped on the charter school bandwagon.
Being new to the world of charter schools, the committee sought advice and guidance from educators around town. "We don't have a model for this," says Hardy. "We're learning as we go, with lots of good intentions, lots of hard work, and whatever we don't know somebody will show us."
School organizers soon found that they had a model in themselves. Easton was a National Blue Ribbon winner and boasted one of the highest graduation rates and lowest dropout rates in the city -- and its test scores had been improving over the last five years. "We hope to make many improvements to the school, but since it was a working school we were advised not to change too much," says Hardy.
Alumni support and respect for tradition long distinguished Easton from other public high schools. The Hall of Fame Committee has become the primary support organization that drives the school. The committee has honored illustrious graduates by inducting them into the school's "hall of fame," and its members have raised money for college scholarships and additional school supplies. They've also created cash awards for exceptional faculty members.
It is noteworthy that the committee, which supports a student body that is predominantly African American, consists mostly of white alumni who attended Easton in the pre-integration era. While many public schools experienced a similar racial turnover, few have maintained white support the way Easton has. Hardy says that's attributable to both the past and the present at Easton.
"If it was just nostalgia, that would only go so far," says Hardy. "You come to a reunion, sing the fight song and go home. But it's what happening today. It's probably a better school today than when I went here."
While the committee focused on getting the school reopened, teachers like Jenny Rious were trying to find students. With the help of a Michigan school where she worked after Katrina, Rious was able to create a Web site, www.warreneastoninexile.com, which became a communication hub for students to keep up with one another. A map marked where each student was located and gave contact information.
In addition to letting teachers and students stay in touch, the Web site allowed the charter foundation to get feedback from its student base for the upcoming school year. The school also used the site to organize a special ceremony to honor Easton's would-be Class of 2006 -- inducting them as a class into the school's Hall of Fame.
Looking ahead to the coming academic year, Principal Alexina Medley says Easton will continue to emphasize fundamentals, with a curriculum that is very similar to the one students had pre-Katrina.
Hardy says he is confident the school will continue as a charter campus, despite facing challenges such as fundraising, enrollment and the need to repair Easton's damaged main building. He draws inspiration from an email he received recently from the mother of an Easton student who would have graduated this past May, but for Katrina. She told Hardy that her son, forced to finish his senior year at Ouachita High School in Monroe, had tears in his eyes as he crossed the stage because he wished he could have been at Easton.
He wore his purple and gold Easton T-shirt underneath his graduation outfit, his mother wrote.
Samuel J. Green School
Dr. Tony Recasner, director of the Green School, was trained as a child psychologist to help kids and their families. Locally educated at Walter L. Cohen High School before getting degrees from Tulane and Loyola, Recasner found that the issues he faced as a psychologist kept leading him toward the world of education. Fifteen years later, Recasner is a Louisiana education pioneer by virtue of being the first charter school operator in the city and a leading advocate for charter schools.
Recasner now leads the Samuel J. Green School and New Orleans Charter Middle School, which are combining as one K-8 school at the Green campus on Valence Street Uptown. His success at New Orleans Charter Middle School, which opened in Hollygrove in 1998, and the education methods applied there have served as a model of success for other charter schools in New Orleans.
Recasner started his foray into education at the Lewis Extension School, but soon felt constrained by longstanding school system policies. "We felt like we were doing a good job at Lewis Extension, but the decisions, the operational decisions, and the long-term implications of what we were able to do and not do on that campus, was really the school board's decision," Recasner says. After researching the charter school movement, Recasner started New Orleans Charter Middle School.
Charter status gave Recasner the freedom to make big changes quickly.
"We were able to design a curriculum that included a wider variety of educational materials for the wide variety of kids that we were serving," he says. Recasner's team shifted funding away from expensive textbooks and instead used the money for other books such as novels and hands-on experiences such as field trips. They also changed the hours of their typical school day.
Carving students' days into 50-minute learning intervals (the traditional time frame) "works well under a limited instance for kids who are pretty dutiful, good students with a strong work ethic," says Recasner. "But for the average middle school kid, it's really doubtful that that's the most effective way of doing it."
Instead, learning occurs over two-week intervals during which kids focus on one academic subject for three-and-a-half to four hours a day without clouding their minds with other subjects. At the end of the two-week period, they've spent the same amount of time as they would have spent studying their subjects using the traditional format. "For the average kid, we teach them that learning has a beginning, a middle and an end," says Recasner.
He says this method allows for multi-dimensional learning, which adds depth to subjects because teachers have more time to take learning out of the classroom or to offer other interactive experiences that couldn't be crammed into a 50-minute interval.
Afternoons at Recasner's school are all about experiential learning, with 22 electives that range from bicycle repair to camping, from karate to Mardi Gras Indian costume making, flag football, soccer, choir and dance.
"It's almost like every day he remembers what it's like to be a kid," says Patrice Boyd, the mother of two graduates from Recasner's program with her third child due to enter in the fall. "And he keeps that focus in everything that he's doing."
Recasner says this method of education has been "tremendously effective." He points to test scores that show New Orleans Charter Middle School was the highest performing non-magnet middle school in the district during the last normal academic school year. Recasner adds that when New Orleans Charter Middle School combines with the Green School this autumn, he will use the same approach -- with a few improvements.
One of those improvements will be the expansion of the school's gardening elective into a program known as the Edible Schoolyard. The program comes from California fresh food pioneer Alice Waters, who first instituted the program at the Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, Calif.
Kids grow foods in their own garden and integrate them into their lunchtime menus. Meanwhile, they learn about gardening, cooking and making healthy choices. The program illustrates the flexibility and innovation possible in a charter school and is something that Recasner is particularly excited about as another opportunity for his students.
"The challenge is how do you get kids inspired about learning every day?" says Recasner. "We do it by building positive and nurturing relationships with kids as a way of bringing them in and making every day count, and creating an experience that is academically challenging, meaningful and personally rewarding."