Charters are ‘new normal’ in New Orleans

KIPP Central City Academy students march in the 2012 Krewe of Pontchartrain parade.  Photo: Sabree Hill, UptownMessenger

Charters are the “new normal” in New Orleans, writes Richard Whitmire on Real Clear Education. Ten years after Katrina transformed the city’s schools, 95 percent of public school students attend charters.

Nationally, 5.8 percent of students attend charters.

Data on attendance, graduation rates or test scores don’t tell the full story, writes Whitmire.

Take KIPP Central City Academy, which replaced a low-performing school that was a football powerhouse. It’s the highest performing middle school in the Recovery School District — and it has a football team,  cheerleaders, a marching band and majorettes.

At Arthur Ashe Charter School, part of the FirstLine charter network, 37 percent of students have “learning challenges.” That’s sustainable because the new school funding system in New Orleans provides more money for students with special needs.

There is no “backfill” controversy over adding students in later grades, he adds. All the schools backfill and all take mid-year transfers. Students coming out of the judicial system are assigned to a school via a “round robin” system run by the RSD.

Tests are high stakes for principal

Common Core tests are high stakes for a first-year principal determined to improve her struggling New Orleans elementary school, reports Peg Tyre in the Christian Science Monitor.

Krystal Hardy leads Sylvanie Williams College Prep, a charter school in New Orleans that enrolls low-income African-American students.

Third graders read in class. Credit: Melanie Stetson Freeman, Christian Science Monitor

Third graders read in class at a New Orleans charter school. Credit: Melanie Stetson Freeman, Christian Science Monitor

Students take lots of tests, including state exams in science and social studies, two rounds of Core-aligned PARCC tests in English and math. In some grades, they take benchmarking tests several times a year.

The school’s improvement started with diagnostic exams that enabled Hardy and her staff to spot patterns of errors.

That’s “dramatically changed the way teachers teach,” writes Tyre. “And the teachers are noticing that student achievement is picking up.”

“We were able to administer targeted medicine,” says Hardy.

“Instead of saying, ‘Some of these students aren’t good at multiplying,’ ” she says, “we could start to say, for example, that 40 percent of these students in this class don’t seem to understand the place-value concept in three-digit numbers and about 40 percent, say, understand the concept but are not paying attention to details when they compute.”

None of the school’s parents have opted their child out of testing.

The school also has a social-justice focus. Hardy took 40 students to Selma, Ala. for the 50th anniversary of the march to Montgomery. And one morning, she “taught a unit on poverty in America, which included having third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders compare weekly expenses with median income for high school dropouts, college graduates, and those with a master’s degree.”

How many charters are just right?

ednext_XV_3_forum_img01How large a share of urban schools should be charters? asks an Education Next forum.

In dozens of U.S. cities, more than one in five students now attend charter schools. In New Orleans, nearly all public schools are charters.

D.C. Students Benefit from Mix of Charter and Traditional Schools, argue Scott Pearson and Skip McKoy, who serve on the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board.

Neerav Kingsland, former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, makes the New Orleans Case for All-Charter School Districts.

Suspension doesn’t explain charter scores

High suspension rates don’t explain high test scores at no-excuses charter schools, write Robin Lake and Richard Whitmire in USA Today.  She directs the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, while he’s the author of On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope.

What counts is not whether students are suspended, but whether they transfer to another school, Lake and Whitmire argue.

Take Boston’s high-performing Brooke Charter Schools as an example. The suspension rate there is 20%. Sounds high, but the attrition rate is only 5.5%.

“We use suspension to help draw clear lines about the responsibilities all members of our school communities have to each other,” says Brooke founder Jon Clark.

In high-poverty Ward 8 of Washington, D.C., about 90% of Achievement Prep students re-enroll each year — an astonishing number for a high-transient neighborhood. Their academic record is just as striking, and there’s no evidence the school pushes out “bad” students.

New York’s Success Academies draw the most complaints, in part because their low-income and minority students outperform many middle-class schools in the city. Something must be amiss, right? And yet the attrition rate there for the past few years is about 10%, far lower than many schools in the same neighborhoods.

New Orleans charters with high expulsion rates are modifying their discipline policies to retain more students, they write.

Choice vs. regulation in New Orleans

Will Regulation Ruin School Choice in New Orleans? asks a Reason video.

Graduation rates and test scores are rising. “We’re going to be the first mostly black city to outperform its mostly white state in the history of this country,” says Julie Lause, principal of Harriet Tubman Charter School in Algiers.

Yet Neerav Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans worries about “death by a thousand regulatory cuts.”

How strict is too strict?

How Strict Is Too Strict? asks Sarah Carr in The Atlantic.  Many high-performing urban charter schools “share an aversion to even minor signs of disorder,” she writes. Critics say students — most are black and Latino — face harsh discipline for low-level misbehavior.

Many parents “appreciate the intense structure, but only if they also come to trust the mostly young educators who enforce it,” writes Carr.

From the moment Summer Duskin arrived at Carver Collegiate Academy in New Orleans last fall, she struggled to keep track of all the rules. . . . She had to say thank you constantly, including when she was given the “opportunity”—as the school handbook put it—to answer questions in class. And she had to communicate using “scholar talk,” which the school defined as complete, grammatical sentences with conventional vocabulary. . . .

. . . Teachers issued demerits when students leaned against a wall, or placed their heads on their desks. (The penalty for falling asleep was 10 demerits, which triggered a detention; skipping detention could warrant a suspension.) . . . The rules did not ease up between classes: students had to walk single file between the wall and a line marked with orange tape.

Students wear a school uniform. Hats, sunglasses and “bling” are banned.

Summer was 14. It felt like elementary school.

Parents are very concerned about student behavior, writes Carr. “The margin for error is much smaller in black communities, especially for black boys,” Troy Henry, a New Orleans parent, told her.

But there’s been pushback from high school students.

Summer—who had received countless demerits and three out-of-school suspensions in her first semester as a freshman—was among the roughly 60 students who walked over to a nearby park wearing orange wristbands that read LET ME EXPLAIN. In a letter of demands she helped write, the teenagers lamented, “We get disciplined for anything and everything.”

High on their list of complaints were the stiff penalties for failing to follow the taped lines in the hallways, for slouching, for not raising their hands with ramrod-straight elbows. “The teachers and administrators tell us this is because they are preparing us for college,” the students wrote. “If college is going to be like Carver, we don’t want to go to college.”

Carver has modified its rules and decided to end out-of-school suspensions. Other charters also are rethinking strict discipline policies and reducing suspensions.

The changes came too late for Summer, who transferred to a low-performing magnet school.

“Restoring order and discipline” has helped New Orleans’ schools improve dramatically, writes Greg Richmond on Education Post. “From 2007 to 2013, the share of students reading and doing math at “proficient” levels surged from 37 percent to 63 percent in New Orleans. From 2005 to 2011, the high school dropout rate declined from 11.4 percent to 4.1 percent.”

New Orleans: How to go from C to A

School reform moved New Orleans schools from an “F” to a “C”, writes Matt Candler on the 4.0 blog.

The tools of reform – parent choice, alternative paths to teaching, paying for results, labor reform, and charter schools – were deployed effectively and frequently.

Beyond the bumper-sticker issues were details many miss: high-quality charter school authorizing from state officials, vigilant oversight by charter boards who kicked out low-quality for-profit operators, self-policing by charter operators willing to take responsibility for low quality schools, even if they didn’t start them, and tireless work by parents to navigate a system of choices that remains a work in progress.

Going from “C” to “A” will “require less hubris” and “more listening,” he writes.

New Orleans rebuilds with charter schools

PBS looks at New Orleans’ charter schools. 

New Orleans: Traditional public schools close

Akili Academy first-grader Kyron Bourgeois, 6, raises his hand in the class of Hannah Bunis on May 27, 2014 in New Orleans. Akili Academy in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans will be absorbing some students from the city's closing public schools.Akili Academy first-grader Kyron Bourgeois, 6, raises his hand. The New Orleans charter school will take some students from closing schools. (Edmund D. Fountain/For The Washington Post)

New Orleans schools won’t all be charters next year, but the post-Katrina state agency that controls most of the city’s public schools has closed its last traditional school, reports the Washington Post. Recovery School District students will use OneApp, a computerized lottery, to find a place in one of 58 charter schools. The city’s old school board, the Orleans Parish Board, also runs six schools and has chartered 14 more.

Critics of the all-charter New Orleans model say it is undemocratic, because leaders of charter schools are not accountable to voters. They also say the system is challenging for parents, who have to figure out logistics that were not an issue when their children walked to neighborhood schools. . . . Advocates say the all-charter model empowers parents. “We’ve reinvented how schools run,” said Neerav Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans, which promotes and supports charter schools. . .  “If I am unhappy with service I’m getting in a school, I can pull my kid out and go to another school tomorrow. I don’t have to wait four years for an election cycle so I can vote for one member of a seven-member board that historically has been corrupt.”

Before the hurricane, New Orleans was one of the worst school districts in the nation. The Orleans Parish Board was “bankrupt and couldn’t account for about $71 million in federal money, reports the Post. After Katrina, the school board was left in control of a small number of magnet and selective-admissions schools. Activists complain the board’s admissions policies limit black enrollment, though a very high proportion of OPB — and RSD — students are black. The state’s Recovery School District seized 102 low-performing schools. The schools have improved significantly, “although it’s difficult to make direct comparisons” because many students never returned to New Orleans, reports the Post.

Before the storm, the city’s high school graduation rate was 54.4 percent. In 2013, the rate for the Recovery School District was 77.6 percent. On average, 57 percent of students performed at grade level in math and reading in 2013, up from 23?percent in 2007, according to the state.

“The difference between now and pre-Katrina is that we’re replacing schools that are not performing well,” (RSD Superintendent Patrick) Dobard said. “We don’t let children languish in chronically poor performing neighborhood schools.”

Credit recovery goes online

As high schools struggle to raise graduation rates, many have turned to online credit recovery programs, writes Hechinger’s Sarah Carr on Education Next. Are students learning — or just being moved along? It’s not clear, but many are dubious.

“There’s a political motivation,” says David Bloomfield, professor of educational leadership, law, and policy at Brooklyn College. “It’s an end run around higher standards.”

Oceanside Unified in California improved graduation rates after opening three centers that offer online credit recovery. Superintendent Larry Perondi believes “the centers have improved the life prospects of students who would have dropped out otherwise, including young parents and teens battling drug addiction.”

Perondi “encourages the district’s best teachers to work” in the centers and assigns extra counselors and social workers to support students.

Three New Orleans charters enroll only students who’ve fallen behind in coursework.

Their supporters argue that the schools provide a much-needed safety valve for students who don’t work well in conventional settings and prefer to move through courses at their own pace; critics worry about the quality of the online courses and fear they take the onus off of traditional high schools to meet the needs of all students.

At the Jefferson Chamber Foundation Academy, the average student is an 18-year-old sophomore. “Some of the students failed the same classes multiple times; others dropped out for a period of months, or years,” writes Carr. “The school supplements the online courses with in-person tutorials and small-group instruction.”

The NET, another charter for high-risk students, combines online courses with traditional in-person classes and “advisories.”

Students and teachers say the online courses have some universal benefits: the teenagers can move at their own pace and get instant feedback on how they are doing.

. . . The biggest drawback, however, is that many of the courses are either too easy or too hard. . . . stronger schools and teachers are increasingly figuring out how to use the online courses as a jumping-off point to address individual students’ needs, supplementing easy courses with more challenging material, for instance, or harder courses with extra in-person tutorials.

But some schools rely exclusively on the online courses.