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Lessons from Katrina

by Jillian Kay Melchior

The transformation of New Orleans has transformed its schools, too

New Orleans — Harold Clay sat on the cafeteria floor, fighting tears. A classmate had stolen the ice cream off his red lunch tray and then pushed him down when he tried to get it back. But, as his uncles and older cousins had taught him, boys don’t cry. So instead, “I start taking the food off the tray, took the tray in my right hand, walked over, tapped him on the shoulder, and cracked him on the head with that tray,” Clay says. “I was one of those bad kids. ‘Put him out, put him out’ — that was the answer.”

Clay was kicked out of school — not the first time he’d been sent home for bad behavior — for this fight. Nobody took the time to understand why he had reacted so forcefully. Though his family received food stamps and aid through the Women, Infants, and Children supplemental-nutrition program, he still didn’t eat some nights, so that ice cream his classmate had swiped had real value. He lived on Dubreuil, the run-down street on the outermost edge of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, and “across from me wasn’t flowers,” he says. “It was burnt-up cars, trash, and rats the size of cats.” He attended bad schools with leaky tin roofs and no heat in the winter. He had an absent father. He was sometimes hungry, he was mad, and he lashed out.

Clay almost fell through the cracks. But at the end of his sophomore year, an assistant principal named Philmon Edwards saw potential in him and decided to be the father figure Clay lacked. “Without that man at that time,” he says, choking up, “I could have become a statistic.”

Instead, Clay eventually followed in his mentor’s footsteps. Today, he’s the assistant principal of Edna Karr Charter High School, which is recognized nationally for excellence in education. An outspoken advocate for school choice, Clay relies on his own experience to fight for the future of his students. He and educators like him are contributing to a post-Katrina education revolution in New Orleans.

They’ve got their work cut out for them. Katrina was shocking not only for the destruction it wrought but also for the longstanding social disaster it exposed. In New Orleans pre-Katrina, nearly one in four residents fell below the poverty level. Twenty-nine percent of households were headed by single parents, and over 15 percent of New Orleans teens reported that they had lost their virginity before turning 13. For the past two decades, at least 158 people have been murdered every year in New Orleans. Louisiana today has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and around one in 14 black men in the Big Easy is serving time.

New Orleans’s failing schools have been both a cause and an effect of these social ills. In 2004, around 40 percent of the city’s residents were functionally illiterate. In 2006, about 40 percent of the adult residents of the Lower Ninth Ward had never graduated from high school. Before Katrina, 90 percent of public schools in New Orleans were performing below the state average. A whopping 74 percent of eighth-graders lacked reading proficiency. On the 2004 high-school exit exam, only 4 percent of students exhibited basic proficiency in English and only 6 percent showed basic math capability. The school district, corrupt and dominated by union influence, was heavily indebted and barely staving off bankruptcy. In the three years before the hurricane, the FBI indicted 29 school employees for fraud and corruption.

Change came fast. Katrina hit New Orleans in late August 2005, damaging all but 16 of the public-school buildings and displacing tens of thousands of students. Within two months, the Louisiana legislature had voted to take over New Orleans’s failing school district, establishing the Recovery School District and effectively firing 7,500 teachers and school workers. In place of most of these public schools, charter schools were established.

Edna Karr High School reopened in December 2005, changing as radically as the rest of the city in those days. Before, it had been a blue-ribbon magnet school, with 40 percent of its student body in the “gifted” category. These students performed well above the norm, and every one of them graduated. After Katrina, the school dropped its selective admission standards, allowing children from anywhere in New Orleans to attend.

“I had a job before Katrina,” says longtime principal John Hiser. “Since Katrina, I’ve had a mission.”

Today, most freshmen enter the high school with fifth-grade math and sixth-grade English skills. Ninety-five percent of the students are black, and 87 percent receive free or reduced-fee lunch. “We take these kids in,” Hiser says. “We don’t tell them they’re stupid. We tell them they’ve got potential.”

Educational obstacles are one thing; emotional ones are another. “Life’s vicissitudes don’t take a day off,” Clay says, rattling through the depressing litany of challenges his students face. Some have a father in prison. Others never knew their father, and “I have a group of kids who feel like, ‘How do you want me to believe in a higher power when the physical man hasn’t shown up?’” More than a dozen students have attempted suicide during Clay’s tenure at Karr. Others have post-traumatic stress from Katrina, which intensifies whenever there’s a storm warning. There are kids whose teeth are rotting in their mouth because they’ve never been to the dentist.

The charter model has given Karr’s administrators flexibility to address these issues creatively, establishing what they call a “wrap-around service environment.”

“I think the charter model — and that’s what I’m going to stress — allows you to do this,” Clay says. “You have a lot of charter schools in New Orleans that have [the freedom] to get what they need for the children instead of, ‘Let’s place an order, let’s make this come from a top-down approach.’”

Because administrators have more control over budgeting and spending, they’ve been able to prioritize their particular needs. In addition to providing robust academics, sports, and extracurricular activities, Karr employs three regular counselors, one college counselor, a full-time nurse, and two full-time social workers. The nurse persuades local doctors to visit for in-house checkups; on one occasion, a student had a root canal on a table in an administrator’s office.

Clay says that because he knows so many of his students have an absent father, he has employed “a lot of different men around here, and I want to stress that — men.” Clay gives out his cell-phone number freely so students can call him anytime they need, and he encourages his teachers to be there for their students, too. “I want them to have a person to call,” he says. “That’s the benefit of not being a traditional educator.”

Teachers are required to stay late some days, offering remedial help and tutoring — an uncompensated extra effort that a teachers’ union would probably oppose, although it makes a huge difference to students’ progress. Karr offers ACT preparation and college visits, encouraging students to apply for scholarships and make connections for their future careers. Administrators recruit community groups and businesses to volunteer or donate. The school has invested in infrastructure, giving the students a sense of worth they lacked in their old, broken, dirty learning environment.

Sonya Sylve, a parent and Edna Karr alum, says that as a charter, Edna Karr is “versatile in every way . . . the way they handle the students, the material that’s brought into the school for the students, parental involvement.” The students learn from example, coming away with “the willingness to want to learn, to be a part of something new,” she says. “They’re not afraid to be introduced to something that’s different, challenging.”

Though the charter receives the same $8,500 per student as any other Louisiana school, Karr has made staggering progress with its students. In the last school year, it was one of three schools in the nation to win the Gaston Caperton Inspiration Award, which honors institutions that help low-income students achieve academic success.

Karr’s teachers manage to cram in four years’ worth of English and math by the time students enter their junior year. In May 2013, all but two students in a senior class of 220 graduated, and 80 percent immediately went to college. That’s in an environment where many students are first-generation high-school graduates, let alone college students.

“It’s rewarding when you have an A and B student and they succeed,” says Cheryl Flotte, president of the Parent-Teacher Organization. “[But] when you have a D student who succeeds . . . I think, ‘That’s what we’ve got here. We offer everybody, from the smartest to the ones that are struggling, the opportunity to succeed.’”

Not all New Orleans charters have made such dramatic progress, but there’s been a noticeable uptick in the quality of education since the city embraced school choice. Today, almost 80 percent of public-school students in the city attend charters, and on average they receive 86 more days of math instruction and 58 more days of reading than their public-school counterparts do, according to a new report from the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes. Minority students especially benefit. While New Orleans still has a long way to go, “I think we’re moving in the right direction,” Clay says. “That is, we’re putting out better citizens, in my opinion, because of the charter movement.”

That includes many of his own graduates. One alumus went to West Point. Another, a football player whom Clay fondly describes as “my knucklehead,” attended Columbia on a scholarship. The school’s 2012 valedictorian, Rosario Gardenia, is a native Spanish-speaker who spoke little English when she first came to Karr. She studied hard, applied herself, and graduated with not only English fluency but also $141,000 in scholarship money. Last year’s valedictorian, Brianna Despenza, was awarded $1.3 million in scholarship offers. “She got to sit back at the table, looking at all of the money and all of the schools, and choose,” Clay says.

The commitment to school choice is pervasive in New Orleans’s alternative schools, and it’s a refreshing shift in a city where parents had long felt trapped and deprived of options. Not that the teachers’ unions have much cared; in 2012, the Times-Picayune of Greater New Orleans reported, Michael Walker Jones of the Louisiana Association of Educators dismissed choice on the ground that “parents may not have the time or information to make a decision about their child’s education.” The paper quoted him as saying, “If I’m a parent in poverty, I have no clue because I’m trying to struggle and live day to day.”

Though the public-school model failed New Orleans historically, it still has its vocal adherents; school choice is by no means a fait accompli. In August, the U.S. Department of Justice sued to block 34 school districts across the state of Louisiana from giving private-school vouchers to the around 400,000 eligible poor children who attend failing schools. Most of these students seeking to escape academic doom are black — but the DOJ is claiming, without irony, that it’s acting in their interest, because when these minority kids leave, it makes the bad schools less diverse.

If the DOL and its union allies succeed, they will do so against the will of New Orleans parents, who strongly want to have educational options. More than half of New Orleans parents want to send their child to a school of their choice, according to an April report by Tulane’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives. Karr has a long wait list, and staffers have often seen parents crying in their front office — out of concern that their children won’t get in, and out of relief if they do.

“What we’re doing here, in my opinion, is the true model of charter, the true model of right to choose, parents having the opportunity to do their own homework,” Clay says. “Whenever you give stakeholders the opportunity to investigate, do research for a quality education, then we’re doing a great service to all folk.”

– Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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