State of the Union January/February 2007

Reading, Writing, Resurrection

Hurricane Katrina destroyed one of America’s worst school systems and made New Orleans the nation’s laboratory for educational reform. But can determined educators and entrepreneurs transcend the damage of the flood—and of history?

The 790 children Jim Huger had recruited for Lafayette Academy of New Orleans included Avion Williams, a twelve-year-old girl with a sweet face and long braids. She had a history with the vast brick building that housed the new charter school. It previously had been the site of plain old Lafayette Elementary School, where she, like her mother before her, had been a student. Sixty-nine percent of the school’s fourth-graders had scored below “basic” in English/Language Arts on the 2005 state achievement test, and 67 percent in math—scores reflected in Avion’s own sense of her educational limits. She struggled with reading, and she had never learned long division.

So from where she sat, the academy, which ran from kindergarten to seventh grade, was already an improvement in more than name. The halls had been painted, a new playground had been built, and Avion had art and music for the first time. She also had a science and math teacher, Ronald Finley, who both pushed and taught her. “He wants us to get our education and do something,” she said when we met in October. I had found Avion sweeping Mr. Finley’s classroom with a friend—his effort to teach them “consequences and repercussions” for talking during class. They seemed to relish the discipline. Their beef, in fact, was with other teachers at the school who did not impose it.

That Avion was so impressed by Lafayette Academy reflected a low baseline more than the new school’s high achievement, a truth Huger was the first to acknowledge. At the August open house, he had warned parents that the start would be chaotic, and he had been right. As in many of the reopened schools, books had arrived late or not at all. As of mid-October, the school had no copy machine, a crippling impediment for teachers. “Quite honestly, you have an administration that has got so many balls in the air that education really isn’t [at the] forefront right now,” Huger conceded. He felt the school was 30 percent of what it needed to be, and his board—composed largely of like-minded businesspeople and lawyers—was growing impatient. As he saw it, his school administrators were passive: they had been bred in large systems where they had neither full responsibility nor accountability. He wanted them to operate with the aggressiveness of entrepreneurs starting a new business. Their mentality, he asserted, was “‘It’ll show up.’ My mentality is ‘I want it to show up tomorrow.’”

But human capital, on many levels, was complicating Huger’s experiment. Brand-new, and filled with children from across the city, Lafayette Academy had neither history nor community to draw on. The principal seemed unhappy, the chief administrative officer tentative, and the lines of authority between them unclear. Two teachers had already quit by mid-October. And on the third floor, home to the unruly sixth and seventh grades, staff morale was sagging. The older children had come up through a school system that combined social promotion with an absence of socialization. Some of their teachers, in turn, had little or no urban teaching experience. The result was an endless clash of wills between students and staff, and what teachers described as a profound lack of respect. Nothing worked—not lectures, not phone calls to parents (themselves often indifferent), not detention.

The students “don’t care if they fail,” said one teacher, who didn’t want to be named for fear of alienating parents. “You put in a twelve-hour day, every day, and feel like you just wasted twelve hours. They’re great kids and they’re smart—they just can’t close their mouths.”

With three years of teaching overseas, Trent Browne, thirty-two, considered himself an experienced teacher. In the school’s opening weeks, he had been moved from one subject to another, and from one grade to another, finally landing in seventh-grade science. The day I visited, his class was muddling through safety instructions for lab work. A voice over the intercom kept interrupting to request a custodian for the third-floor girls’ bathroom, where crude graffiti scaled the wall. In subsequent classes, the noise level in Browne’s room was even higher: he was ordering students to write essays for being disrespectful. That afternoon, he quit, reaching his breaking point as he and another teacher struggled to get forty defiant students out of the cafeteria. “I’m here to teach, not be a babysitter,” he told me. (When I returned to Lafayette the next day, his class didn’t need one: the students were raptly watching Akeelah and the Bee.)

Across the hall, meanwhile, another teacher was near tears. A twenty-two-year-old novice trained by Teach for America, she was struggling to control her seventh- graders. She tried a level classroom tone. They talked over her. She raised her voice: “This needs to stop! It stops now! You are in a classroom, children. You are not on the street; you are not even in your mother’s house. You are in a classroom. THIS. STOPS. NOW.”

In the way the newer teachers spoke about the students, their jobs, the school, there was a sourness—as if in just six weeks their spirits had curdled. They thought the school had not been ready to open, and they felt the students sensed that. They did not have aides in their classrooms or help for children with special needs—or even records of which children had special needs, since so many records had been lost in Katrina. The school had no counselor or social worker. The teachers felt the administration had no strategies to help them, other than to imply their incompetence. And Huger, they said, had called them whiners.

Huger was open about his intolerance for whining. At a meeting, a teacher had stood up and spoken with a “very bad attitude,” he recalled. He said he had conveyed this message to the teachers: Just to remind you: I’m not getting paid for this. You need to have a better attitude. We are doing everything we can to make a good school. It’s not going to happen overnight. All this entitlement and whining about things we can’t control is just not going to get us there. We are committed to a cause and we are going to give you the tools to do your job. If you believe that, stick with us. If you don’t believe that, you shouldn’t be here.” That quieted people down quite a bit, he said.

He was unabashed about riding his employees hard. “The word I’m getting is that we probably have 60 percent great teachers, and some deadwood,” he said. He believed “force of personality” made first-class organizations, and he meant to apply it: “We are going to push and push and push until we run a first-class school,” he said.

“There’s a big consequence to the failure of this school,” he added: “I will look like a jerk. And I don’t like looking like a jerk.”

Although Huger had been convinced that choice would produce great schools, a quick scan of educational literature suggested choice would not be enough. National surveys on charter-school performance were all over the map—reflecting both the ideologies of the surveyors and the actual wide range in performance. In Detroit, the public schools had lost 40 percent of their students since the late 1990s, in significant part to charter schools, showing that parents would indeed vote with their feet. But the school board there had responded to the pressure with a $500,000 marketing campaign to lure students back to public schools—hardly the sort of educational improvement that competition from charters is supposed to foster. In Washington, D.C., meanwhile, another charter hub, the latest numbers showed that only four of thirty-four charter schools had met academic benchmarks. And in Philadelphia, the most recent data showed schools run by educational management companies—which Huger saw as the best bet when run in partnership with local nonprofits like his—lagging behind public schools in improving performance. It was possible, in short, to leave one failure for another.

Huger agreed, but argued that his school, with its own board members walking the halls and demanding accountability, had a better chance of succeeding than a school in a centralized system. He planned to scrutinize test scores, interview parents, teachers, and students—whatever it took to produce satisfied customers. This model—of a businessman driving for higher returns—was not the one used by most of the country’s more successful charter schools; they had been created by educators with a vision of how to achieve greatness, not just demand it. Time would tell whether Huger’s way could work too. As he put it, the real test was not this year’s seventh-graders, but what kind of seventh-graders the students now in kindergarten would turn out to be.

But the inevitable churning in between would not be cost-free. The upheaval of this fresh start denied hurricane-buffeted children the stability that they needed. Trent Browne, the teacher who quit while I was visiting the school, had tried to teach his students about the scientific method: doing X would result in Y. Now, with their behavior prompting his departure, they had a living example. “That was perhaps one of the best lessons I taught,” Browne told me. “I said goodbye.”

But his goodbye had imparted another lesson to the children he left behind: that they shouldn’t hold anything too dear. Mr. Browne’s departure had created a hole in seventh-grade science, and Avion Williams’s beloved Mr. Finley was moved from her sixth-grade class to fill it.

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Amy Waldman is an Atlantic national correspondent.

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