The Student-Led Backlash Against New Orleans's Charter Schools

Late last year, students at several of the city's high-performing charters staged large-scale protests. A local teacher explores why this happened.

Bill Haber/AP Photo

Collegiate Academies is seen by many as the crown jewel of the New Orleans charter school system, which is itself believed to be a national model for urban education. The charter operator’s flagship school, Sci Academy, boasts the best test scores of any open-enrollment high school in the city’s Recovery School District. In 2010, Oprah cut the school a $1 million check.

But this past November, a chain of events started that calls into question whether Collegiate Academies—and other New Orleans charters with similar models—will be able to maintain their success long-term.

First, students at Joseph S. Clark Preparatory High School, another New Orleans school, staged a sit-in after a beloved teacher was abruptly fired. The protest shut down junior classes for a day and got the following school day canceled while administrators decided how to respond. Leaders at Clark's charter operator, Firstline Schools, met with angry students and parents, agreed to give students a voice in hiring decisions, and reassigned the school's principal to the network office.

Days later, almost 100 students at two Collegiate Academies schools walked out. The next day, about 20 of them walked out again and staged a protest in front of their schools. They said they wanted to draw attention to what they believe are unfair discipline policies. The following month, students rallied at a nearby park after school, then walked to a school board meeting where they attempted to present the board with a list of grievances that ranged from academics ("We have no textbooks to review when we study") to discipline ("We get disciplined for anything and everything") to food service ("We want hot meals and healthy food with taste").

What’s going on? Why the backlash against schools that are trying (and in many cases succeeding) to improve education in New Orleans? I believe the answer lies in disciplinary policies that leave students and families feeling that they are at odds with teachers and administrators. But as a teacher at a high-performing New Orleans charter school with a discipline policy that focuses on in-school consequences and positive incentives, I think it's possible to have strong achievement without oppressive discipline.

Charter schools in New Orleans have made measurable academic gains in the years since Hurricane Katrina. Test scores and graduation rates are climbing. The percentage of Recovery School District 3rd through 8th graders who passed the state's annual standardized test grew to 57 percent in 2013 from 51 percent the year before—and 28 percent in 2008. At the high-school level, New Orleans' graduation rate has surpassed the state's, growing from 54.4 percent in 2004 to 77.8 percent in 2012.

But many of the charter schools that have made these improvements rely on rigid discipline policies that can sometimes feel at odds with the city’s culture. In a city known for second lines—freewheeling street parades that feature brass bands, costumed dancers, and whoever else cares to join—it's common for schools to put tape lines on the floor and expect students—including middle- and high-schoolers—to walk in silent, single-file lines at all times. Many schools have strictly enforced policies on how students sit at their desks, how they raise their hands, and how they greet teachers in the morning.

At a time when the Obama administration is urging schools to treat suspensions "as a last resort," 11 New Orleans charter schools (including the three Collegiate schools) suspended at least a quarter of their student body during the last school year.

The tension is especially acute in high schools, which, with their marching bands, drill teams, and football squads, have long been a source of tremendous community pride. Neighborhoods turn out to watch their schools' dancers and drumlines in Mardi Gras parades, and high school homecomings receive a month of coverage in the Times-Picayune every fall.

When these sources of community identity are transformed, sometimes both rapidly and radically, by outside organizations, tensions can flare.

Carver and Clark were both once-proud high schools that struggled after Katrina and have been taken over by charter operators in the last several years. Some families see the schools’ new operators’ emphasis on rigid discipline and college- prep-at-all-costs as both foreign to the city and unfair to students.

"School is supposed to be fun sometimes," said Bianca Johnson, a mother who recently withdrew her ninth-grade son from Carver Prep, a Collegiate Academies school. "But they have them in, like, a military boot camp, and they're not giving them the chance to do something they love... It got to the point that he wasn't motivated to learn anymore."

My experience in New Orleans charter schools convinces me that it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s possible to maintain high standards for both academics and behavior without rejecting the creativity and spirit of celebration that make New Orleans unique. Across the city, there are schools that have improved academic outcomes for their students without resorting to harsh disciplinary policies, while intentionally celebrating some aspects of life in New Orleans.

At Success Preparatory Academy in the Treme, hallways are named after "hometown heroes" like chef John Besh, educational pioneer Ruby Bridges, and musician Irvin Mayfield. The Grammy award-winning Mayfield recently performed at Success while kindergarteners danced around the library.

At the elementary school where I teach, kids have an extended school day (7:45 am to 4:00 pm) for academics, but it’s not all work and no play. We celebrated Halloween with a bounce house in the school parking lot, and kids changed into costumes and trick-or-treated in the French Quarter. Come Mardi Gras, they’ll take to the streets for a parade featuring the school’s music classes and costumes they will have spent the last two months creating in art class.

Still, 71 percent of our students passed their state tests last year, and many of those who didn’t (often, students who started the school year several grade levels behind) were deemed by the state to have made "significant progress."

I’ve worked at New Orleans schools where the attitude was, "These kids are too far behind for extracurriculars." But at my current school, administrators believe that the arts’ emphasis on creativity and self-expression is a critical component of any student’s education. Classes like art and music are referred to as "integrals" rather than "extracurriculars." And they offer students a chance not just to express themselves, but to connect with the culture of the city. The third- and fourth-graders could take twirling last semester; the middle schoolers can join a jazz band.

The schools where students are protesting have the highest suspension rates in the city. Carver Collegiate sent home 69 percent of their students at least once last school year; at Carver Prep it was 61 percent and at Clark 46 percent.Most importantly, discipline at my school is focused on in-school consequences rather than out-of-school ones. Suspensions are rare and are given only for episodes that are physically dangerous to other teachers or students.

Collegiate students report being suspended "for every little thing." "We get disciplined for anything and everything," they wrote in November. "We get detentions or suspensions for not walking on the taped lines in the hallway, for slouching, for not raising our hands in a straight line."

When I asked Collegiate Academies president Morgan Ripski about the school's discipline policies, she wrote in an e-mail, "Our mission to prepare all scholars for college success is ambitious, so every minute of our school day and year are needed to teach necessary knowledge and skills."  She said the schools aim to be "fun, loving, safe, structured places."

But some community members say the schools’ emphasis on structure overshadows its other goals. "It feels like a highly punitive environment," said Eden Heilman, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, who has worked with some of the protesting students. She doesn’t think teachers are ill- intentioned, just unaware of—or unprepared to deal with—some of the challenges their students face.

"You have youths that are bringing a lot of baggage to school every day, and they’re not being given an opportunity to have a bad day," Heilman said.

Collegiate Academies CEO Benjamin Marcovitz wrote in an open letter published in the Times-Picayune that in the schools' discipline systems, "rewards and praise occur far more frequently than penalties." But the protests of the last few months seem to indicate that, at least for some families, frequent "shout-out meetings" aren't enough to compensate for frequent suspensions.

New Orleans charter schools have proven that they can raise test scores. But if they're truly going to take root in the community and do decades’ worth of long-term good, they are going to have to establish discipline policies that recognize where their students are coming from, and embrace the culture of the communities they’re trying to serve.