Education
6:36 am
Fri January 24, 2014

Akili Academy Illustrates How New Orleans Teachers Have Changed

Just after Hurricane Katrina, the entire teaching staff of The Orleans Parish School Board was fired. Last week, a state appeals court ruled that those teachers were denied due process.

As the school system has rebuilt, there’s been a seismic shift in who is teaching in New Orleans — the city-wide pool of teachers looks different, in terms of race, age, how they came to the teaching profession, how long they’ve been teaching, and whether they are “from” New Orleans, or not.

There’s not much exact data on these changes — yet. But reporter Eve Abrams talked to the staff at one charter school, Akili Academy, to find out how they feel about the teaching scene.

Late one afternoon, inside Akili Academy, a student reads haltingly from a text.

“Can someone say that fluently for me?” asks Grace Nixon Peterson. “How would the boys and girls say that?”

Nixon Peterson calls on Logan, who begins to read: “The boys and girls say we want Sam to be our teacher.”

“That sounded like they were actually speaking,” Nixon Peterson compliments.

Nixon Peterson is an interventionist at Akili Academy — that means she works with small groups of first graders who need extra help in reading and math. Nixon Peterson became a teacher through Teach for America, and in her fifth year, she is bucking Teach for America’s statistics: only about a third of TFA alumni stay in the classroom beyond their two-year commitment. Grace taught regular first grade at Akili for three years, but she feels really effective in her new, specialized role.

“The relationships I’m able to build with them far surpasses what I was able to do when I had 30 kids with me,” she says. “I love that. I love being able to know them. We just have a great time. They’re learning, they’re engaged, and I’m able to see this growth over the year for these scholars who otherwise may fall through the cracks.”

Stopping kids from falling through the cracks is the very reason Nixon Peterson decided to become a teacher. She has a much younger brother, William, who she knew would get a great education in South Dakota, where she’s from.

“But then I just started thinking there are millions of little Williams around our country who certainly aren’t given that opportunity, and that just punched me in the stomach.”

So Nixon Peterson decided to do Teach for America. Her first choice was New Orleans and, as she puts it, “I won the lottery with getting my job at Akili.”

“Grace started as a brand new teacher and she experienced a lot of the same issues that all new teachers experience,” says Kate Mehok, the CEO of Akili’s charter operator, Crescent City Schools, which has three schools in New Orleans. “They’re trying to figure out how to do classroom management and how to run a great academic program.”

In Akili’s first year, eight out of nine of their teachers, or about 90%, were Teach for America corps members, or TFA alumni. That percentage has shrunk to around 25 as they’ve recruited more widely.

“We look first and foremost for any person who can raise student achievements with kids,” says Mehok. “I don’t think we care what they look like, what gender they are, how old they are — but we want them to do great things with children.”

Mehok says Akili thinks about diversity in all sorts of ways: women, men, new to teaching, veteran teachers, natives, transplants, with kids and without. And their hiring process is extensive. “We do a lot in our interview process to make sure that they visit school, they meet our staff, they see our kids, they hear a lot from our principles so that they really know that this is the right place for them.”

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, most city schools were run by a centralized school board and teachers belonged to a union. All sorts of laws about seniority and tenure influenced staffing. But now, charter companies can hire and fire the teachers they want — to an extent. Decisions must be based on performance. All teachers work “at will,” meaning they can be fired, or quit, at any time.

Lesley Blouin is a second grade teacher at Akili. Blouin is from Chicago and moved to New Orleans before Katrina to study at Dillard University. As an education major, Blouin spent time in classrooms throughout the city.

“Thinking back to when I went into schools before the storm, a lot of teachers were teachers that were from the neighborhoods, they were from the city, and a lot of times looked like the children they were teaching,” says Blouin. “I think that that is the complete opposite now, in most cases. Not in all, but in most cases.”

Statistics vary on the breakdown of race among teachers, before and after Katrina. It seems about 75% of teachers were African-American before the flood. That's dropped to as low as 49%, by one count.

Blouin is the same race as most of the children she teaches, and colleagues sometimes assume she’s from New Orleans. So she doesn’t hear some of the complaints her fellow teachers do.

“Many colleagues have said that often parents make comments about what they look like or where they’re from,” says Blouin. “They stand strong in who they are and let them know that who they are and where they come from changes nothing about the education that they’re providing for their children. Which I feel is very true. None of the those things even matter.”

“It’s all about building relationships, period,” says Bridget Burns, who teaches second grade down the hall from Blouin. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from or who you are.”

Burns is from New Orleans, and she sees no downside to out-of-towners teaching. “The only thing I do notice is that people who aren’t from here, they explore the city a lot more than we do,” laughs Burns. “So I learn from my colleagues who aren’t from here — like, 'oh wow, we went to this place, this place,' and I’m like 'wow: I didn’t even know that existed.'”

New Orleans schools are less about neighborhood and tradition than they once were. But at Akili Academy, no matter the differences between teachers, they say they share a common denominator: a laser-sharp focus on raising student achievement.

Support for education reporting on WWNO comes from Baptist Community Ministries,  Entergy Corporation, The Hechinger Institute, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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