In New Orleans, the city with the most public charter schools in the nation, individual charters’ standards of discipline can vary widely. Sharon Litwin investigates how the Recovery School District is dealing with challenges of equity in this new approach to public education.
In Orleans Parish, 77% of all public school students attend charter schools, the highest percentage in the nation. While a small number of students attend charters overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board, or go to other, independent schools, the majority of children in New Orleans attend schools under the umbrella of the Recovery School District.
“The RSD is quite simply the State of Louisiana’s education turnaround system,” says Patrick Dobard, the RSD’s newly-appointed Superintendent. “So, basically, I’ll go enlist the turnaround of the lowest-performing schools in the state. Will we be around forever? Our goal is to not be around forever. We would hope that we would turn around schools, that they’re self-sustainable, and that they would go back to local control.”
Dobard, a New Orleans native, is a former teacher with classroom experience in both urban and rural schools, and with high school alternative education. For the past twelve years Dobard has focused his time on education policy, mostly in the Louisiana Department of Education.
“I foresee a day in the future where we will have just one governance in New Orleans, and I believe that should be decided by the people of New Orleans,” Dobard says. “Simply, our goals within the RSD is to just put students on a path to where they’re both college- and career-ready.”
Dobard says the Recovery School District’s goal, first and foremost, is to ensure that citizens of Louisiana, and of New Orleans in particular, have excellent schools that are both high-performing and equitable. He says this is especially true for the students that have been least-served, historically.
“And we have a focus on community,” he continued. The RSD is “making certain that we’re doing those things that are with community, and not to community.”
For many this organization, with its 55 charter schools—fashioned from the ruins of the New Orleans school system after Hurricane Katrina—is the shining hope for Orleans Parish children and their families. But some are beginning to express concern about how this new system is evolving. One is Dr. Barbara Ferguson, former principal of Warren Easton High School. Ferguson is an attorney, a one-time acting superintendent of the Orleans Parish School Board, and now board chair of the non-profit Research on Reforms.
“I am a true believer that the teachers, the principal, the parents, the community have ran that neighborhood,” Ferguson says. “They know what to do.”
Ferguson says resources for schools in New Orleans, with the most disadvantaged children in the state, are abundant under Title I of the Federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And neighborhood leaders, including educators and parents, would know what to do with that money better than anyone if given that money.
“I’ve seen it work,” Ferguson says. “But the tragedy is that—while the charter movement started as a moment for teachers, principals, and so forth—people closest to the children and youth to develop innovative ways to teach the difficult to teach... They’re not figuring out how to teach the difficult to teach, they’re expelling the difficult to teach.”
Deborah Vaughn, Assistant Director of Research at the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, another organization advocating for education reform, feels a lack of data makes it difficult to fully explore this issue.
“What we believe is it’s important that we do have an agency that is collecting consistent, meaningful data about schools and student outcome,” Vaughn says. However, “there isn’t that body right now.”
Dr. Calvin Mackie is another product of Orleans Parish public schools, who went on to earn a doctorate in engineering, and who became a professor at Tulane University. Since his own earliest days in college, he has mentored young, black men in the city’s school system.
Mackie says he’ll go where schools ask him to go, but tries to focus his energy on the 6th and 9th grades.
“Especially 9th grade,” he says. “9th grade is that funny grade where, ya know, ‘am I a teenager? Am I still this cute little kid?’ And they just can’t find their bearing. So if we can grab them in 9th grade, if we could capture them in 9th grade, then we can transform them. We can transform the entire culture of a school.”
If educators don’t follow up with kids in the 9th grade, Mackie says, they can be lost. “If you don’t capture them in the 9th, then you’re definitely going to lose them. A lot of young men, their goal is to get suspended, to get expelled. They want out. ‘If you’re going to treat me as such while I’m here, you’re gonna talk down to me, if I’m a problem.’ No one wants to be where they are considered a problem. So, a lot of times, the young men say, ‘Look, doc. They don’t want me here and I don’t wanna be here.’”
Mackie says the biggest educational challenge in the United States, whether a school is public, private, or a charter, is holding on to Black and Latino boys. “When you do look at the numbers, and I have looked at the numbers, their numbers usually dwindle right before testing period. Their numbers dwindle right after they get the MFP number for the amount of money that’s gonna transfer to the state. So, it’s almost like a system to make the schools look good, but at the same time get the money they need to operate the school.
“And our kids are left out on the street,” he continues. “I don’t have any scientific evidence, but there is no doubt in my mind when you look at the crime in New Orleans, and you look at who’s committing that crime. And they’re 15-, 16-, 17-years-old. And you do a correlation between the drop-out rate, the kick-out rate or the opt-out rate, there’s got be a direct correlation to our kids not being in school... And an increase in crime in the city of New Orleans, when crime is going down all over this country.”
So how does RSD Superintendent Dobard plan to deal with suspension and expulsion issues in a city where the many charter schools have just as many individual approaches to the issue?
“What we’re promoting within the RSD, in our direct-run schools and what we suggest to charters, is we promote more in-school suspensions,” Dobard says. “We just firmly believe that children should be in a school setting, learning. So we’re literally in discussions right now with the charter management organization leaders, as well as the individual charters, on how to go about a uniform, more uniform policy regarding expulsions.”
Dobard says that, particularly in the schools the RSD runs directly, they are transforming schools every year.
“I’m making it just unequivocally clear that, on a discipline issue, where we need to be as the RSD,” Dobard says. “[We’re] encouraging more work within the schools, and keeping the kids in schools and out of the streets. So, as soon as the start of the school year, we expect to have that change.”
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