The Charter School Flood
Rob Wyman says he couldn't field any more questions about error-filled report cards, so he made this sign and tacked it onto his office bulletin board: "We are sorry. We did not do the report cards. We don't know how the problems happened. We do not know how to fix the problems."
He knew it was not the best way to explain to angry high school students why they hadn't received accurate credit for their work. But incorrect report cards weren't the worst problem at Joseph T. Clark High School, one of approximately twenty-five schools that were operated during the past school year by the State of Louisiana in the so-called Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans.
Wyman, the school's guidance counselor, pulled open his top desk drawer and took out a sheet of paper that was covered with hand-drawn squares and arrows. In his spare time, he said, he has been devising escape routes from the school in case of a fire. The school hasn't had a drill all year, he said. "The students have no idea where to go. The teachers have no idea where to go. Here's the kicker: We have kids in wheelchairs on the second floor, and I'm afraid for their safety."
As he spoke, groups of students milled about in the hallway outside his office, near the school's metal detectors. Some of the students in the building were taking the LEAP test--the state's high-stakes exam that monitors schools' progress and decides if a student will be promoted to the next grade. For those who had already taken the test during a previous session, holding rooms had been assigned. The rooms weren't monitored by the students' regular teachers, and students were periodically popping into Wyman's office, saying they didn't have any work and pleading to use the phone to call their parents or guardians to come pick them up. He declined each request in apologetic tones. "My job isn't to help you leave school," he said to one student.
Wyman spent his lunch break leading me on a tour through the school. When we reached an upstairs classroom, William Perkinson waved us in. Perkinson readily acknowledged he had never taught before he came to Clark; he had a college degree but no teaching training or credentials. He just answered an ad in the paper. When he arrived at the school, he walked into a room filled with students doubly traumatized by Katrina and ongoing street violence. "A month ago, one of my students and his brother were shot," he said. "I asked the kids in class the following day if they had any other friends who'd been shot and killed. They called out names and I wrote them on the board. There were eighteen names. I don't know how these kids are handling it."
Perkinson is like many of the new teachers I met in New Orleans over the past year: intelligent, compassionate, overwhelmed. Public-education advocates frequently complained to me that inexperienced teachers in New Orleans found themselves in front of classrooms filled with unfamiliar students, with neither formal written assessments of kids with special needs nor the benefit of experienced teachers in the building who might know the kids and their stories. A lack of formal assessments violates the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which states that schools must provide special-needs students with an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. By referring to the IEP, a teacher and an aide can quickly assess a student's needs and offer appropriate lessons. Jim Randels, a veteran teacher at Frederick Douglass High School--also an RSD school--said that his school was 20 percent special education before Katrina but that IEPs are a rarity now. Perkinson confirmed that IEPs were not available to him. "I don't know anything," Perkinson said. "I don't know who's who, what's what. I don't know who's special ed, who's not."
As part of the state takeover of New Orleans's public schools, Clark is but one battleground in what some are calling an education revolution. Parts of the flooded city were still closed off to residents when, in November 2005, the Louisiana legislature cleared the way for the state to assume control of 107 out of 128 schools in the Orleans district. The act clearly targeted New Orleans, which was one of the few districts in the state with enough "academically unacceptable" schools to trigger the takeover. A majority of New Orleans's legislators voted against the act. Immediately, the state began converting many of its newly acquired schools to charter schools--publicly funded schools run by for-profit or nonprofit groups that operate by a "charter," or contract.