It’s week five of the school year at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology in this city’s Lower Ninth Ward, and Doris R. Hicks, the principal, reminds her students that their first progress reports will be sent home to parents.
“These are very important because they tell you where you are doing well and where you need improvement,” Ms. Hicks announces over the school’s intercom system on Tuesday during her regular, end-of-the-day pep talk. “We have high expectations for you … we want you to try very hard, very hard.”
In King’s 2nd grade, five weeks of hard work has helped move 13 struggling readers from learning phonics exclusively, to reading and spelling grade-level vocabulary words such as “brake” and “mistake.”
Marquel, 7, told teacher Ann Ford three weeks ago that he wants to read like his older cousin who attends King. (“Commitment, Charter Status, Brought School Back,” August 29, 2007.) On Tuesday, he volunteered to read a sentence from his spelling homework, something he had been too timid to do until recently.
“It is not safe to …,” he says softly before stumbling over the word “swim.” With help from student-teacher Sherece Williams, he tries again. “It is not safe to swim in the lake,” he reads, this time perfectly.
“They have gone from struggling with phonics to passing grade-level spelling tests,” says Ms. Ford, who spends two hours a day with them, using direct instruction in combination with other teaching strategies that include a lot of one-on-one attention. Half of them, she says, are making average progress in reading; a few still struggle and two have made excellent progress.
That it is time for progress reports to go out marks a return to normal business at King.
For weeks, the school attracted national attention, including a visit from President Bush, for its remarkable story of recovery after Hurricane Katrina. After becoming an independent charter school and spending the 2006-07 year in a temporary building in the Uptown neighborhood, King came home to its rehabilitated campus in the Lower Ninth Ward in August—the first public school to reopen in the neighborhood since the storm.
More than 500 students in prekindergarten through 8th grade go to King, a 12-year-old school where students, time and again, have turned out academic performances dramatically better than the city’s other open-access public schools that served similar populations of poor, African-American students before Katrina. The return of King has raised hopes that one of the city’s most devastated neighborhoods will rebound around it.
Joseph Recasner, a 4th grade teacher at King since 2000, is part of both revivals.
Like so many teachers across New Orleans, Katrina wrecked his home, which sits just eight blocks from King. Many days, he uses his brief breaks from the classroom to call his contractor to ask when the next phase of rebuilding will start. Several of his neighbors are rebuilding, and he wants to move back in before Christmas.
Mr. Recasner’s parents bought the red-brick, two-bedroom house on Reynes Street in the Lower Ninth Ward in the mid-1960s, not long after Hurricane Betsy struck the city. They raised him and his five sisters there.
Mr. Recasner and his family moved in after his parents passed away several years ago. Now 56, he remembers evenings spent on the front porch, “just listening to my mom and dad talk.”
And he marvels at the year his father turned 50, when the family hired the Rebirth Brass Band, now one of the most famous in New Orleans, to play in the backyard for $25 and all the food and drink the musicians wanted.
“You can’t just walk away from that … this was the first and only house my parents bought, so I am determined not to leave,” says Mr. Recasner, as he walks through rooms stripped down to the studs.
Before Katrina, the house was not inside the flood plain, so he and his wife, a City Hall employee, opted out of paying for flood insurance. The levee along the Industrial Canal—where a massive breach drowned the Lower Ninth Ward—is five blocks from their home.
“It seems crazy now, “ he says, shaking his head. With a new roof on now, and a Baton Rouge contractor who has agreed to do much of the interior work, Mr. Recasner is looking forward to more rapid progress. “It has been two long years,” he says.
But for all the attention he has given to rebuilding his home, Mr. Recasner is just as preoccupied with the progress his class of 16 4th graders has made in the first five weeks of school. Academic performance is especially critical in the 4th grade in Louisiana—where under the state’s accountability program, 4th and 8th graders must take a high-stakes exam, the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, or LEAP.
On Tuesday, Mr. Recasner was weaning his students off “the 3rd grade way” of doing addition and teaching them “mental math” techniques to help them solve problems more quickly.
“It’s getting them ready for 5th grade, getting them ready for algebra, and getting them ready for LEAP,” he says.
The LEAP exam puts extra pressure on 4th and 8th grade teachers. Students who fail are not promoted to the next grade. Mr. Recasner calls the pressure “a challenge, but I like challenges,” and reveals one of his strategies for motivating students to do well: letting them smash a whipped-cream pie in his face if they pass the test. “They love it, they work for it all year long.”
At the end of his hourlong math lesson, Mr. Recasner gives the children a break, and asks them to do an exercise he normally uses in the morning to get them focused on their lessons. He nominates one student to stand before the class and ask her classmates, “What are you thankful for?” One by one, they respond.
“I’m thankful that Mr. Recasner is our teacher,” says Ortega, one of five boys in the class. Mia, who is usually the first to raise her hand to answer a question, says she is thankful for her family. A few others say the same.
Truman, who is the last to speak, takes a deep breath. “I am thankful,” he says, pausing slightly, “that I survived the hurricane.”
Coverage of public education in New Orleans is underwritten by a grant from the Ford Foundation.