The 4th graders at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology had been waiting since August for this moment, just five days before school would be out for summer. Their teacher, Joseph Recasner, was ready too. Clad in a white jumpsuit, Mr. Recasner perched on a small chair in the school’s courtyard, removed his eyeglasses, and braced for the deluge.
Earl Vincent’s blow came hard and fast. The dimpled 4th grader grinned broadly as he smashed a plastic plate piled high with whipped cream in his teacher’s face. All but one student in Mr. Recasner’s class had passed Louisiana’s high-stakes exam earlier this year, and this was the reward he had promised them. Next up was Galatia Jones, who slowly smeared cream on top of Mr. Recasner’s shaved head as dozens of King students and teachers who’d gathered to watch shrieked with laughter. There were 18 more whipped-cream assaults to go.
“Are you watching, 3rd grade?” Mr. Recasner asked as he flung hunks of cream from his eyes. “This could be you next year.”
Mr. Recasner’s pie-in-the-face gag has been a tradition at King for several years, but this time, the teacher explained, it meant more to him. For one, it signaled the end of the school’s first year back at home at its Lower Ninth Ward campus since August of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit and the collapse of levees drowned the school in 14 feet of water. It also represented another round of success for the school’s 4th grade, as all but four of 49 students passed the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, a requirement for them to be promoted to the 5th grade.
“I think everything that happened this year felt like it carried more weight because we were back at home in the Lower Ninth,” said Doris R. Hicks, the principal at King since the school opened in 1995. “But we are definitely looking at ourselves more critically this year, and we know that we still have a lot of work to do.”
One of Ms. Hicks’ gravest concerns: King’s 8th graders, eight of whom must re-take the state exam later this month. If they fail again, they cannot move on to high school.
The 2007-08 academic year marked the second school year for King since the storm. More than 500 children attended the pre-K-8 school; before the hurricane, it was one of more than 100 public schools run by the Orleans Parish school board. After the storm, Ms. Hicks and her teachers and staff members vigorously debated whether to convert King into a charter school, and decided it was the only way to keep the school intact and guarantee its return to the Lower Ninth Ward.
Without a charter, King would have been swept into the state-run Recovery School District, along with most of New Orleans’ public schools that were judged as failing. Though King had outperformed most of the city’s public schools, its state-assigned test score—based on a combination of factors such as test scores and attendance rates—fell slightly below the state average, the trigger for schools to be taken over after Katrina.
“We know now that we are better off as a charter school,” Ms. Hicks said. “There’s no turning back.”
After spending the 2006-07 school year in a building miles from the Lower Ninth Ward in the Uptown neighborhood and starting to figure out how to operate independently, King came home in August 2007. It was the first public school to open in the neighborhood that quickly became one of the most poignant symbols of the ravages of flooding that followed Katrina. King’s rapid return home became one of the most talked-about stories of recovery in the city, and for many weeks last fall, the school hosted a constant stream of marquee visitors, including President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.
“It was great experience for the kids and good exposure for King, but we definitely lost some instructional time through all of that,” said Eric Johnson, a 7th grade teacher at King.
King’s hallways, grounds, and classrooms bear few signs of Katrina’s destruction anymore, but ruin still surrounds the school. The city-run community center across the street remains boarded up, and the local fire station—also across from King—is still housed in a white trailer with one fire engine parked outside.
The school had its share of struggles with resources. For one, Mr. Johnson said, the textbooks that many teachers had ordered through the Recovery School District were never delivered. Many teachers relied on donated texts and spent hundreds of dollars of their own money on making photocopies, he said.
“It created academic struggles for us,” he said. “The kids had no textbooks to take home and often had to share them in class. They took a lot of notes and dictation.”
This year, the team at King welcomed twice as many students as in their first year back, and set out to craft academic strategies to help the students—nearly all African-American and poor—to succeed. In the 2nd grade, teachers Barbara Florent, Felicia Kelly, and Ann Ford used a team-teaching method to allow each of them to devote extra attention to a handful of students who were behind academically.
Ms. Ford, a reading specialist, began every day with a small group who’d come to 2nd grade with few to no reading skills. Ms. Kelly did the same with those who struggled with mathematics, and Ms. Florent, a veteran language-arts teacher, worked to reinforce the reading instruction with a range of assignments that had the students writing their own books and poetry. At the end of the year, the three teachers had decided to retain four of their 64 students.
“We are teaching them right up to the end,” said Ms. Ford, who had assigned her students to practice writing in cursive, to form contractions with words like “were” and “not,” and to pronounce and write words like “gnat” that start with silent letters. “We’ve got to help most of them get ready for the transition to the 3rd grade.”
Ms. Hicks was preparing for a staff retreat that would bring her team together to dissect King students’ test scores and to talk about how to proceed with plans for a 9th grade in the fall. The state board of education, as of the end of May, had still not ruled on whether King would be allowed to amend its charter to start a high school program. Frustrated, Ms. Hicks had decided to proceed with planning anyway, especially with most of the school’s 24 8th graders signed up to return to the school as its first freshmen.
To that end, Ms. Hicks met with representatives of College Track, a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit group that offers an intensive, four-year, after-school program designed to help underprivileged high school students get into college. Debbra Lindo, the chief executive officer of College Track, who was a high school principal in East Palo Alto, Calif., and Sherdren Burnside, the site director for its new program in New Orleans, told Ms. Hicks they wanted to work with King’s prospective high school students. They were looking to partner with two to three high schools in New Orleans this fall, and King was one of their top picks.
Ms. Hicks was impressed, but without an answer yet on the fate of King’s high school proposal, a decision to partner with College Track would have to wait. Plus, there was the expense. The program would probably require King to contribute up to $1,500 per student for each year students participate.
Back in King’s classrooms, some students were restless, already counting down the hours until summer vacation started.
In Yvonne Lancelin’s 7th grade class, students passed around magic markers to write farewell messages on each other’s T-shirts. Ms. Lancelin—or “Mama Lancelin” as everyone calls her—was down to her final days as a teacher. She is one of three teachers retiring at King, but was still rifling through her students’ state test scores and talking about what she might have done differently to ensure that the small number who’d scored below basic in English language-arts had done better. But the 7th graders kept calling out for her attention, clamoring for her to sign their shirts.
“Believe in yourself,” she wrote on one. And on another: “I will truly miss you.”
Coverage of public education in New Orleans is underwritten by a grant from the Ford Foundation.