New Orleans will try to resurrect its lowest-performing middle schools in the fall by transforming them into “learning academies” led by new principals and staffed entirely by certified teachers.
The district will pump more than $5 million into the 11 middle schools to pay for lower class sizes and additional staffing, including full-time nurses and social workers. The district identified the schools last month as “academically unacceptable,” based on state performance standards.
“Our whole philosophy is to create better-performing schools,” said Ollie S. Tyler, the chief academic officer of the 80,000-student Orleans Parish district. “To do that required systemic change.”
Few dispute that the 11 schools are in critical academic condition and in desperate need of financial and human resources. But some educators are concerned that the schools’ principals will be transferred from their posts without getting a fair chance to turn their schools around with the additional support.
“The schools are low-performing. That is a fact,” said Ron L. Taylor, the president of the Professional Administrators of New Orleans Public Schools, which represents the district’s school administrators. “But the schools are not low-performing because of their leadership.”
Still, the district’s Ms. Tyler said other New Orleans schools were successfully educating challenging students and were not classified as academically unacceptable. Now, she said: “We have to do something to play catch-up.”
The state determined that 47 New Orleans schools were academically unacceptable in 1999, based on student scores on the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program for the 21st Century and the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Attendance and dropout rates also were taken into account.
This year, a district analysis showed that only 11 schools—all of them middle schools—would remain on the state’s list by failing to earn a minimum performance score of 30 on a 200-point scale.
Big Changes Planned
Louisiana mandated that the district adopt a school choice program that would allow students attending the 11 schools to transfer to higher-performing public schools. But because of overcrowding, only 150 seats are available in one other school.
Instead, the district came up with the “learning academies” concept. The targeted schools will undergo extensive academic and staff changes. Each of the academies will have a staff-development teacher, a curriculum-resource specialist, an assistant principal, and a state- appointed distinguished educator who will serve as a resource for the newly appointed principal.
Class sizes, which Ms. Tyler said have sometimes exceeded 35 students, will be reduced in the academies to 23 students per teacher in grades 6-8.
Only certified staff members will be able to work at the learning academies, and they will each be required to make a two-year commitment to the position. About 100 noncertified teachers at the schools were let go.
Certified teachers who sign on to remain at the schools or to join the staffs will be given at least $2,500 for professional development, while the academy principals will receive annual $8,000 bonuses. The district will use local and additional federal Title I aid aimed at low-performing schools to give each school about $500,000 to finance the plan.
In an attempt to preserve principals’ jobs, Mr. Taylor of the administrators’ group has urged other New Orleans principals not to apply for the positions leading the academies. He encouraged the current principals to submit requests for the positions instead.
Charlotte L. Matthew, the principal of Sophia B. Wright Middle School, has already submitted a letter requesting that she stay at the helm of her school. Ms. Matthew had asked four years ago to lead the school, where she started her education career.
Ms. Matthew said she welcomes the district’s help for her 470 students in grades 6-8. She said 75 percent of the students score below the 25th percentile on the Iowa Tests. Many of her 6th graders enter middle school three years behind academically. The school’s performance score is 28.46 this year, up from 25.1 in 1999. “I’m hoping I get my job back,” Ms. Matthew said, “because my job is not finished.”
But Ms. Tyler said the district has more than 30 applicants for the principal positions, after a statewide search for “people who really want a challenge.” She expressed confidence that ads also would draw licensed teachers.
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2001 edition of Education Week as New Orleans To Overhaul 11 Middle Schools