Student Achievement

Playing Catch-Up

By Lesli A. Maxwell — April 08, 2008 11 min read
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Plenty of academic programs, but uneven progress, mark New Orleans’ recovery district.

Kaycee Eckhardt’s high school classroom is on the front line of the struggle here to address students’ academic needs in the post-Hurricane Katrina era.

In a two-hour class, Ms. Eckhardt uses a highly structured intervention program called READ 180 to teach reading to 15 freshmen, some of whom are repeating 9th grade. Most of her students are behind by at least two grade levels. In some cases, they lag by as much as four, or more, grade levels. Six students in the class have special needs.

Three of the freshmen, though, read at or above grade level, and probably should be taking a regular English course. But there’s only one such class for 9th graders at Joseph S. Clark High School this year, and it already exceeds 25 students—the class-size limit ordered for high schools.

“There’s a huge range of ability in this one class,” said Ms. Eckhardt, who was assigned to take over three reading classes at Clark last October, before she’d been fully trained on how to teach READ 180.

Her first-period class represents, in fine-grained detail, the daunting instructional challenges faced by educators this year in the 12,500-student Recovery School District, the state-run system that took over most of New Orleans’ public schools after the storm in August 2005. Roughly 85 percent of the district’s students scored at least two years behind grade level in reading last fall, when they took the first assessment in a series of benchmark tests—sobering results that were no better in mathematics.

“Pretty much all of our kids need some significant amounts of instructional intervention,” said Paul G. Vallas, the veteran urban superintendent hired to run the RSD in part for his reputation as a hard-charging, fast-moving reformer.

When Mr. Vallas arrived last summer, he brought his usual executive style: a top-down, “managed instruction” approach.

He pledged to standardize curriculum across all 34 RSD schools and to put instructional strategies in place that teachers would use to address the vast numbers of low-performing students. Teachers, many of them rookies, would be trained, he said, and student scores would start to move up. Benchmark testing would gauge their progress along the way.

To achieve those goals, Mr. Vallas mandated smaller class sizes for all grade levels—20 students in pre-K-8 schools and 25 in high school classes. He ordered double blocks of language arts and math instruction every day for high school freshmen. All district schools had to offer instruction after school as well, in an extended-day program designed largely to prepare students for the high-stakes state exams that they took last month. For the first time in most New Orleans public schools, technology was to be an integral part of instruction, with classrooms to be equipped with interactive whiteboards and computers that teachers would use to deliver their daily lessons.

But, with less than three months remaining in the academic year, adoption of the multifaceted academic reform plan has been uneven, teachers, principals, and district leaders acknowledge. (A more comprehensive curricular and instructional strategy for 2008-09 that includes a drastic redesign of the district’s high schools, is being hammered out, with professional development for teachers slated to start this month.)

A chart shows how closely teacher Kim Johnson tracked math homework this spring in preparation for the state tests.

Only since January have high school math teachers started to use a new course series to help students prepare for taking Algebra 1, said Debbie Schum, the deputy superintendent of academics for the Recovery School District.

And READ 180, the cornerstone reading-intervention program for most students in grades 4-10, was only fully up and running in most schools in January. Of 129 READ 180 classrooms across the district, 83 were meeting all the criteria for the curriculum to be in full use by late February. The delay was caused in part by complications with wiring buildings for the computers that are a key part of the program, and by changes in teachers’ assignments.

Between November and January, roughly 30 percent of the teachers who were trained to teach READ 180 were reassigned, said Jean Anderson, a consultant who is helping train RSD teachers to use the Scholastic Inc. program.

“We’ve by no means had a chance to implement all of these efforts with fidelity,” said Ms. Schum, who oversees the district’s high school program.

“Basically, we have tried to stabilize things so that we could begin to infuse much of this new curriculum into our schools this year,” she said, “and start training our teachers and staff this spring and summer for full implementation on day one next year.”

To tackle the overwhelming numbers of high school students lagging in reading, district leaders made READ 180 the de facto language arts curriculum for many students. Nearly all of the 2,200 freshmen and sophomores in the RSD have been required to take it, along with a handful of juniors and seniors. This year, none of the high schools in the district offered Advanced Placement courses, so students who wanted to take AP have had to do so through the online Louisiana Virtual School.

“We were looking at having to do some reading intervention with most of our students in those grades,” said Ms. Schum. “For a variety of reasons, we have large numbers of kids who are way behind because they were in failing schools prior to Katrina, and after the hurricane they missed school, and it intensified the problem even more.”

On a rainy mid-March morning, five students are absent from the first-period READ 180 class Ms. Eckhardt teaches, a pattern she has noticed when the weather is stormy. She kicks off the period by displaying an editorial cartoon that features a woman who represents the city of New Orleans wrapped in heavy chains that resemble Mardi Gras beads. Words such as “red tape,” “indifference,” and “dried-up funds” appear in the cartoon. She asks the students to tell her what it means.

English teacher Kaycee Eckhardt reviews material to prepare her students for a test.

“It’s about Katrina,” said Tyroneka Jones. “It’s about the government and how they messed up New Orleans,” said classmate Chaz Kendrick.

The day’s READ 180 lesson—based largely on the author Tim O’Brien’s stories about the Vietnam War—includes a discussion of editorial cartoons from that era. But to get her students interested in talking about them, Ms. Eckhardt said, “I first needed to give them something that’s relevant to their lives.”

For the next 15 minutes, Ms. Eckhardt follows a list of questions in the READ 180 text and leads the group in a discussion about “Ambush,” an O’Brien short story they’ve recently read. A special education instructor, David Renaud, is also in the classroom to assist. He had arrived only a week earlier to work in her classes.

As students offer responses about the author’s fear of risking his life in war, one of the missing students arrives, briefly halting instruction. She is in tears, and ignores Ms. Eckhardt’s order to get a tardy pass from the principal’s office. Instead, she puts her head down on her desk. Later, Ms. Eckhardt explains that the girl was grieving for a friend, a teenage boy who’d been shot and killed a week earlier. Several students had missed class the day before to attend his funeral.

A timer goes off, signaling the start of the rotations when Ms. Eckhardt will meet with one group of students to discuss what they’ve read, as two other groups either read quietly on their own or work individually on spelling, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency lessons on one of the classroom’s eight computers.

Ahmad Alexander, a 9th grader, reads on his own during a period set aside for structured reading in his English.

The rotations—a hallmark of the READ 180 program—move the students to another reading or writing activity every 20 minutes.

Mable Robinson, 15, listens through headphones as words—many of them vocabulary words from the O’Brien stories—are pronounced by a computer-generated voice. She types the word she hears into the “Spelling Zone,” which offers an instant check on whether she has spelled it correctly.

“I like the way this class works, because it has helped me improve my writing, my reading, and my vocabulary, which helps me in my other classes,” said Ms. Robinson, who hopes to pass all seven of her classes so that she will have enough credits to catch up and be a junior in the fall.

Ms. Eckhardt, who was hired last summer to teach in the Recovery School District through the TeachNOLA recruitment initiative, said most of her first-period students have made considerable progress in the roughly three months that the READ 180 program has been in full swing in her classroom.

“It has been a big learning curve for them and for me,” she said. “We started together in October before READ 180 was ready to go here, so it wasn’t easy to switch gears and start with a whole new program and structure.”

Ms. Eckhardt worries most about the three students who don’t need remediation, and gives them more-challenging reading and writing assignments.

Next year, said Mr. Vallas, the district will offer more regular English language arts courses in addition to READ 180. Struggling readers will receive two 90-minute blocks of literacy instruction daily. Proficient readers will be able to take an elective in place of READ 180.

On a late February afternoon at Benjamin Banneker Elementary School in the Uptown neighborhood, a handful of classrooms on the second floor are occupied by teachers and small groups of students who have stayed after school for more instruction.

The lessons are part of the district’s extended-day initiative, which was meant to provide additional teaching and learning time to students who were about to take the weeklong Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, or LEAP. For the first time since the hurricane, public schools in New Orleans would re-enter the state’s accountability program. But for students, participation in the extra lessons has been voluntary.

One teacher, Donna Rompf, is working with a group of nine 3rd graders on a math lesson in polygons. Identifying the different types—hexagons, octagons, quadrilaterals—is 3rd grade math, but many pupils, she said, “haven’t gotten it.” More than likely, these students, who will take the state exam for the first time, will have to answer questions about polygons. Most can reel off the names of different ones, but when Ms. Rompf challenges them to draw a hexagon on the blackboard, they are stumped.

“They’ve been learning this in their regular math class,” said Ms. Rompf, who is a special education teacher. “But we have to reinforce, reinforce, reinforce.”

Principal Cheryllyn Branche estimates that “less than 50 percent” of the students at Banneker who need additional instruction have shown up for the help since the extended-day program began last October.

“I think part of the problem is that we now have kids who come to school from all over the city,” she said, “so transportation becomes an issue, even though we have had buses to take them home from extended day.”

The principal worries too about the strains of an extra hour of school, especially as the RSD moves to extend the school day permanently next fall. “I think by 3 o’clock, both students and teachers are tired,” she said. “I want to be sure that the extra time actually means something.”

Ms. Branche, who was the principal at Banneker before the storm, said the RSD’s emphasis on new instructional strategies has been a major improvement over the first post-Katrina school year—when the district operated in a crisis mode to open flooded school buildings, hire enough teachers, and provide ample textbooks, supplies, and hot meals. But the computers, interactive whiteboards, and other technology have been a challenge to integrate into teaching.

“The technology initiative has been good for many reasons, but we are still dealing with classrooms where it’s not all operable yet, and where people still need more training,” Ms. Branche said. “Next year, it might be good to have fewer new initiatives, so that what we’ve started this year has a chance to really sink in.”

At Sarah T. Reed High School in New Orleans East in late February, a large sign posted in the main office reminded faculty members and students that only seven days remained until the Louisiana Graduate Exit Exam, or GEE, would start. Similar countdown reminders, in fact, had been hanging in the hallways, classrooms, and offices at schools around the district for weeks.

Mindful of that, Principal Karen Collins made her morning rounds of classrooms to show a visitor how teachers start each class, regardless of subject, with a three-minute “Power Up” exercise.

It’s an RSD-wide initiative, but one that Ms. Collins and her faculty have fully embraced as a strategy to get students focused immediately on their daily lesson and as an opportunity to reinforce content that is sure to be on the exit exam that they must all eventually pass in order to graduate.

In Ben Ploeger’s geometry class, the Power Up requires students to find the area of a rhombus that he has posted on the whiteboard—a warm-up for his lesson on calculating the area and circumference of circles. He takes attendance on his laptop as students work on solving the problem.

The lesson, Mr. Ploeger explained, is on the district’s math curriculum guide for the day, and is content that “will be covered heavily on the test.”

As most students work quietly to solve the problem, one boy announces he needs to use the restroom. Mr. Ploeger tells him he’ll have to wait until after the first 30 minutes of class, or, the teacher reminds him, he’ll be locked out of the classroom.

It was a rule set to ensure little or no disruption to instruction as the exam week approached, Ms. Collins said, noting: “We only have so many hours, so many days to teach these students and get them back on track.”

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Coverage of public education in New Orleans is underwritten by a grant from the Ford Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 09, 2008 edition of Education Week as Playing Catch-Up


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