Amid Visits From Politicians, School Keeps Eye on Academics

By Lesli A. Maxwell — November 14, 2007 3 min read
Feren Pitts, left, a 21-year-old biology major at Dillard University, reviews math problems with 8th graders Jennifer Dennis, center, and Jolinda Brown in Eric Johnson's after-school tutoring class at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology in New Orleans.
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The 2:30 p.m. dismissal bell had just stopped ringing as 11 8th graders at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology flung themselves into desks inside Eric Johnson’s second-floor classroom.

They had wrapped up a couple of action-packed hours that included eating lunch with New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, and taking turns rocketing down a towering, inflated slide that the mayor had arranged to be installed at King for the day.

But from 2:45 until 3:45 p.m, they were in Mr. Johnson’s grip, to receive one-on-one attention from the veteran teacher and three college students as they wrestled with a series of mathematics problems—all from a practice booklet meant to help prepare them for Louisiana’s high-stakes exam.

Video Interview

Doris R. Hicks, principal, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology. The charter was the first public school to open in New Orleans’ devastated Lower Ninth Ward.

That test—the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, or LEAP—given to the state’s 4th and 8th graders every March had, this second week of November, become a major priority at King. On Monday, mandatory, after-school tutoring sessions had begun for every student in 4th and 8th grades.

For the 8th graders crouched over word problems in Mr. Johnson’s classroom, the after-school sessions would be their third dose of math for the day.

“We are pushing them and pushing them to achieve excellence on this test,” said Mr. Johnson. “The LEAP is the measure by which our students and our school are going to be judged.”

In Louisiana, 8th graders who fail the LEAP exam can’t advance to high school. Last spring, despite the disruption from Hurricane Katrina, all of King’s 8th graders passed. “We are hoping to keep that record with this group,” said Mr. Johnson.

Magnet for Attention

Fifth grader Kirsten Antoine gets after-school help from Breeda Thompson on reading comprehension during a tutoring session at the King school aimed at preparing students for Louisiana's state tests.

King’s current 8th graders—24 of them—make up the second generation of 8th graders since the school was recreated as a charter in the months after the hurricane inundated their Lower Ninth Ward campus and washed away much of New Orleans’ old system of public schools.

Though they are not the first post-Katrina class of 8th graders at King, they may be the most symbolically important: They will be the first to finish since the school came home in August to the corner of North Claiborne and Caffin avenues—in the center of a neighborhood that some have said should not be rebuilt.

U.S. Marine Cpl. Christopher Prosperie, 22, from Houma, La., sorts gifts for students in the cafeteria of the King school during a giveaway of games and toys donated by Hasbro Inc.

That King was the first public school to open in the Lower Ninth Ward turned the school into a must-stop on the visiting dignitary circuit, a trend that started in August when President Bush and first lady Laura Bush stopped by. It was attention that many of the teachers and Principal Doris R. Hicks thought would have worn off by now. It has not.

On Tuesday, there was Mayor Nagin’s visit and a massive toy giveaway he arranged for King. With donations from toy maker Hasbro Inc. that were handed out by local members of the U.S. Marine Corps, every student went home with toys and games such as Tonka trucks, Monopoly, and Nerf footballs.

Students at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology head back to class through a breezeway after receiving gifts donated from a toy and game manufacturer.

Fifty mayors from around the country—in New Orleans for the National League of Cities conference—were arriving at King today for a tour of the school. Ms. Hicks had been asked if New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg might hold a press conference at the school on Friday, for what purpose she did not know. She was inclined to turn it down.

“It’s all been wonderful for the children and flattering for the school,” she said, “but we have had just so much going on here and we are telling our students that their studies are the most important thing.” Just last week, People magazine had flown Ms. Hicks to Los Angeles to honor her as one of its “heroes” for 2007.

Thinking Like Turkeys

Barbara Florent, a 2nd grade teacher, was hoping the tour of 50 mayors would skip her classroom. Her students were midway through a book-writing project on turkeys that she was determined for them to finish before the Thanksgiving break.

About This Project

The “View From King” dispatches are part of Education Week’s 2007-08 special series focusing on education recovery and reform efforts in New Orleans.
Learn more about the NOLA series.

Ms. Florent had already guided the children through one part of the project, in which they assumed a turkey’s point of view and wrote five reasons to not eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Their replies delighted the teacher who said it “took about two days for them to really grasp the concept of thinking like they were the turkey on the table.”

“I don’t want my head cut off,” wrote Darrick. “I don’t want to be in somebody’s stomach,” wrote Kiara. And, in the words of Christara, “I would not want to be smoushed.”[sic]

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