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Grassroots New Orleans Charter Gives Students ‘Critical Care’

By Lesli A. Maxwell — October 02, 2007 5 min read
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Standing before a class of 8th graders at McDonogh 42 Elementary Charter School in late September, Harold Peaden, a retired chemical engineer, slowly explained the steps for solving an equation with one variable. He wrote every step on an overhead projector, and called on each of the 14 students by name to ask if they understood.

Most said yes, they did. At least two needed extra time to work the problem and some requested one-on-one attention from him.

Mr. Peaden’s methodical, personal style is meant to ensure success for these struggling middle school students, some of whom are repeating the 8th grade after they failed Louisiana’s high-stakes exam last school year. Whether those 8th graders succeed this time around is the high-stakes test for the educators at McDonogh 42, one of New Orleans’ newest charter schools.

“Those 8th graders are our critical-care unit,” said Sandra Stafford Frazier, the principal of the 475-student school, which serves children from prekindergarten through 8th grade.

McDonogh 42 Elementary Charter School opened Aug. 13 in Treme, one of New Orleans’ oldest African-American neighborhoods. Overseen by a group of veteran Orleans Parish educators who founded the Treme Charter School Association last year, McDonogh 42 is the first of three elementary schools that the group intends to open in the neighborhood that sits just a few blocks north of the French Quarter.

The Recovery School District—the state-run system that took over most of New Orleans’ public schools after Hurricane Katrina—had opened McDonogh 42 hastily in January to help alleviate a 300-student waiting list. The school was staffed with a corps of mostly rookie teachers and struggled for the five months it was open.

Though the Treme association had proposed taking over a different neighborhood campus for its first charter, RSD officials offered the McDonogh 42 building instead, making the school the first in the city since Katrina to convert from a traditional public school to a charter.

“We want to be part of preserving this neighborhood and making it stronger,” said Roslyn Johnson Smith, a retired area superintendent in the Orleans Parish school district who is the president of the Treme Charter School Association. “This neighborhood right now is home to some of the highest rates of homeless children in the city. We want to circle the wagons around them.”

Principal Lured Back

To do that, Ms. Smith and the rest of the Treme charter team decided to hire as many veteran teachers as they could. The first step was finding a principal who was willing to take on the challenge of starting a school from scratch.

Ms. Frazier, who’d led two New Orleans elementary schools before Hurricane Katrina, had begun to move on. Nearly two years had passed since the storm swept her out of her New Orleans East home. She’d been hired on as a principal at an elementary school in East Baton Rouge Parish, and she and her husband had bought a new home there.

So when her longtime mentor, Ms. Smith, called last May to ask if she’d come back to lead a start-up charter school, Ms. Frazier hesitated. She ached for her hometown, but she liked working in a school system that functioned well.

“But I couldn’t get New Orleans and the children there out of my mind,” she said recently. “And when I heard that I would be able to select every one of the staff members for this charter school, I became very interested.”

By June, Ms. Frazier was back in New Orleans to start assembling her team. Ms. Frazier hired several teachers who worked with her before Hurricane Katrina at H.C. Schaumburg Elementary, a school that had jumped more than 20 points in its student-academic-performance score under Louisiana’s accountability ranking system between the 2003-04 and 2004-05 school years, with a student population that was 80 percent poor.

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Through a nationwide teacher-recruitment campaign for New Orleans schools, she snagged other veteran educators, including an experienced middle school principal from Indiana to teach English to the school’s 34 8th graders.

On Aug. 13, Ms. Frazier welcomed students to their first day of school at McDonogh 42. About 22 percent of them had attended the school in its previous incarnation as a Recovery School District campus, but many had gone to other public schools in New Orleans or in cities where they had been living since the hurricane. Some had had little to no schooling at all since the storm.

“My first statement to them was an apology,” said Ms. Frazier. “I told them that adults are responsible for children and that last year, they had been done a disservice. I told them that this year, they would get what I call ‘real school.’ I told them that we are going to teach you despite what all of us have been through.”

On Their Own

Getting McDonogh up and running has not been easy. Though the 82-year-old school building came equipped with computers, textbooks, new furniture, and other supplies, essentials such as exterior doors with secure locks were not in place. The kitchen, which was flooded in the storm, has not been renovated to allow meals to be prepared there—breakfast and lunch is cooked at a nearby campus and transported to the school.

Without a nonprofit or university partner, the Treme Charter School Association has been handling everything on its own. The group had originally partnered with a San Diego-based for-profit education management organization, EdFutures Inc., but the two groups parted ways in the fall of 2006 when they couldn’t agree on what portion of the school’s per-pupil allotment the company would take for its fee, Ms. Smith said.

“We decided we had a lot of capacity ourselves and would do this in a grassroots, intimate way, but we definitely want and need to hire a [chief executive officer],” she said. “We are very cognizant that many charters fail due to financial mismanagement and issues not directly related to academic achievement.”

Rick Ankney, who arrived to teach in New Orleans this fall after serving as a middle school principal in northern Indiana for a decade, is one of the McDonogh 42 teachers that Ms. Smith has faith will take care of the academic challenges at the school. He is teaching language arts to the school’s 8th graders, and three weeks into his new assignment, had found that most of his students were reading at least two years below grade level.

“There’s a lot of work to do,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that this is probably going to be one of the toughest assignments in my career.”

Coverage of public education in New Orleans is underwritten by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

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