Corrected: In an earlier version of this story, Morkeith Phillips’ name was spelled incorrectly.
Most days at the Sophie B. Wright Institute of Academic Excellence, a charter school for 4th through 8th graders in Uptown New Orleans, students encounter someone from a university.
Tutors from Tulane University visit daily. Professors from Southern University at New Orleans arrive to guest teach in a science class. And Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity members from SUNO come most days to mentor boys after school.
Such regular exposure to people connected to higher education, says Principal Sharon Clark, is a key piece of the school’s academic model. Those ties have imbued Wright since it was chartered by SUNO in July 2005, the month before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. Wright, which had been one of New Orleans’ most troubled middle schools before the storm, is now producing some of city’s most impressive growth in academic achievement. Earlier this month, the school—where nearly all students qualify for free or reduced-price meals—learned that every one of its 4th graders had passed Louisiana’s high-stakes exam.
“We know that we can help any child,” Ms. Clark said in an interview before learning about the test results. “We’ve got an intense focus on our academics, and every child in this building can tell you how well they read, and every staff member here knows where their students are doing well and where they are struggling.”
The school had been running in its new charter form for only a week when Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. A few months earlier, Wright had been on the verge of being phased out under a districtwide plan in New Orleans to do away with middle schools. But Ms. Clark, who’d managed to raise Wright’s dismal test scores modestly since she was hired as principal in 2001, was approached by leaders from SUNO who were interested in chartering a middle school in the city.
“There were so many failing schools in the city, and we felt obligated to get involved and to help turn one around,” said Rose Duhon-Sells, the vice chancellor of academic affairs at the university, who also chairs the board that oversees the Sophie B. Wright Institute.
The school became one of five charters approved for New Orleans before the hurricane. And, said Ms. Duhon-Sells, Sophie B. Wright became the nation’s first school to be chartered by a historically black institution.
Right away, the newly chartered school became a place where parents would have to be involved on some level. At the very least, they had to come to the school every quarter to pick up their children’s report cards. The Success for All program, which uses a schoolwide approach to improve reading skills, was adopted at Wright. And SUNO faculty members were enlisted to help with professional development and to mentor teachers in their disciplines.
But Wright was also striking for what didn’t change after it became a charter: Ms. Clark remained as principal. Half the teachers stayed. The students—most of them poor and African-American—were the same.
When Wright reopened after the storm, in January 2006, the school looked different, though. Ms. Clark was back, and many of the teachers returned. But nearly 70 percent of the students hadn’t attended Wright before the storm, although like the school’s pre-hurricane enrollment, they were mostly black and low-income.
“It was really a matter of which families were able to get back to the city that soon after the storm, and a matter of us being one of the first public schools to reopen,” Ms. Clark said. “Many of these kids had experienced the worst of Katrina. They were left on the freeway overpasses, and they were inside the Superdome.”
Now, nearly three years after it became a charter and survived Katrina, Wright is thriving.
The 4th grade results on the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, or LEAP, had the school celebrating this month. In the 8th grade, 62 percent of the students passed LEAP, a 21 percent gain over last year, Ms. Clark said. Fourth and 8th graders who do not pass the exam cannot advance to the next grade.
Wright’s scores have improved vastly from the 2004-05 school year, when, as a regular Orleans Parish public school, nearly 83 percent of its 8th graders scored either “approaching basic” or “unsatisfactory” in English language arts, and 76 percent scored in one of those two categories in mathematics. To pass LEAP, students must score at least “basic” in either English or math, and “approaching basic” in the other subject.
Ms. Clark attributes the improvement to several factors. One, she said, is experienced teachers working in classrooms with no more than 20 students. This school year, only one member of Wright’s faculty is a first-year teacher. Unlike leaders of other charters in New Orleans and all the schools in the city’s state-run Recovery School District, she has not tapped into the Teach For America or Teach NOLA recruitment pool.
“I don’t really believe in being a training ground, when these kids need so much,” Ms. Clark said.
Charter status—meaning the school is publicly funded but largely independent—has given Ms. Clark a freer hand that goes beyond selecting her staff. She is using single-gender classes in the upper grades for English and math, a strategy that helps “do away with all the nonsense and allows the students to really focus,” she said. Ms. Clark brought back Success for All, a reading program she had used at Wright before a New Orleans superintendent decided to get rid of it.
“I don’t have to go and ask anyone to do something,” Ms. Clark said. “If it works for us, we do it.”
Southern University at New Orleans has a multifaceted role at Sophie B. Wright. The university handles operational tasks such as payroll and other human-resources matters for the school. Ms. Duhon-Sells, who previously served as the dean of the education school at SUNO, visits Wright regularly to observe classroom instruction and to talk with Ms. Clark. SUNO leaders have pledged a scholarship to attend the public university to every Wright 8th grader who graduates from high school.
“I think universities are useless if we don’t reach out to these schools and these students early on to connect them to higher education and to demonstrate what is possible,” Ms. Duhon-Sells said.
To Wright’s male students, it’s the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity members from SUNO who are likely to be making the most lasting impression.
Morkeith Phillips, a 27-year-old senior at SUNO, comes to Wright three days a week to mentor six boys. He studies with the boys, helps them with homework, and acts as a big brother who imparts advice about coping with the struggles of growing up poor in the city. One day earlier this month, he oversaw four boys who were rehearsing a fast-moving, percussive step-dance routine that they would perform for their classmates and teachers.
“It feels good to do this because I know, for me, how valuable it was to have a role model and mentor,” said Mr. Phillips, who grew up in one of New Orleans’ toughest housing projects and dropped out of high school at 16. “These young men need something to do to keep them from all the negativity on the streets. They need to see that there’s more than that life.”
James Watson, a 14-year-old 7th grader, said spending time with his mentor “helps keep me on track with my grades.” Earlier this year, he’d thought of quitting the mentorship program—one of the requirements is that the boys maintain C grades, at least—but Mr. Phillips would have none of it.
“He wouldn’t let me quit,” said James. “He made me believe in myself.”
Coverage of public education in New Orleans is underwritten by a grant from the Ford Foundation.