Ann Ford’s class of 2nd graders at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology was supposed to quietly practice using new vocabulary words by placing them in simple sentences she had written on the blackboard.
But there was a lot of squirming and chattering going on—the students were about to head off for a 90-minute period of music and physical education—and Ms. Ford explained that it had been hard to keep the children focused since they’d returned a day earlier from a three-day weekend. Ms. Ford, who team teaches King’s 64 2nd graders with Barbara Florent and Felicia Kelly, had also been out sick for a few days with a bad cold and allergies.
That disruption, she said, threw some students off, especially the group of 15 struggling readers that she works with for two hours every day.
“It just reinforces how every single day of instruction is so important,” said Ms. Kelly, who is the main mathematics instructor. “When there are days off and other disruptions, you do lose some ground.”
Now that King—the first public school to open in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans—has reached the midpoint of the academic year, the trio of 2nd grade teachers has begun to closely examine the children’s progress. Ms. Ford has just wrapped up her midyear, one-on-one reading assessments of all the students.
“They have all made progress,” Ms. Ford said, as she flipped through the test results that showed improvements in oral reading fluency. Some students had gone from as few as 18 words per minute to 35. Others made bigger jumps, from 25 words per minute to 65. The benchmark they are aiming to hit by the spring is 90 words per minute.
‘A Fair Chance’
Since reopening as a charter school after the storm, King’s 2nd grade teachers have divided their students by ability into three groups for reading and for mathematics, a strategy Ms. Kelly said has allowed them to give “every child a fair chance and the time they need to learn.”
Still, the three teachers are weighing whether a few of the students should be held back next year. Two, or maybe three of them, they said, will flounder if they advance to 3rd grade before their reading is solidly up to grade level. Third grade is the first year that students in Louisiana take state exams to measure their academic progress.
“We don’t want to see them fall more behind or fail if they move on,” said Ms. Ford.
Last school year—the first one for King since the hurricane—had been a resounding success for the teachers. They’d had a class of 58 children—10 of them nonreaders—and had gotten all of them up to 3rd or 4th grade reading levels by the end of the year.
“It’s harder this year, especially with behavior,” said Ms. Florent, the language arts specialist who is planning to retire from King at the end of this school year. “We think it’s probably all related to the storm and to the stress of their parents rebuilding or living in trailers and other temporary housing.”
Ms. Ford and Ms. Kelly agree.
“I think it’s because our kids have been back in the city longer now, and they have had more time to be exposed to all the damage and all the things that still aren’t working the way they are supposed to,” Ms. Ford said.
By the end of February, they will make a final decision about retaining the students they are most worried about.
“If and when we tell these parents that their child is in danger of being retained, they will kick in and start doing more with them at home,” Ms. Ford said. “And if that happens, it will help put those few children where they need to be.”
Countdown to Testing
The pressure is even greater upstairs in King’s 4th and 8th grade classrooms, where, from March 10-14, students will take Louisiana’s high-stakes exam.
Joseph Recasner, one of King’s 4th grade teachers, worked on a language arts exercise to help his students use more sophisticated adjectives.
“Let’s start with a 2nd grade word,” he said. “Big. What’s another word for big?” Several of them called out synonyms. “Huge,” said one. “Gigantic,” said another.
Then the lunch bell rang, and Mr. Recasner told the kids to be ready to use those adjectives in an assignment that the school’s writing specialist would have for them that afternoon. Writing, he reminded them, is an important part of the state exam, called the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, or LEAP.
“How many of you are ready to pass the LEAP?” Mr. Recasner asked. Most of their hands shot into the air. They all know if they don’t, they must repeat 4th grade.
Chad’reionta Alexander, a petite girl with twists in her hair, said she has to pass. Mr. Recasner has promised all of them an irresistible prize if they do.
“I want to smash Mr. Recasner’s face with whipped cream pie,” Chad’reionta said, grinning.
Coverage of public education in New Orleans is underwritten by a grant from the Ford Foundation.