Just eight school days remained at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology until Louisiana’s high-pressure, high-stakes exams would start.
With March 10 bearing down, language arts teacher Yvonne Lancelin used every spare moment on Feb. 27 to reinforce such skills as comma usage to her 7th and 8th grade students.
Two minutes was all she had to review the rules for when commas should be used to separate adjectives in a sentence. Several of the students, she said, still hadn’t mastered the topic.
“This will be on LEAP, so you’ve got to know it,” she told them, using the shorthand for the test’s formal name, the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program. “Eighth graders, you’ve got to look for everything on the test—misspellings, capitalization, punctuation.”
As the kids hustled out of the room to the science lab, Ms. Lancelin promised to go over the rules again the next day, during a “Power Thursday” session in which several 8th graders would receive a full day of language arts instruction in small groups. It’s one of several strategies the faculty at King has used to prepare students for the exam.
Students Who Fail Will Be Held Back
At King—the first public school to reopen in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward since Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters wiped out most of the neighborhood in August 2005—teachers and students right now are focused on little else besides preparing for the LEAP exam.
The story is the same across the city’s public schools, both traditional and charter. For 4th and 8th graders, the exam has high stakes: If they don’t pass, they are held back. The pressure is less acute for the 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 9th graders who also take the state exams.
The tests this year are also crucial because they will mark the return of New Orleans’ public schools to the state’s accountability system. Schools in all of Louisiana’s hurricane-devastated parishes had a reprieve last school year, when their test scores were used only to establish a baseline by which to compare scores from this year and future years.
King’s principal, Doris R. Hicks, is optimistic that her school—with a student body that is almost entirely low-income—will exceed its results from last year, which were below the state average but among the highest in the city of New Orleans.
Still, she worries about a handful of 8th graders who have been struggling this year. The Louisiana Department of Education is considering a proposal to liberalize a policy that allows certain 8th graders who score well in reading but not in mathematics, or vice versa, to obtain waivers to advance to the 9th grade.
“In my world, I would not have [LEAP] as part of promotion in the first place,” Ms. Hicks said.
Hopes for High School
Also weighing on Ms. Hicks’ mind is whether King will win approval of its proposal to add a 9th grade program next fall. Earlier this month, Ms. Hicks and her team submitted their plan to the state board of education. An answer could come as soon as mid-March.
“We’re hoping the answer will be yes and that we find out soon,” Ms. Hicks said. “We want to be able to start hiring teachers and finding classroom space.”
If King’s proposal gets the green light, Ms. Hicks will have to scramble to accommodate more classes. The school is already at capacity; adding two or three 9th grade classes would require more space. A community center across the street would be ideal, Ms. Hicks said, but the hurricane-damaged building has not been touched since the storm.
In the meantime, King has received dozens of applications from prospective 9th graders who want to attend the school. While most are already 8th graders at the school, several, Ms. Hicks said, are not.
“There are definitely lots of people who want to see a high school program in this community,” she said. “Having a public school to offer all grade levels is important for the recovery of the Lower Ninth.”
Coverage of public education in New Orleans is underwritten by a grant from the Ford Foundation.