Greater Expectations

By Mark Stricherz — May 02, 2001 17 min read
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A new state accountablity policy is putting pressure on New Orleans schools to improve the performance of their poorest students.

On a sunny, slightly muggy Friday afternoon at Booker T. Washington High School here, most of the 17 teenagers in Rendell Elloie’s math class are working to understand the relationship between speed, time, and distance traveled.

With few exceptions, the students pay attention throughout the 90-minute class. Hardly anyone gazes out the window, and chitchat is almost nonexistent. They listen closely to Elloie’s questions and respond quickly.

“Now, again,” says Elloie, “if I’m going 100 miles an hour for seven hours, how many miles is that?”

“Seven hundred!” one boy blurts out.

The 28-year-old teacher writes the formula d = rt on the chalkboard and scribbles some accompanying numbers. “Now, again, this question asks what’s the average speed of the Iron Dragon roller coaster. Now what do they want us to do, George?” he asks.

“Make a graph!” the student exclaims.

After class, Elloie talks about his experience with these 17 students, who are in a remedial class aimed at helping them pass state standardized tests. Technically, they are still in 8th grade, but they attend the high school to take all their classes.

This class, Elloie says, is one of his best. Yet when asked to estimate how many of the 17 students are likely to pass the state exam, scheduled for the next week, the teacher pauses for a few seconds and presses his right hand to his cheek.

“Ten,” he says wanly.

Like many schools in the Orleans Parish school system, “Booker T.” faces a long, hard road ahead if it hopes to raise the performance of its lowest achievers. Last year, the high school, which then included 7th and 8th graders, placed dead last on Louisiana’s school performance scores. Only eight of the 65 8th graders could answer even 40 percent of the questions on the math section of the state test correctly, and only 15 could do so on the English portion.

Says Leslie R. Jacobs, a member of the state board of education and formerly on the city’s school board, “New Orleans has good schools and schools where there is no education at all.” Indeed, two years ago when state officials released the names of Louisiana’s 57 “academically unacceptable” schools, 51 of them were in the Crescent City.

In years past, dismal student performance was largely accepted. But these days things are different. With Booker T. partly in mind, Jacobs drew up, and lobbied the state board to pass, an ambitious policy to hold students accountable.

This school year, Louisiana became the first state in the country to require students who score poorly on state exams to take remedial classes. By contrast, North Carolina and New Mexico plan this summer and fall to end the practice of social promotion, whereby students are promoted to the next grade regardless of academic performance, but neither state mandates that such students take remedial classes.

‘New Orleans has good schools and schools where there is no education at all.’

Leslie R. Jacobs,
Louisiana Board of Education

Under the new state policy, 4th and 8th graders must pass the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and the Louisiana Assessment for Educational Progress for the 21st Century. If they don’t pass them during the spring or summer, they advance to the next grade, but must take yearlong remedial classes—designated “4.5" or “8.5"—meaning they are classes taken by 5th and 9th graders, respectively, who are doing 4th- and 8th-grade-level coursework in the subjects they failed."The number-one social value to me this program sends,” Jacobs says, “is a message to students they will no longer be promoted for seat time. They have to learn something.”

New Orleans’ top school leaders agree with, and even embrace, that message. Retired U.S. Marine Col. Alphonse G. Davis, the chief executive officer of the 84,000-student district, and Ollie S. Tyler, its chief academic officer, believe deeply that students’ problems are less the result of material poverty than a lack of strong institutions.

In part, their values talk is the result of the standards and accountability movement, which sets high expectations for everyone. But that kind of strict accountability talk is also traceable to their backgrounds.

Davis, 50, rose from a poor neighborhood in New Orleans to become the head of the Marine Corps’ officer-candidate school in Quantico, Va. Tyler, 55, went from a much poorer background in rural Louisiana to become the deputy superintendent in her native district.

Says Davis: “All kids have values, based on what their parents have basically. But there are some—respect for each other, hard work, citizenship—that we try to bring to the fore.”

But, as the two district leaders point out, values don’t exist in a vacuum. When Davis and Tyler were growing up, strong families, close- knit neighborhoods, and character-shaping schools helped forge those values. Their hopes now rest on three things: increased education funding, a healthier city climate, and a state and city political leadership that’s multiclass and multiracial.

And to raise their hopes for the city’s children, state and city leaders have instituted an array of programs designed to help New Orleans’ lowest-performing students improve. The number of students in 4.5 and 8.5 classes, for example, must be no more than 20. An extra three hours a week are available for instruction for all students. And the district plans to assign more credentialed teachers to the most demanding classrooms; as it is, many of those classrooms are staffed by teachers who aren’t licensed to teach.

Whether such efforts can raise student achievement enough isn’t clear. State and district leaders say the program is succeeding more among the younger 4.5 students, who they believe are easier to teach than middle school students.

Probably Booker T.'s most famous former student is Percy Miller, aka Master P., a 31-year-old hip-hop mogul who grew up in the violence-plagued Calliope public-housing project. Miller’s childhood during the 1980’s was like that of many children growing up there today. His parents divorced when he was 11, and he lived with his grandmother. He sold drugs. Then he stopped dealing when his brother Kevin was shot dead by a friend.

It wasn’t until leaving the old neighborhood that Miller became not just a success, but one of the biggest rap stars in the country—a man who’s built a fortune estimated at $300 million based on his image as the embodiment of a ghetto culture, a “thug” who looks out for his “soldiers” and “bitches.”

A drive through the area reveals that the same problems that bedeviled the community that surrounds Booker T. when Master P. was growing up are still evident.

Though within sight of the hulking New Orleans Superdome, Booker T. Washington High School is located in an old industrial part of town that today gets hardly any traffic. The surrounding neighborhood has five large housing projects. What activity there is usually comes from the B.W. Cooper Housing Development, which still goes by the name of “Calliope” or “Calio.” The half-mile row of two- and three-story apartment buildings, home to some 3,500 people, is notorious for its violence and drug-dealing.

One Friday afternoon in early March, a 22-year-old man was gunned down at the Calio project. As the corpse lay on the street, an estimated crowd of 100 milled about, including, the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper noted, “ribbon-haired girls riding scooters around the edge of the yellow crime-scene tape.”

Karla M. Baker, an officer with the New Orleans Police Department’s 6th District, which includes Booker T.'s neighborhood, says: “These kids see murder every day. The first time I saw one, the guy had been shot in the lower chest, the upper chest, and in the forehead. It was sick. But there were kids just playing around the dead body. There’s no way in hell I’d let my kids see that.” Last year, 40 people were killed in the city’s 10 housing projects—almost a quarter of the city’s total.

Booker T. Washington High School is surrounded by housing projects, one of which is notorious for violence and drug-dealing.

Barely 30 hours after the Calio killing, around 2:10 a.m. on a chilly night, Baker received a call reporting trouble in an outdoor area near Calio. Propped on a neighbor’s silver fence was the back end of a white 1990 Chevy Celebrity station wagon, which had rammed into the fence. Inside the car were a .38 special, a .38 automatic, and shell casings.

The car’s occupants went there to retaliate, the cops figure. The gunmen, they surmise, drove to the housing project intent on getting even for the Friday killing and fired five shots. But, feeling outmanned and outgunned, they slammed the car in reverse, careened onto the sidewalk, hit an 8-foot pole, and drove into the chain-link fence. They later fled on foot.

Booker T. and the community that surrounds it were not always so troubled.

Although public housing had been around since the late 1930s, former students describe the school as having been part of a real community back then and for some decades more. The neighborhood was not only multiclass, but racially integrated, though the school itself was not. As Jim Singleton, now the president of the New Orleans City Council and a 1952 Booker T. graduate, recalls: “Back in those days, you had longshoremen, teachers, and hotel workers living together in the housing projects. You didn’t have a situation where the neighborhood was made up entirely of poor people. You had people from all walks of life.”

Singleton was a fairly typical Booker T. student of that era. He was raised in Mississippi on a 160-acre farm, which had no electricity or plumbing. Figuring that farm life wasn’t for him, Singleton moved in the summer of 1948 to New Orleans, where he stayed with his uncle. In his new neighborhood, life had a stable, pleasant cast. His buddies were black and white. Most kids had fathers, though he estimates as many as 30 percent to 40 percent did not.

Singleton was happy at Booker T. Washington High, which was built in 1940. While the school offered no college-prep classes, there was only one other high school in the city for blacks. And a graduate was virtually assured of landing a good job in one of the local industries—sugar and chemical refineries, brickyards, the port of New Orleans.

In addition, the school boasted a magnificent auditorium that could hold several thousand people. Booker T. held a never-ending round of school events, concerts, and cotillions and hosted some of black America’s biggest names—Duke Ellington, Charlie “Bird” Parker, Martin Luther King Jr.

Ken Ducote, the director of planning for the Orleans Parish school system, says: “During segregation, the only places where African-Americans could legally assemble were churches, and most of the churches couldn’t hold that many people. So in effect it became the civic auditorium for black people.”

Today, it’s hard to imagine the school hosting a Duke Ellington. Still, in an overall healthier city climate, Booker T. is poised to benefit.

The number of welfare caseloads in New Orleans, for example, has plummeted. Crime is also way down—in the city as well as the Booker T. community. Inside the 6th District’s police station are four large wooden plaques—prizes for reducing crime more than any other police district in New Orleans. Last year, there were 206 murders in the city—way down from the city’s all-time high in 1994 of 421.

The drop in crime in the Booker T. community is partly due to the demolition of the St. Thomas housing project, one of the city’s most troubled. In some places, rows of neat two-story townhouses have gone up. In an attempt to thwart criminals, the 6th District police now have round-the-clock protection in the housing projects, thanks to a federal grant.

Spurred by the drop in crime, businesses have sprung up, though the neighborhood still has plenty of burned-out storefronts. Over the past couple of years, a few art galleries, new apartment buildings, and restaurants have moved in. A new grocery store is slated to open this summer.

“The area is definitely coming along, but the fact is the area is coming back from a disaster,” says Andy Antippas, the owner of Barrister’s Gallery, an art gallery on a boulevard near the school.

New Orleans public schools are so troubled that many schools officials choose to send their children to private schools.

With welfare rolls and crime reduced, the conventional wisdom in New Orleans is that now, finally, city leaders can tackle the mess that is the city’s schools.

Indeed, the schools are so troubled that Davis and Jacobs—and the principal of Booker T., Ronald L. Taylor—choose to send their children to private schools.

But Superintendent Davis, with his military background and no-nonsense demeanor, has inspired fresh hope. The school board, because of recent elections, now has more members critical of Davis, but he retains strong support among local business leaders and state officials.

What isn’t always mentioned by New Orleans school observers, however, is the degree to which Davis and Chief Academic Officer Tyler see themselves as promoting moral values, particularly in the city’s worst schools, like Booker T. The most important lesson, it appears, is that if you work hard, your life will improve.

Davis himself grew up in “Gert Town,” then a lower-middle-class neighborhood in the city. His father was a school janitor. His mother worked in, then owned, a diner. He was one of 15 children. But the family prospered, he says, because there was “a lot of love and direction. I had to be inside the house by a certain time.”

After graduating from all-black Southern University in Baton Rouge, he joined the Marines in 1972. From there, he ascended steadily up the military’s ranks. He says the highlight of his tenure was heading the Corps’ famed school at Quantico. He still looks like a military man: His body is lean and taut, his black shoes have a high shine, his tie is creased.

By 1999, Davis had heard about the New Orleans job opening from his father-in-law and decided to take the plunge into education without any formal experience managing K-12 schools. Today, Davis says, slightly wearily, that he left a job at the Pentagon and headed for a new challenge in New Orleans in July of that year out of an idealistic desire to help his hometown—serving public education, he says, was the best means to that end.

What Davis promotes is an ethic that he says the system’s mostly poor students should embrace. “We were driving just the other night,” he says of himself and Tyler, “and we saw some kids out at 9 o’clock, and we were like, what are those kids doing out?

“Heck, when I grew up, the minute I got home from school, I was doing my homework, I was preparing my clothes for the next day, I was going to bed early.”

His message is clearly spelled out in the city’s schools, in classrooms and on billboards, where “words of the month"—purpose (August), respect (September), self-discipline (October), and so on—are posted.

Tyler, who also emphasizes values, grew up in much greater poverty. Her parents were sharecroppers on a cotton and dairy farm in tiny Blanchard, La. Her mother had no formal education and remains illiterate. The family lived in a “shotgun” shack with no plumbing or electricity. She was one of nine kids. But they got by because, Tyler says, “families stayed together regardless. My mom and dad taught us to do the best we can.”

After rising from math teacher to school principal, Tyler in 1996 became the deputy superintendent of the Caddo public schools in northern Louisiana. It was what she accomplished in Caddo that attracted the attention of Davis—namely, a reputation for putting programs in place that helped raise students’ test scores, one of Davis’ primary concerns these days.

Tyler says plenty of inner-city children today lack material goods. But compared to her own experience, she says flatly, “they don’t know what poverty is.”

What bothers her, Tyler says, is how parents set priorities for their time. She talks of mothers who work two or three jobs to earn enough money to buy a fancy car, but then spend hardly any time with their children.

“There’s not a lot of direction,” she says. “There isn’t the supervision, and there isn’t quality time with adults.”

So Tyler is well aware that the schools have to fill the void. And that’s especially true when it comes to academic learning—they simply cannot count on parents to help their children.

In their drive to improve the Orleans Parish district, Davis and Tyler have aligned the local curriculum with state tests and the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Beyond that, the district added three hours each week of instruction time for students. And the district requires that teachers who will be teaching the 4.5 and 8.5 remedial classes must receive special training in the summer.

Looking back, Davis believes the state should have phased the remedial program in over several years, not several months, to allow more time for teacher and student preparation. But that’s not what happened. So he tries to help his teachers and students get up to speed. “We’re running a 26-mile race, and it’s like it’s a 100-yard dash,” the superintendent laments.

Schools chief Alphonse G. Davis believes the state phased in the remedial program too quickly. “We’re running a 16-mile race, and it’s like a 100-yard dash,” he says.

In April, the state board of education approved the district’s plan to improve teaching in the district’s eight lowest-performing elementary and middle schools. Under the plan, the district will direct better-qualified teachers to those schools. Today, the system’s lowest-achieving schools have more than double the district average for the number of unlicensed teachers. Davis and Tyler had to submit their latest plan to improve schools to the state board because the state in 2003 will gain the power to reorganize failing schools. And Tyler acknowledges that the district will have to recruit a huge number of better-qualified teachers if it is to succeed.

Fortunately, Davis says, the state is helping. In fact, education is one of the few areas where the state has increased funding in recent years.

As Walter Lee, a member of the state school board, points out, Louisiana has nearly frozen spending levels for everything except education. Since taking office in 1996, Gov. Mike Foster, a Republican, has lobbied the legislature successfully to raise education spending. Funding has jumped almost 20 percent since then—from $2.03 billion to $2.42 billion. Spending on the remedial program has gone from $7.54 million to a proposed $10 million. In addition, teachers are likely to get a $2,500 pay raise next year, $2,000 of which was proposed by Foster.

In New Orleans, the extra state funding is attracting a cross-class coalition of state and city leaders. The best example of this is Leslie Jacobs, the state board member who is known as the architect of initiatives designed to improve Louisiana’s worst schools. A Democrat, she got her position on the board after running Foster’s transition team for education after his election. Jacobs made a bundle of money recently when she sold the family’s insurance business.

Jacobs says her plan for 4th and 8th grade remedial classes was simply “common sense.”

“I’d like to say it was based on research,” she says. “It wasn’t.”

The latest research suggests that remedial programs can raise student achievement, though the evidence isn’t conclusive.

“I didn’t know at the time I supported and worked on the bill for high-stakes testing that our highest failure rate was in 9th grade and, tied for second, was 10th grade,” Jacobs recalls. “But it was common sense to me, from serving on the New Orleans school board and going into schools that, if a student lacked these skills, we were not helping this child if we were continuing to promote them.”

At Booker T., Jacobs’ ideas have yet to bear fruit.

Of the school’s 600 students, 85 are enrolled in the 8.5 program. Classes take place in a separate building, which used to house the school’s 7th and 8th graders. District officials picked the four teachers for the program, who were required to be certified. The vast majority of the 85 students take remedial classes in both English and math.

Taylor, the school’s principal, sees two sides—good and bad—to the 8.5 program.

On the one hand, he says the program has drawn credentialed teachers away from other classes—and, arguably, students in some of those classes need those teachers as much as the students in the 8.5 program.

But Taylor, 46, doesn’t dismiss the program. A muscular former all-state high school quarterback and a graduate of Xavier University in New Orleans, he has an office that seems to embody the school’s entire history. On his desk is a copy of Up from Slavery, the autobiography of the school’s celebrated namesake, who urged the black Americans of his time to become skilled artisans. On Taylor’s wall is a poster depicting Martin Luther King Jr. And behind his chair is a “Stop the Violence Awareness Week” sign.

Now the school is laboring, toiling, inching toward a new path. “Whatever number [of students] are making it, you have to see it as a plus,” Taylor says of the remedial plan. “Otherwise, they would have fallen through the cracks.”

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2001 edition of Education Week as Greater Expectations


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