With a five-day marathon of state exams finally behind them, some 7th and 8th graders at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology were taking a break this week from their classroom routine.
A group of college and high school students from Minnesota had come to the Lower Ninth Ward school to meet and get to know them, in the hope of forging a connection that would blossom into an ongoing mentorship for the King students.
Tuesday was the second day together for the King students and their new mentors, who are students at Hamline University in St. Paul, and the Avalon School, a small charter school in St. Paul that is affiliated with Hamline. After using the first day for a series of icebreaker exercises, the mentors were starting to teach the King students to use an Internet program that will allow them to stay in close touch for things like homework help, advice, and encouragement in their schoolwork.
The Web-based program—a secured area to which only King students and their mentors will have access—is where leaders of the initiative say the mentor-student relationships will develop through regular, electronic communication. Through the initiative, called “Each One, Teach One,” the Minnesota mentors have committed to spend a minimum of one hour a week communicating with their mentees at King over the next several months, said Jean Strait, an education professor at Hamline who is leading the group.
Soon after Hurricane Katrina struck, a contingent of faculty and students from Hamline came to New Orleans to help King staff members clean out and gut the water- and mud-ravaged school. Every few months since then, they have sent boxes of donated school supplies.
“We’ve got a two-year relationship with King, so doing this mentorship program was the next step of where we wanted to go to help the students here,” Ms. Strait said.
Finding Common Ground
The mentors were selected based on their strong interest in working with disadvantaged students and were given training on a range of issues relevant to King’s students. Those include Louisiana’s distinctive culture and how to work with children who may have post-traumatic stress disorder, said Joyce Jones, another leader of the Hamline group.
“Some of it was very basic, just like the ‘yes ma’am, no ma’am’ stuff,” Ms. Jones said, referring to the way that New Orleans children typically address adults.
On Tuesday, the mentors worked alongside the King students in the school’s computer center, showing them step by step how to log on to the Web-based program that already had their user names saved and ready to use.
King students, Ms. Jones said, will be able to spend some time each week while they are at school to write and respond to their long-distance mentors.
Jenna Londy, a Hamline student who is earning a degree in education, had already clicked with her King mentee, Breionna Treaudo, a 7th grader. The pair quickly discovered their common music tastes, particularly an affinity for Chris Brown, the young hip-hop singer and dancing phenom.
“I think we’ll have lots to chit-chat about, in addition to talking about homework and school,” said Ms. Londy. “We might be exchanging YouTube links and talking about our new favorite videos.”
But the two had already made some concrete plans for the academic part of their new relationship as well. Breionna told Ms. Londy that she wants to sharpen her reading skills. They decided that Ms. Londy would supply Breionna with a vocabulary word every day.
“That way, I can log on after school and see a new word,” Breionna said. As Ms. Londy kept asking questions to get to know Breionna, they hit on another common interest. “My favorite subject,” said Breionna, “is social studies.”
“That’s what I want to teach!” Ms. Londy said, as she high-fived her new friend.
Test Fatigue Sets In
Meanwhile, King’s younger students were back in the thick of day-to-day instruction. In Joseph Recasner’s class, a dozen small hands shot into the air, fingers furiously wiggling, to answer his question about the difference between an adverb and an adjective.
Or so it seemed. Mostly, this class of 4th graders was more interested in talking about such topics as whether New Orleans has the “best Mardi Gras in the world,” or “what’s going on in the news.”
It was the second full day of instruction since the students had finished taking the state’s high-stakes exam, known as the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, or LEAP. Though Mr. Recasner’s 4th graders were energetic, he’d had a hard time keeping them focused on Tuesday’s language arts lesson, a product, he said, of test fatigue.
“We have to work even harder right now to keep them on task,” said Mr. Recasner. “They are tired. We are tired. And they’ve heard so much about how important the LEAP is, that now we have to remind them that there’s two more months of school left and lots more learning to do.”
This year, all of the public schools in New Orleans, including King, will be judged by how students score on the assessment. That will mark the city’s schools re-entry into the statewide accountability program, from which they were granted a respite after Katrina’s floodwaters inundated New Orleans in August 2005.
The test is an especially crucial exercise for 4th graders and 8th graders, who must pass in order to be promoted to the next grade. And at King, the first public school to reopen in the Lower Ninth Ward since the storm, the 2008 LEAP scores will determine, in part, how large a freshman class the school could have if its plans to add a high school program are approved by the state board of education.
“I think our students did well,” said Doris R. Hicks, King’s principal. “But I’m also a realist, and I know that we are probably going to be here this summer with a few of our kids doing remediation.”
Coverage of public education in New Orleans is underwritten by a grant from the Ford Foundation.