Sunday, March 9, 2014

School districts

A lot of new teachers and even families have questions about or are confused about the school districts in the city. It is a complicated mess of politics that has left the very small city of New Orleans with a splintered group of schools that it is not always easy to learn about. The city's schools are divided into schools run by the Recovery School District, Orleans Parish School board, charter and private schools. Unlike most cities and even our suburban counterparts, there is no unified district that handles all students within New Orleans/Orleans parish.

This can be troublesome for parents looking for schools and teachers looking for places to work. There is a very large difference in the two types of public schools. Charter schools are completely autonomous, save for the requirement to take the same state-mandated standardized tests. This means that everything from teacher salary to amount of funds available to the school can vary. Charters are being touted as the solution to the education gap, however, being a charter school is a very vague description of what the school does. It is as vague as saying "fast food restaurant"; it only means that they are self-governed and it does not give any information about what systems are being used within the school. This alone means that statistics about charter schools are inaccurate; the methods used within each type are not considered when collecting data. For instance, Audubon Montessori uses very different teaching methods than Kipp Central City but they are both charter schools.

Within the heading of "charter school" are two more types: Charter management organizations and Independently run charters. The CMOs are basically franchise organizations. It is one organization that runs multiple schools. These charters are eligible for more and different types of funding and have a different set of requirements to keep their charters. These are organizations like Crescent City Schools, ReNew Schools, KIPP Schools, Firstline Schools , New Beginnings Schools , ARISE Schools and Algiers Charter School Association. Aside from the Algiers CSA, and New Beginnings, they all use the KIPP school model.

Then there are the independently run charters. These schools are governed by either the Orleans Parish School Board , which was the city's original school district, or the Recovery School District . These schools are autonomous, however. Some are montessori, some follow traditional school models, some are new and some are old. The Orleans Parish Schools are the highest performing and most prestigious schools in the city. The politics behind why that happened would have to be saved for another day.

That leaves everything else. The Recovery School District came about as a means to "recover" the failing and damaged schools in 2003. The plan was for them to take them over (leaving the passing schools to stay with Orleans Parish), improve their SPS Score then charter them out. Why the schools wouldn't be returned to Orleans Parish is more politics that will be saved for another day. What actually happened, however, is that the RSD was mismanaged; run by people who did not know why the schools were failing and did little to actually improve the schools. They quickly ran out of money and had outstanding bills all over town. The ultimate solution was, by the end of the 2013 school year, to close or charter out the bulk of their schools. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. This district now only runs five schools in the city.

Despite all of this, children are eligible to go to any public school regardless of which district governs it or where it is. The only restrictions ever fall under the selective enrollment schools which require a testing process to be considered for entry.

Teachers entering Teach for America or Teach Nola are eligible to work at any public school regardless of which district governs it.

Knowing how the school districts work, which schools are governed by which organization, and how to find their SPS scores is very important in navigating the New Orleans educational system.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

"This is stupid, that is stupid, EVERYTHING is stupid"

Just now, while re-reading "To Kill a mockingbird" (because this is my first year teaching it since I read it in eighth grade *mumblemuble* years ago), I realized why my students and I have the relationship that we do. We argue and butt heads and they often ask me why I don't like them. Most days they are lazy and unmotivated. When I make them do work on their own, they gather together like an angry mob and attack me. When we first began reading "To Kill a Mockingbird", I'd spent a week on building historical knowledge and then introduced the novel and said "now begin reading the first ten pages of chapter one". Several heads popped up with confused looks on their faces. Read? Well, OK. Several students opened their books and stared at me. Apparently, they were waiting--waiting for me to read to them.

Our classes run on a block schedule of 95 minute classes for one semester each. Ninth graders take "Reading" in their first semester of high school, then they may or may not have a different teacher in the second semester for English I. Most of my students were new this semester, and many of them had come from a neighboring teacher who was new, young and looking for an easy way out. Students had often listened to audio or watched movie versions of our texts before or while reading the text. I made it clear that I do not read books aloud and my class is about developing self control and independence. The students that I'd had the previous semester did not accept this statement that I do not read aloud as we'd read parts of "A Raisin in the Sun" aloud and all of "Romeo and Juliet" was read aloud. So, when the angry mob set in, it wasn't just new students. I had to explain to my former students that we read aloud plays but we do not read novels or even short stories aloud. One of the new students looked at me, eyebrows gently furrowed and said, "what, you don't feel like teaching today?".

Changing grade levels every year that I've taught had left me questioning every decision that I'd made until this semester. Now that I finally understand Common Core and I continue to use GLEs, I have had an easier time of setting the level of expectations for these students. I still had a rude awakening when it came to their actual reading levels, though. I'd had the idea, and even discussed with first semester's students, that passing the LEAP should mean that they have a basic knowledge of skills that they would need for ninth grade but that they would be at varying levels of mastery of those skills since they come from a variety of schools all over the city. However, I hadn't anticipated that many of them would still be reading at the sixth grade level, some lower, and why they were reading at such a low level. Eventually, it hit me.

Every time we work on vocabulary or grammar I get mass numbers of students shutting down. Working on fragments resulted in yells of "this is stupid!" or bugging students about completing vocabulary work ended in "that's stupid" or when I use just about any polysyllabic words in class I am faced with "why are you using big words?". And I don't mean excessively academic language, I mean the language that is used commonly, like on the news or on the average TV show. Each time was like a big puzzle piece being laid out in front of me.

If you are an experienced teacher you might be thinking "duh" at this revelation. However, I am not experienced yet due to my never repeating a grade level, however, my varied experience is what made this awakening happen. I know that vocabulary is not a separate skill to be worked on in middle school. I had gone into middle school thinking that there were grade level word lists, much like the Dolch sight words lists, that I could look up and teach my students. I went back and forth between several lists online, but lack of knowledge and experience coupled with no pacing guide or curricular support from my instructional coach (who, might I add, had never taught above fourth grade), left me piecing together a myriad of skills in no sensical order which often left vocabulary cast by the wayside. If my experience was anything like any of my students' experiences, then they didn't adequately develop their vocabulary before reaching high school, and this is most likely why reading a complex novel was daunting to them.

Our school uses a vocabulary system called "Wordly Wise 3000" for ninth and tenth grade. Although I've grown to dislike the way that the system tests, it is still a set of grade level appropriate words complete with five activities for each lesson, supplemental comprehension activity and tests. I wondered why vocabulary wasn't done like this at the middle school level when there is still time and ability to learn new words. My ninth graders are using the eighth grade level book and I have been asked on several occasions why that is. Thinking back on it now I understand why the kids think everything is stupid.

Conversations with my students, much like the ones referenced in this post, have made me realize that my students aren't actually mad at me; they are frustrated that I ask a lot of them, and they are worn down because, for them, the work is hard, and they are sad that I won't rescue them and give them the answers or tell them the page number to find it on (when they haven't done the reading) and they are confused that, at this stage, reading is about analyzing and there are a variety of ways to analyze a story. They are angry that the system has failed them. They are angry that they have gotten all the way to ninth grade and no other or few teachers have challenged them. They are angry that they want to go to college but, for the first time, our school is telling them "yes, we want you to go to college but you will have to work very hard to make that happen". I have heard at least two students say, when discussing their academic weaknesses, that it wasn't their fault. And all I can do is reply, somewhat sadly," I know". And while I know it is a bumpy road for these kids, I realize now that deep down they knew that the responsibility to work hard was on them, but they just wish I would have been more understanding about how hard it is for them to do something for the first time, even if they should have been doing it all along.

Next year there is going to be a complete overhaul of the Freshman English curriculum that will allow us to keep the bar high but give better supports to the students while they stretch and climb to reach it.

Friday, March 7, 2014

What are the lasting effects of the KIPP style charter movement on urban and low-performing students?

            There is currently a lot of focus on the New Orleans Charter schools as an example of the successful charter movement in this country. Along with the shift to Common Core Standards, there are a lot of changes in place in education that can and are having effects on the children that they were meant to help. In the Article, “The Great New Orleans Charter Tryout” ( ) , some of these effects have been noticed by those outside of the charter movement. Students who are trained to believe that they are “going to college” are showing a deep lack of success which is being attributed to the way the schools are run, teachers are told to teach, and students are made to feel.
            In the last three years I have seen some saddening effects of this movement. Having taught in kindergarten, sixth, seventh and ninth grade, I have had a perspective that many administrators, teachers and especially lawmakers have not. Children who entered kindergarten with no preschool learning had to be brought “up to speed” to try to close the achievement gap that would undoubtedly open in reading. However, by the end of the year, 2/3 of the students did not meet the end of the year goal. The achievement gap opened.
            During this year I was trained to use the Doug Lemov “Teach like a Champion” behavior management system. This system is chocked full of positive enforcement mantras, chorus style responses, non-verbal hand signals, visual behavior management systems, and chapters of recommended classroom procedures. Teachers were evaluated solely on their ability to follow this system. Yet, by the end of the year, children had not met kindergarten learning goals.
            Both that year and the following, teachers were told to use “small group instruction” to be able to take lower performing students and give them more individually directed learning and teaching time. The concept is designed to keep lower level students in their primary classes and to get them close to grade level or, in some cases, able to pass the LEAP/ iLEAP tests.
            While many may say that small group instruction is ideal, or a wonderful way for students to get the extra help that they need, doing so in the now kindergarten through eighth grade schools that pervade New Orleans leaves children unprepared for the high school stage of their education. A dependency on teacher assistance is leaving students unable to apply skills, new or previously learned, on their own.
            There are many charter high schools in New Orleans, however only a few of them continue the KIPP style of learning environment, and even then, as the article above mentions, the students are still not succeeding. The documentary “Rebirth: New Orleans”, takes note that many high schools students are having just as hard of a time despite the efforts of the charter movement.

            My current students, freshman estimated to graduate in 2017, are struggling to acclimate to the rigors of high school. The freshman aren’t the only ones; discussion across grade levels have revealed that many of the students struggle to read, write, comprehend and apply skills that they have learned and used year after year. Students complain that high school teachers “don’t teach” whenever they are expected to work independently. Many students are entering high school reading as low as a fourth grade level. Others are walking through the doors of high school with absolutely no self-discipline, little self-motivation, and very unrealistic goals for their futures.

My current school draws students from all over the city with varying academic grades. It has a long-standing reputation of success and is one of few well-rounded high schools in New Orleans (complete with a state champion football team, state champion band, cheerleaders, dance teams and countless extracurricular clubs). Many students come from schools who are failing (but whose grades may have improved based upon the change in grading scales. Information about how this change has affected the lowest and highest performing schools can be found here: ) despite their high reputations. Many others come from top performing public and private schools.   This varied academic background and mix of reputable school names leaves the ninth grade students with wildly variant knowledge and behavior expectations. Those who have come from private and KIPP style charters have the hardest time adjusting. Most of the charter school students feel abandoned, that their teachers don’t care about them, and that they can’t succeed because their teachers are setting them up for failure by not telling them what is the right answer or checking their work for correctness before it is turned in. These are the same students who often boldly proclaim that they are going to prestigious colleges like Yale, yet turn in as little as 50% of their work.
This encourages me to wonder if these schools are actually serving their students. The children are told that they are going to college (at many schools, this is a mantra that is repeated daily, even teaching kindergarteners what year they will graduate) yet the academic practices are leaving the children with almost no critical thinking skills, little ability to problem solve, and so little self confidence that they cannot trust their own thoughts as correct.
The transition to Common Core Curriculum is also garnering attention around the country (see  and ). Parents, students and educators are questioning the validity of the standards. Many have acknowledge that the standards have basically come out of thin air, have not been tested, and require teachers to change HOW they teach in order to try to get students to think more critically. The language is complex and vague all at the same time. The speaking and listening standard for kindergarten is “Confirm understanding of a text read aloud or information presented orally or through other media by asking and answering questions about key details and requesting clarification if something is not understood.”  Many believe that these standards and the language within them is more of a means to get the next generation to be capable of little more than holding menial jobs. While I do not agree that this is the case, I do agree that this supposed transition to critical thinking is made up; students will not transition to thinking more critically or creatively because the standards do not specifically identify a way to teach children to think.  Instead, the charter schools, coupled with a half-witted set of curriculum, are leaving students less able to think and problem solve.

The students themselves comment on their feelings during their transition into high school. Doug Lemov and similar types of management systems focus upon positive reinforcement for students. On its own, it is good to positively support correct work and hard work but, coupled with an environment where teachers are asked to coddle students who are not succeeding, avoid addressing students who struggle, and tell all students that they are going to college (despite the student’s individual aspiration), students feel like they cannot be successful anymore and that high school is too hard. Many others feel that high school is supposed to be the time that they stop having to work so hard, or are free from the rigid expectations of their K-8 schools.  This response to burnout coupled with below-level reading and math abilities is getting students off the path to success.
Despite all of this positive attention, the students of the New Orleans charter system are crying out for a better and more long lasting fix. Biased documentaries and TV shows are not actually preparing our urban students for the challenges they are soon to face. These students deserve more than bright-eyed, optimistically inexperienced teachers (which many of the older students do not trust nor are motivated by), excessively test-prep centered curriculum and deeply biased media attention. It is about time that we figure out what will make these students successful in their lives long after they’ve taken their last standardized test.            

Teaching in New Orleans

I should have started my blog with writing about WHY it exists. I have been on an intense journey over the last three years of teaching in various schools in the city. I have been hard-pressed to find blogs from other teachers in this city (although I have found an exceptional Slideshare page of a teacher in Jefferson Parish!) whether of a personal nature or of sharing and providing resources. I thought it about time that I compile any and all things about teaching in New Orleans into my own blog.

My journey began when I was hired to work as an associate fourth grade teacher at a charter school that was under new management. This school proved to be based on the KIPP model and was very regimented, controlled and rigorous. Despite having worked with children for years before, I found myself struggling to keep up with the demands of the administrators of the school and was moved to be an associate kindergarten teacher. My area of certification is in 9-12 English, and I found this transition to early elementary to be very difficult. Let it be noted that if you are not trained to teach in early elementary education, it is in the children's best interest that you not teach it. To teach early elementary you must know and do a lot, and I discovered that without that background in early elementary, I struggled throughout that year. Children come into the New Orleans schools with little to no preschool knowledge, making it more difficult to "close the achievement gap". During that year, I watched the achievement gap open when my co-teacher flubbed reading scores for children and skipped whole steps in learning reading skills, leaving 2/3 of our kindergartners ending the school year below grade level expectations. This, coupled with the incestuous relationships between charter school management organizations and the organizations that evaluate them, led me to wonder and investigate the schools in the city and apply for my next job with much more skepticism.

As an uncertified teacher with no experience in her grade level or content area, I didn't have my choice of jobs for the next year. Just a matter of days before the start of the school year (and weeks of phone tag with the school's principal) I landed a job teaching sixth and seventh grade English at a Recovery School District school. The teaching pendulum, so to speak, swung to the opposite side. The school where I taught had a terrible reputation and there had been a staff overhaul that year. That overhaul found the school with a less-than-competent instructional coach, a showboat of a principal and teachers left to a myriad of methods in attempting to get students to pass the LEAP. The lack of structure was shocking but left me free to figure out exactly what the students needed and I finally began to learn how to teach English. Despite the reputation of the school, those were the best bunch of students that I've had to date.

Ending that year with such a lack of structure, support and general work ethic led me to apply to teach at the high school level. Remember, my certification area was originally 9-12, however this process has taken me so long that they now no longer provide that certification. It is only in English 6-12. I am still not sure if my certification will be amended once I finish.

This year I teach ninth grade English. While the school and administration are, despite coworker's complaints, a well-oiled machine, I have learned even more still about the student population that I teach. While I still teach in Orleans parish and in a primarily Black school, there is great diversity in the ability of the students. Now that my questioning of my ability has started to stabilize, my questioning of the school system, students and families has begun.

This blog is a place for me to write about experiences in the schools, opportunities for parents to learn about what is going on in the schools, a place to tell the story about the school system for all of the many new teachers who are or will transplant to New Orleans and attempt to affect a system has been broken long before any of us got here.

Sunday, March 2, 2014