Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The fall of the old schoolhouse


It was recently in the news that ground was being broken on a new, $31 million school building for a newly opened KIPP elementary school, the Ray Abrams Elementary. This is a trend in New Orleans; while we are famous for our historic architecture, it has become the norm for the CMOs (charter management organizations- or as I call them, "school franchisers") to operate out of previously used, and, admittedly, old school buildings then build highly expensive new buildings in a very short amount of time. In 2012, one of the major charters was in the process of erecting a new school while their charter was under review because they had not met school performance expectations for three years, consecutively.  Despite this, at the time, the Louisiana Board of Secondary and Elementary schools (BESE) considered letting this organization take over two other schools whose charters would not be renewed. 

Knowing this, I was surprised to hear that KIPP was building a new school. There are currently seven KIPP schools in New Orleans including the one who will move into the new building. What I found surprising was that the school had only been open this 2014-2015 school year and yet, they were getting a new building. 
If you are not familiar with KIPP schools, or at least, their role in the New Orleans charter reform movement, it would serve to mention that their school model, started in the New York City school system, is the most popular model for charters in New Orleans. It includes extended school days, longer class periods, weekly teacher development, school wide discipline plans and rigid curriculum. The schools are often successful in other cities, however, the model, nor KIPP schools, show true success in New Orleans. Their most recent SPS scores, as detailed here, are far from stellar.  Of the seven KIPP schools, including the new Ray Abrams school (listed under KIPP East Community Primary- but has no data because they just opened) two schools rank as "B", two as "C" and two as "D" quality schools. KIPP also touted a $1 million surplus this year.

Is this the model of success? 

The old, albeit decrepit, schoolhouses are being abandoned at an alarming rate, but it's not the abandonment of the buildings that is alarming. It is the abandonment of the children who believe, have hope, who fail, that is truly alarming. It is an example that money can't buy you smarts. The children who are shuffled through these charters of New Orleans, who often believe that they are receiving a quality education because they have a new, clean and sleek school building, move through the ranks without the knowledge that they truly need and deserve. 

Is this fair?

New Orleans is repeatedly the subject of discussions about education reform. Over and over we hear that New Orleans is a successful charter reform city, yet many of our schools are still performing at "C" rank, at best, and children are not truly learning in these schools. 

Will a new school building ensure success for these children?

 As we high school teachers continue to struggle with the choices that we have to make, quickly,  disapointedly, to serve our children's needs in the best way possible in only four years (while the elementaries have eight years), children and parents continue to have the wool pulled over their eyes and to have their hearts opened to a possibility that is often far out of reach.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The children of the New Orleans reform movement

A colleague pointed out in a meeting that this year's students are the students of the post Katrina educational reform. They are our first wave of young students who are age-appropriate for their grade level and have spent at least four years in a reformed and/or chartered school. Yet, we high school teachers have a lot of discussions about the quality of education and preparation that these students have gotten in the new system.
One of our largest struggles this year is the students who are called "T9s", or "transitional ninth graders". These are students who did not pass all of their eighth grade LEAP but were allowed to attend high school anyway. Across the board these students perform far below grade level and many have 504 accommodations. In addition to academic short comings, many of them are emotionally immature and not able to keep up with the amount of work and responsibility that is needed in high school. Their teachers meet constantly about their progress, accommodations, ability and behavior in non-stop attempts to make them successful despite already showing that they have not mastered the skills that they need for high school. In our previous generation, if you did not pass your classes and/or did not pass your LEAP test you simply did not move on to the next grade. Instead, now we have 4.5, 8.5 or as they are now called, T9's. Almost 7% of the entire freshman class is a T9. If the reform was working, would we really have so many students that are not mastering content?
Despite a myriad of deficiencies in students in previous years, this year's students have come in with even lower reading scores than the last group of students. Our school uses the STAR Reading assessment in July and a post assessment in December and the average range of reader is approximately fifth to sixth grade. Many students are even farther below, and to reach these students four remedial English classes are offered this year but student placement is based upon LEAP scores, not this reading assessment. This means that students are placed in the standard English classes despite performing at the same or similar level to the T9s or, generally, elementary aged students who are AT grade level.
There have been HUGE amounts of testing infidelity (a quick Google search shows examples here, here and here with many more available. My own experiences will not be documented here, but it has happened quite a lot) along with the high numbers of new teachers and high teacher turn over in New Orleans. While cities such as Dallas and Atlanta look to make similar changes as the ones that occurred in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, what can really be said about the abilities of the children in this system?
My colleagues and I make informal but necessary observations about our students. Algebra classes are remediating basic skills, not to mention the absolute need for students to use calculators for even basic calculations and there is a shocking lack of understanding about mathematical processes; students exhibit an inability to visualize intangible objects and thus have a hard time using maps and constructing models- one teacher jokingly commented, "did no one let these kids cut and paste in elementary school? They have no spatial reasoning!". My year in kindergarten left me shaking my head at that comment because I knew that they had not been allowed to be creative.
Creative? By the way, that is a word that my ninth graders do not understand.
In an attempt to teach essay writing I told the students that I wanted them to break out of the middle school essay writing format of "firstly, secondly and lastly" (they don't even know to use "finally" instead of "lastly") and I encouraged them to write creatively. I was met with confused looks and weird speculations as to what that meant.
My students don't know words. Basic words. I have heard, this year more than any other, "stop using all them big words". My students do not understand that I do not speak formally with them but correctly; their language ability is hugely limited despite many of the charter schools using 90 minute reading blocks regardless of the schedule for other classes. What is really happening?
I wish I had a dollar for every time that a high school teacher asked "what are the middle school teachers teaching?".
More concerning than what the elementary teachers are teaching (or not teaching) is how they may be treating the students. This year's students are incapable of independent work. For every dollar that I'd receive for a teacher asking "what are the middle school teachers teaching?", I'd lose two dollars for every time that a child has declared, "you're not helping me!". I've gone so far as to have students define the word "help" in a general context then an academic one, and despite the fact that they could say that teachers are supposed to give new information they still expect their teachers to do the work for them or to explain it so much that the only word left is the answer. The idea that they are supposed to absorb the information presented to them, digest it then practice it themselves is lost. I spent the month of August teaching the students about Bloom's taxonomy and fostering independence and it has not changed even a bit by now.
What I do see, however, is that students are incredibly grade driven and want to be successful, but their esteem is deeply tied to correctness. Students yell "See! I'm smart!" when they get answers correct-they have no idea that they thought and worked hard to get their answer. They have no real idea of their abilities, and giving students their reading scores resulted in statements of denial and complaint. Early in the school year, a student was transferred from my class to the remedial English class. Every time I see him he tells me that he has an "A" in that class; completely unaware that he is working at the sixth grade level. An attempt to tell children that they have shortcomings and that we can work to fix them ends in anger and tension between the teacher and student. Students have actually told me NOT to grade on correctness because their other teachers didn't. This is a real issue.
Will this be the way future students function? When I think of the franchisation (yes, I made that a word) of the New Orleans schools and the KIPP style, Doug Lemov methods spread throughout most of the schools, I fear that subsequent classes of students will follow in this path. I love teaching ninth grade. I love teaching literature and thinking and analyzing the world around us, but if children continue to walk the halls of local high schools with the idea that they do not need to learn anything, has the reform really increased student knowledge and ability or are these students doomed leave their high schools and walk into a world that they have not the skills nor attitude to face?