As NOLA Charter Schools Thrive, Tensions Grow

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The second of a two-part series

More than half of New Orleans schoolchildren attend charter schools, and more are on the way. That's making teachers at some traditional public schools nervous.

Paul Pastorek, the superintendent of education for the state of Louisiana, says that he can imagine the possibility that someday, all New Orleans schoolchildren could be attending charter schools.

A visit to Sophie B. Wright Charter School helps shed light on the growing popularity of charters.

Hard Numbers Behind Charter Success

Sharon Clarke is principal at Wright, which offers grades four through eight. Clark runs the school and reports to a chartering organization. As she strolls the hallways and greets students and parents, she comes across as a tough and loving mother hen.

Hard numbers show she has been successful. When Clark took over in 2001, Wright was still a traditional public school. School performance scores back then were lousy: around 25 out of a total score of 200 on state assessments. This year, schools are supposed to score at least 60 to be considered to be performing at an acceptable level.

How did Wright fare after it became a charter in 2005? Clark hauls her recent scores out of a file cabinet: "In 2006-07," she says, "I think our actual scores were 61.6. This is when we were chartered."

That score is even higher today: 74. 6.

The changes at Wright are part of a larger overhaul of New Orleans schools that has taken place since Hurricane Katrina. Prior to the storm, the city's struggling schools — some among the worst in the nation — were overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board, a centralized school district.

The old school board is still around. But the majority of schools today are overseen by the Recovery School District, which is run by the state of Louisiana. With no single governing body in control of the city's schools, the atmosphere is ripe for experimentation, and charters have proliferated.

Clark says that under the old centralized school district, she often had to wait for approval before she could act — to change instruction or even repair the building. But beyond a few anecdotes, she can't explain exactly why things have gotten so much better. Yet they are, even though the school has the same students, with the same high level of poverty.

What About Problem Students?

Across town at Coghill Elementary School, the level of poverty among students is similar to that at Wright, but performance scores are much lower.

Coghill is housed in a maze of trailers near Lake Ponchartrain. It is run by the Recovery School District.

Ayeesh Jones, the principal at Coghill, is just as spunky and energetic as her charter counterparts. Now in her second year here, she says the Recovery School District has started to give her more autonomy to hire and fire. This is a clear attempt to run the school more like a charter. Jones says that kind of independence helps. But it can't overcome many inequities she faces — such as in special education.

In one hallway at Coghill, a heavily disabled student is learning to use a walker. Statistics show that Recovery District schools have nearly twice as many students with disabilities. Jones says schools like hers are known to have more behavior problems.

"I am concerned that the charters are pushing their problem children onto us," she says.

Although charter operators deny this, you hear this complaint all the time here. Most charters advertize an "open door" policy. But charters can sit down with parents and let them know what is expected of their children. Even if one RSD school is full, the district must find a place for every child. The charters do not face that obligation.

The Recovery School District will convert four more underperforming schools into charters by next year. Despite efforts to smooth tensions over charters, the issue remains sensitive — so sensitive that the district would not let NPR visit one of the very lowest-performing schools. Officials feared that would send teachers a message that their school had been targeted for conversion.

But by another standard, Coghill principal Jones says, all the city's schools are failing: racial integration. "If you look at our student population, we are almost completely African-American, I mean almost completely," she says.

That's true across the board, as affluent parents exercise their choice away from public schools, whether they are charters or not.

This story was produced for broadcast by Marisa Penaloza.



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