Tuesday, October 13, 2009

School within a school is new strategy to transform education

By Sarah Carr
September 27, 2009

At first, Aliska Prejean was a little skeptical when school leaders told her a new administration would take over the lower grades at Carver Elementary, where her five children are enrolled.

Without a car, she worried about the logistics of picking up her children at different times. And without much money, she worried about having to buy a bunch of new uniforms.

The educators who visited her house to explain the concept were reassuring, however. And when school started in August, her pre-kindergartener and second-grader happily went off to the new school, Benjamin Mays Prep, located on the same campus as Carver, which her three older children continued to attend.

Carver is one of four campuses across the city where educators have embarked this fall on an unusual method of rehabilitation. Instead of closing the school completely, or handing over the reins to a new leader, they hope to transform the schools gradually:

At the Carver campus, Benjamin Mays Prep, a charter school, took over only the pre-kindergarten through second grades; each year, Mays will add a grade until Carver no longer exists.

"If we can prove this transformation process works, it holds tremendous promise not just for New Orleans, but nationwide, " said Matt Candler, chairman of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, who helped design the concept.

The strategy comes at a time of intense interest nationally in how to turn around the country's lowest-performing schools. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has charged states with devising ways to reinvent the country's "chronically underperforming" schools, the bottom 5 percent.

So far, three other approaches have dominated: closing the weakest schools; reconstituting them with new faculty and staffs; or handing them over to new operators, like the state or a nonprofit group that manages clusters of charters.

The strategy under way at Carver and the other three campuses is unique in that it blends all three approaches, but takes more time to implement. Its backers say that it's less painful to a community than closing a school outright, and makes it easier to eradicate low expectations and unhealthy school cultures since the new programs start with only the youngest children. Critics call it inefficient to staff one campus with two separate administrations and support staffs, and worry about neglect of the older students.

Regardless of such opinions, the experiment at Carver, Gregory, Wicker and Drew elementary campuses requires unprecedented cooperation among the schools.

"We knew very early on that this marriage had to work, " said Duke Bradley, the leader of Mays Prep.

Education with a drumbeat

Early one morning at the Carver campus, housed in modular units not far from the flood-ravaged original building in the Upper 9th Ward, a handful of Carver students in navy uniforms quietly walked between the buildings. As visitors approached the rear of the campus, the sound of children's voices chanting in unison built to a crescendo.

"Mays Prep! Mays Prep! Mays Prep Knights!!!"

In the small Carver auditorium, the entire student body of Mays Prep sat in a horseshoe pattern around Bradley.

"We're going to count to 50 by fives, " he cried out. "I don't know if Southern University can do that. I don't know if Boston University can do that. I don't know if Smith (College) can do this well." Like many other charter schools, Bradley refers to classes by the alma mater of their teacher, an attempt to instill a college-bound focus in children as young as four.

After revving up the youngsters for 30 minutes, Bradley brought out a drum and played as the children headed back to class.

By the end, he dripped with sweat and the school staff and students stood wide awake, as if from a jolt of caffeine.

Most of Mays Prep's students attended Carver last year, with the exception of the pre-kindergarteners, who usually have older siblings at either Carver or Mays Prep. The schools share gym and auditorium space, but have separate dismissal times and locations, and completely separate staffs and academic programs.

Mays Prep, like the four other new "transformation" schools, is a charter, meaning it is publicly funded and accountable, but privately run. Carver, Drew, Gregory and Wicker -- the four schools that will gradually be replaced -- are all non-charters run by the Recovery School District. In one indication of the different management styles, two of the transformation schools invited a reporter to stop by on the spot, while a leader of one of the traditional schools sought permission from the district before commenting on the arrangement.

Prejean said she loves both schools this year, despite their somewhat different feels. "Usually you can't just stop a principal dead in his tracks and ask him or her a question, but you can do that at both these schools, " she said.

Another parent, who did not want to be named, said she prefers Mays Prep to Carver. She wishes the new charter had taken on more grades, because she has children in the older grades as well.

"Mays Prep does home visits, they make phone calls, " she said. "You don't hear much from Carver."

The takeover strategy

While Candler might try to bring the grade-by-grade transformation model to other communities, some other local educators are taking a different approach to failing schools.

Two New Orleans-based charter management organizations have applied to take over poorly performing schools as soon as next year. They would take control of all the grades at once, a more common model nationally.

"The whole push under Obama is to have turnaround organizations go in and take over the weakest links, " said Gary Robichaux, director of one of the new charter organizations.

The takeover strategy avoids the friction that can result when two different schools coexist, but it can be incredibly challenging unless the new leaders come with in-depth knowledge of the school community, staff and needs.

Louella Givens, a member of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which oversees the RSD, said she's skeptical of the transformation model because of the inefficiencies and unallayed "concerns about what is happening for the children in the upper grades."

"They haven't given us any reports on what's going on in those schools, " she said.

Candler argues that "more often than not, (leaders of both schools) see themselves as accountable to the whole population."

In the past year, the Recovery School District has brought in new leaders at all four of the schools being phased out to ease the transition. At the Drew campus, for instance, both principals have a background working for the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP network of schools.

"I think it helps when you have similar philosophies, whether it's KIPP or not, " Drew principal Marc Merriman said.

Prejean said the Benjamin Mays/Carver cohabitation is working out better than she had initially thought. Though she can't afford to buy more than one uniform for each of her five children, she takes time to wash all five each night, whether it's the maroon and khaki of Mays Prep, or the navy blue of Carver.

"I guess since Katrina nothing at all is weird to me anymore, " she said. "I've been in church buildings where there was two different churches going on and it worked out fine. That's how Mays Prep inside of Carver feels to me."

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