Interesting story about a successful charter school in New Orleans. Since the city is comprised of half charter schools, it would have also been nice to have known what the charter school landscape looks like, generally. How does it compare to other charters? How does it compare, generally? It's nevertheless wonderful to see a school that sets high expectations and is doing well.
One New Orleans charter school changes the culture, sees the results
By Sarah Carr, The Times-Picayune
December 27, 2009, 5:36AM
Ted Jackson / The Times-Picayune
Sophie B. Wright Principal Sharon Clark grabs a playful hug from Ja'ni Williams while visiting students in the band hall on Dec. 11. Clark has gained a reputation as a hands-on leader of the school.
After catching two girls out of class without passes, Sharon Clark interrogated them like an attorney confident she had a winning case.
"So both of you decided at the same exact moment that you had to go to the bathroom?" asked Clark, the principal of Sophie B. Wright Charter School in Uptown. It was more of an accusation than a question.
"Yes," the two girls responded meekly, their jaunty expressions fading.
"That's a crock," Clark told them.
She reached for the phone, and dialed the suspected ringleader's mother.
"We don't play this hallway mess here," Clark told her. "Never have. Never will. I don't know what her issue is. I have talked to her about it, and she's going to end up finding herself out of Wright if things don't change."
Despite her gruff opening, by the end of a 10-minute conversation, Clark had a new ally in her effort to turn around the wayward student.
"All right, darling, you have a good evening," she told the mother in a lilting voice. "We're going to keep working together, you hear?"
In the four years since Wright became a charter school, Clark, her staff, and the school's families have banded together to form a strikingly close-knit community. Parents trust Clark. Students look out for each other. And the staff members tease each other like family.
"They make it clear that for every action there's a reaction, not only in school, but in life," said Briana Henry, a ninth-grader at Wright. "They are mothers and teachers."
In many respects, Wright's dramatic improvement since it became a charter -- it now ranks among the city's most promising public schools without admissions requirements -- illustrates the charter model's greatest strengths.
The middle school, which this fall added a high school program, earned local and national acclaim in 2008 when every single fourth-grader passed the high-stakes LEAP exam. This fall it narrowly missed earning recognition as a "two-star" school, a still-elite but growing group of open-enrollment charters in the city.
With no district bureaucracy to support it -- or meddle in its affairs -- Clark and her staff have unprecedented control over Wright, and no one to blame but themselves for failures. Charter schools receive public money, but independent boards run them, and make nearly all the decisions about staffing, curriculum and schedules.
At Wright, the board usually supports Clark's decisions wholeheartedly. So on a dime, school leaders can decide to add a new math class for struggling students, decide to buy its own buses and run transportation in house, dismiss low-performing teachers (what Clark calls "freeing up their futures"), or hire an impressive salesman at Office Depot to be the school's administrative assistant -- all of which Clark has done.
"We're able to control our own destiny," said Lawrence Vinnett, the school disciplinarian and a staff member at Wright for the past 20 years. "After all these years, you can finally see something being done."
Wright's experience also underscores the crucial role that school leadership will play as charter schools rapidly grow in cities across the country, including New Orleans, Washington and New York. In New Orleans, more than half the city's schools are independently run charters, a higher percentage than any other American city. And while the quality of leadership helps determine the fate of any school, it can very quickly make or break a charter.
Clark brings a unique combination of gifts to Wright. Some, like experience, nearly anyone can attain. But others, like Clark's ability to turn children into Play-doh in her hands, cannot be so easily taught.
"A charter school won't work without a strong principal," said Raeschelle Landry, who has worked as both an administrator and teacher at Wright.
Brian Riedlinger, chief executive officer of the city's School Leadership Center, estimates that much more than 50 percent of New Orleans public schools have strong leaders already. But, he said, the city needs more professional development targeted at both school leaders and charter governing boards to ensure that pool continues to grow.
Before "we had a district that, if you let it, would pretty much tell you what to do," he said. "Now there is no more, 'You do this, you do that,' other than following the law. So school leaders have a wider berth. But it's like giving you enough rope to make the project or to hang yourself."
Riedlinger added: "When I teach principals, I write across the board, 'It's your fault.' When I teach charter school principals, I should write, 'It's really your fault.' "
Coming on strong
Clark, a New Orleans native, returned from Arizona to her hometown in 2001 and took the helm of the then-notorious Sophie B. Wright campus on Napoleon Avenue, one of dozens of failing schools run by the Orleans Parish School Board. From day one, Clark made it clear that old habits should die quickly.
"They say you're not smart, that you're not working on grade level! That you're failing! Stand up if you think you're failing! Stand up!" Wright barked at students during her first fall at Wright.
Ted Jackson / Times-Picayune archive
In 2001, Sharon Clark, principal of what was then Sophie B. Wright Learning Academy, scolds Hayward Howard for wearing braids.
"Stand up if you're big and bad and bold and you're going to come here late every day. Stand up!... You're not going to tell me you're getting a free education and you're not going to come to school? Free books, free buildings, free everything!"
Steve Williams, the physical education teacher at Wright, described Clark's take-no-prisoners style this way: "If you come into her shop, she's not afraid to come from behind the counter and make sure that you spend all you've got."
Under the School Board, Clark had more power than any single individual to set the tone inside the Sophie B. Wright building. But she often felt like a mid-level manager with fickle bosses.
Wright fell victim to the whims and weaknesses of the larger district that controlled it. Superintendents came and went, and with them priorities, programs and curriculum. Repeatedly, administrators forced the school to abandon its approach to reading or math with little regard to whether the old way worked or not. The school could not easily shed itself of bad teachers. Purchasing pencils for a classroom could take months. New students seemed to arrive weekly, as the district shuffled some of the worst-behaved students from school to school.
Wright improved after Clark took over. But in 2004, the school's performance score, derived from test scores, was still way below the threshold required to get out of the failing category.
By the spring of 2005, Wright's demise appeared imminent.
Closure seemed certain
Then-Superintendent Tony Amato sped up plans to close the lagging school -- part of an effort to close all the city's middle schools -- so Lusher Extension, a selective Uptown middle school, could add a high school in the Wright building. But in two swift moves, the School Board rejected opening Lusher High School in the fall of 2005, and the state board of education agreed to let Southern University operate Wright as a charter.
Hurricane Katrina hit shortly after the newly chartered Wright opened for the 2005-06 school year. By the time the school reopened less than five months later, charter schools had become the norm in New Orleans.
Unlike many of the city's other new charters, Wright retained the same leader and building, and much of the same staff. The campus now draws students from across the city, but they come with many of the same needs as before: Nearly every single student qualifies for free lunch.
The most obvious change inside the building is psychological. Clark and her staff have taken ownership over Wright like never before, and the families must adjust to the new and higher expectations or find other schools.
"Kids who don't do their work, they don't come here," Clark said. "Parents who don't want us in their business don't send their kids here. The environment is too close, too watched."
As the principal of a charter school, Clark says she feels less like a manager and more like a leader.
One morning last March, she gathered her administrative team to help chart a new high school program for the fall. She ticked through the items on her list during a conversation that highlighted both the school's nimbleness and its lofty ambitions.
ACT prep. Clark suggested calling around to St. Augustine and Sacred Heart, two private schools, to find out what preparation materials they use for the ACT, the test that can determine college admissions. Her vice principal, Tiranus Edwards, hoped to sit in on an ACT prep class at Benjamin Franklin High School, the city's top-performing public program.
Staffing. One of the administrators knew a couple of teachers who applied to Newman, an exclusive Uptown private school, and Clark and her team discussed trying to recruit some of them away to Wright.
College. Clark asked staff members to order university pendants to put up on the walls before the start of school. She also made plans for each incoming ninth-grader to receive a copy of Fiske Guide to Colleges.
Uniforms. After determining some of the basic requirements -- socks will be knee length, for instance -- the administrators discussed which supplier might offer the best discount. "I have to find out where St. Aug gets its book bags," Clark murmured, "because those book bags are like durable suitcases."
The meeting ended with a quick delegation of responsibilities. "We are going to make final decisions when you come back on Monday," Clark said.
Nothing stood in their way.
Wright is subject to the same testing requirements as any public school, and has to submit annual audits and quarterly budget reports. Otherwise, administrators say they have little to do with the state-run Recovery School District, which oversees them.
Ted Jackson / The Times-Picayune
Principal Sharon Clark is surrounded by students changing classes on Dec. 11. Clark freely uses her authority to make it clear to parents and students that they must conform to the school's high expectations.
Joy Askin, a veteran educator who is now the school's curriculum director, noted that it's "definitely not the same Wright" since the school was chartered.
"There's not an iron claw on us anymore," she said.
"If I go to Ms. Clark and say, 'I found this great program. Let me show you the research on it,' we can start it as quickly as possible.'"
Wright has tailored its curriculum to the needs of specific classes and teachers, a move that would have been much more difficult in the old system.
One of the first decisions Clark made was to continue with the Success for All literacy program, which former superintendent Tony Amato introduced in the district in 2003. A six-year tenure for a curriculum is rare in an urban school, where programs often seem to change with the seasons as new leaders seek short-term test score boosts.
"We have definitely been able to see the real outcomes of programs because they stay here for awhile," said Clark. "There's a consistency."
Early supporters of charter schools felt that they would allow schools the freedom to adopt innovative, experimental new approaches to teaching and learning. But as Wright's experience shows, many schools have used that freedom to embrace consistency, not originality.
"People in a system develop reform fatigue after a while," said Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. "I've heard of some schools that sought a charter precisely because they thought it would give them more stability."
'Reading is everything'
On a typical morning, the intense structure of Success for All is on display as nearly everyone in the building focuses on reading and reading alone between 8 and 9 a.m.
In Steve Williams' classroom one March morning, the board reads: "Cycle 2. Day 4. Reading Goal: As we read we will try to determine the causes and effects of Maniac's action (based on the book Maniac McGhee)."
At a rapid clip, Williams takes his students through similes, cause and effect, and vocabulary words like "cunning" and "vacant."
He finds time, however, to use one character's experiences to describe the causes of homelessness, noting that even some very well-educated people live on the streets -- "they've just had troubles."
With only five minutes left in the class hour, Williams does not slacken the pace, asking the students to write a few sentences about the lesson.
He paces the room, reading the sentences and asking tough questions until the bell sounds.
On the board there's a constant reminder: "Reading is everything. Reading is everything."
Public rules, private feel
At schools like Wright, a visitor can understand why debate roils over whether charter schools are more akin to public or private institutions. Wright operates almost entirely with public money. Its students take the LEAP and iLEAP tests required of public schools, and if they do not perform well enough, Wright can be closed. The school follows state and federal regulations.
That said, in virtually every other respect, Wright more closely resembles a private school. Increasingly, many of the students come from Catholic schools, their parents seeking a free version of the more intimate, safe environment of a private school.
With the approval of the school's board of directors, the school leaders do what they want, when they want, with little second-guessing or public debate.
"The whole board respects Sharon and what she is doing," said Rose Duhon-Sells, chairwoman of the school's board of directors. "If you are a micro-manager, you stifle the creativity and growth of the people working with you."
Clark said the school has expelled only a couple of students since it became a charter. But she freely uses her authority to make it clear to parents and students that they must conform to the school's higher expectations. In the past, parents could try to pit Clark against one of her bosses in the central office.
"There were times I had to compromise my integrity as an instructional leader to make sure the area superintendent didn't get mad, or so a parent wouldn't be at the (School) Board complaining," she said. "Parents don't really come to the board meetings now. There's such an open-door policy that they are comfortable."
Such an approach works when parents feel confident enough to take advantage of it. But it can backfire in schools where there's little trust.
Joy Williams, whose daughter started attending Wright after Katrina, noted that Clark responded immediately when she complained about the bus dropping her daughter off too late in eastern New Orleans. "She really listens," Williams said.
The fundamental flaw of the old governance structure may have been that, because of bureaucracy, inconsistent leadership and politics, school leaders weren't empowered to make decisions they felt were in the best interest of kids.
The fundamental challenge of the new structure may be that everything rests on the shoulders of school leaders and their boards: the financial health of the school, the academic progress, relationships with parents, fairness to students. Arguably, the board's most important task is to hire a good leader. And the good leaders function like benevolent dictators.
But the looming question is whether the city has enough of them to go around.
One morning, Clark left her office to walk the halls, her quick pace matching her quick wit.
"You know I love you," she told one girl. "You work my nerves over, but I love you. I like your hair today. It looks normal for your age. But go get the makeup off your little eyes."
She spotted one student not wearing the required black tennis shoes, and bee-lined back to her office to call his mother.
"You still in bed? That's too lazy. You should be up working, smelling the earth and being part of society.
"You're not going to buy (your son) any more shoes?
"What time did you get off work?
"3 a.m.? Oh girl, go back to sleep."
She then ordered six boys who were late on paperwork to run a lap around the building. "It's good for their souls," she said. "I take care of my business. They need to watch theirs."
Officials have asked Clark if she'll consider taking over other low-performing schools, a proposition that makes her wary, at least for now.
Her dilemma highlights a bigger one facing the charter movement, both in New Orleans and nationally. Are promising schools, like Wright, the product of a unique chemistry between administrators and teachers that cannot easily be replicated? Or can, in fact, their practices be codified and exported, as many rapidly growing charter school chains are trying to do? And how fast?
In other words, is a good school more like a work of art or a well-made car?
It's a question that could be answered in New Orleans, as leaders seek to create a education landscape where strong operators, like Clark, swoop in and pick off the weak ones.
"Do I think I can replicate every teacher that's in my building?" Clark said. "I don't right now. I think I want to still give Wright time to grow and make sure all of our practices are right, that it's not just a fluke."
Sarah Carr can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3497.
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