Most New Orleans Kids Go To Charter Schools

There's only one city in the nation where most kids attend charter schools. It's weird. There are radio ads for charter schools. There are billboards. Pretty much everyone in town knows what a charter school is. Very different from Boston. Newsweek described it this way:

In most public school systems in America, students attend the school for which their neighborhood is zoned. But in the five years since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has created a school system unlike any other in the country. “We used Katrina as an opportunity to build—not rebuild, but build—a new school system,” says Paul Vallas, the outgoing superintendent of the Recovery School District, which, authorized by the state to turn around failing schools, took over most of New Orleans’s schools after the storm.

Last year more than 60 percent of the city’s students attended charter schools; this year nine additional schools switched to a charter model, so that number will be higher. Vallas calls this new paradigm an “overwhelmingly publicly funded, predominantly privately run school system.”

In 2005 Orleans Parish was the second-worst-performing school district in the state, and in some schools 30 percent of seniors dropped out over the course of the year. In 2003 one high-school valedictorian failed the math portion of the state exit exam five times and could not graduate.

Things were different at the charters: at New Orleans Charter Middle School, which in 1998 became the city’s first charter school, parents would put their head in their hands and cry if their child’s name didn’t come up in the admissions lottery.

Folks here have described the situation as having gone from "F" (pre Katrina) to "C." Moving forward, organizations like New Schools For New Orleans want to figure out how to get to "A." If they do, it'd be the first city ever in the USA to do so. Their approach:

The mission of New Schools for New Orleans is to achieve excellent public schools for every child in New Orleans by:

1. Attracting and preparing talent to teach and lead (that's where our teacher coaching fits) 2. Launching and supporting open-enrollment public charter schools 3. Advocating for accountable and sustainable high-quality public schools

So a big question is how to improve/sustain the talent. This Times-Picayune article from last year lays out the challenge:

Clutching caffeinated beverages, they offer praise to one another for achievements large and small: calming down an upset student, teaching an outstanding lesson on "realistic fiction" to kindergarteners, sorting out unspecified "bathroom issues."

For the finale, the charter school's staff pulls in closer for a quick huddle, like a sports team preparing to take the field. "Who are we proud to be?" one teacher asks. "Akili Academy of New Orleans!" they shout in unison, sending their arms flying. They then head to class before the students arrive.

But this is no casual competition or recreational game. It lasts at least 10 hours every weekday, often spills over into the weekends, and, at times, consumes the lives of the mostly young Akili staff.

"I'm totally tired, and if I'm still working this many hours next year, I maybe wouldn't work a fourth year," said Francis Giesler, an Akili teacher. Giesler, 24, a 2008 graduate of Loyola University, grew up in St. Louis.

While Giesler praises Akili for its supportive work environment, she gives voice to a nagging concern of school reformers and charter leaders across the city and the country. How can a movement predicated in part on superhuman exertions of time and effort sustain itself and grow in the long term?

The reporter, Sarah Carr, did a nice job of summarizing what's going on.

Several factors account for the long hours. Teachers have a longer school day and year than most; they write all of their lesson plans from scratch, tailoring them to the students' specific needs; they stay after school with students who need tutoring; they attend frequent staff meetings to discuss subjects ranging from Akili's approach to discipline or double-digit addition; and they relentlessly measure and analyze student performance on such metrics as "counting backwards from 10" and "using critical thinking skills to solve more complex problems."

More intangibly, the school tends to hire teachers who would likely work long hours, regardless of the setting.

Despite the stress and workload, teacher morale at Akili is unusually high, arguably because staff members buy in to the program before they sign up. Not that every teacher stays on board. One experienced teacher left a few weeks into the 2008 school year, leaving a hole in a kindergarten classroom.

A giddy and supportive enthusiasm usually fills the teachers' lounge, which in Akili's first year was in a small space brimming with open laptops, children's books, and empty cans of Starbucks DoubleShot.

This isn't just a New Orleans charter school issue. It's true of most "No Excuses" charter schools around the nation. Certainly true at our schools in Boston. It's quite difficult for a teacher working 60++ hours per week to get kids to make huge academic gains. Working, say, just 40 hours? Nobody I know can do it.

That's why few No Excuses teachers leave to work in schools where 40 hours is the norm. They probably wouldn't be happy. "Sustainable" isn't appealing if you don't feel a sense of accomplishment. They'd rather stop teaching.

So what happens? My sense is a a bunch leave to work 60++ hour weeks as school leaders. Others get part-time gigs writing curriculum, often combined with starting a family.

Others simply go on to new things. There's only so much we can do. If you're attracting the nation's top 5% of college grads to teach, at some point the economics of the labor market kick in. They leave for MBAs at Stanford, law degrees at Berkeley, art history phds at Harvard.

It's true a lot of those MBA and law jobs also require 60++ hours. But the former No Excuses teachers would be the first to say: the new work is much, much less draining and stressful.

In our teacher coaching effort, we try to put these issues on the table, proactively. I like these individual conversations. While our training this week is about technique, my individual conversations are often about steady exercise, regular sleep, a "hard stop" to work each weeknight at 8pm, making tough choices about how to use limited time. Stuff like that.

I think I just got one dude to sign up for some basketball leagues at the local Jewish Community Center. Onward.