- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2007


Jared Lamb knew his students were feeling the pressure. The math teacher spent months preparing them for a high-stakes test that serves as the first report card for their charter school since it opened after Hurricane Katrina.

Two weeks before last month’s test, Mr. Lamb tried to break the tension by following through on a promise: He let the students shave his head as a reward for their work preparing for the weeklong Louisiana Educational Assessment Program.

“It looked awful — a patch here, a patch there,” Mr. Lamb recalled. “But there was no blood, and it helped them prepare for the test, so I have no complaints.”

At schools across Louisiana, the annual LEAP test determines whether students in fourth and eighth grades can advance. But the stakes are higher for the growing ranks of charter schools in New Orleans, including the McDonogh 15 School for the Creative Arts, where Mr. Lamb teaches.

Test results, due in May, will be the first statistical measure of performance at the charter schools that replaced many of the city’s notoriously dysfunctional public schools after Katrina.

“I believe we should be held accountable. The only way we can do it right now is through standardized tests,” said McDonogh 15 Principal Gary Robichaux.

Before Katrina, city schools were plagued by mismanagement, a shortage of qualified teachers, crumbling buildings, poor student attendance and frequent spates of violence.

Education officials said Katrina, which flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, created an opportunity for the flagging public school system to right itself, with charter schools as a centerpiece. Advocates preach patience. It will take time, they say, for the experiment to bear fruit.

“Starting a charter school in the best of circumstances is difficult. Starting one in post-Katrina New Orleans is even harder,” said Andy Smarick of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Washington.

Before the Aug. 29, 2005, storm, charter schools accounted for seven of the city’s 126 public schools. Today, 31 of 56 operating schools are charters. Nine more will open in the next school year.

An estimated 56 percent of the city’s roughly 26,000 students are now in charter schools, making New Orleans the only major city where a majority of enrollment is in charters, according to the New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit group supporting charters here. The system, educators say, is no longer in the testing stage.

“I get really tired of that term ‘experiment,’ because experiment implies that you’re just fooling around with something,” said Leslie Jacobs, a New Orleans resident and vice president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. “We’re building an entirely new school system, not experimenting.”

Before Katrina, the state took over five of the city’s worst-performing schools. After the storm, the local school board retained control of only five schools. The rest are run by the state’s Recovery School District or publicly funded, privately operated charter schools.

Changes in the classroom experience are easy to spot at McDonogh 15, a school of more than 400 students from prekindergarten through eighth grade nestled in the sedate residential end of the French Quarter, a block from Bourbon Street.

The school, which opened in September, is run by the Knowledge Is Power Program, a network of free, open-enrollment public charter schools. KIPP has 52 public schools with more than 12,000 students in 16 states and the District.

More than 95 percent of KIPP students are black or Hispanic, and more than 80 percent are from low-income families. McDonogh 15’s demographics are roughly the same.

Derrick Duncan, a McDonogh 15 eighth-grader whose family evacuated to Houston during Katrina, is now at his fourth school in less than two years. Classes at McDonogh are much less crowded than in the public schools Derrick attended before Katrina, and he says he gets much more individual instruction.

“It’s a lot better,” he said. “Some of the stuff they do here we would never do at my old school.”

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