Miracle on Claiborne and Caffin
Written by Simon Hand
Saturday, 29 September 2007 10:36
|Miracle on Claiborne and Caffin|
At its orientation this summer, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School greeted parents and students with multi-colored balloons, a buffet, and Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.” Hundreds of chairs filled a large room facing a fifteen-foot backdrop dominated by the face Martin Luther King Jr. Thirty or forty teachers sporting bright-yellow shirts moved through the crowd greeting parents. Kids jostled each other in their chairs while their mothers went to the buffet table to collect finger sandwiches or fried chicken wings. The school was celebrating its move back to the Lower Ninth Ward for the first time since the storm. In the intervening two years, King has changed from an Orleans Parish school to a state-funded charter school, moved to a temporary building on the other side of the city, and marched on the Recovery School District’s headquarters to protest the state’s failure to renovate its original building. The long journey back to that building ended this summer.
A row of distinguished guests sat to one side of the podium facing the audience. Waiting to speak were State Superintendent Paul Pastorek, Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas, city councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, and President of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Louella Givens. Willard-Lewis, who represents the Lower Ninth Ward on the City Council, spoke first. She congratulated the school’s staff for succeeding in the face of heavy odds and ended a dramatic, sermon-like speech with the line, “We are glad to be back in the Nine, cause you’re not taking mine!” Willard-Lewis is consistently dramatic, and often speaks from an imaginary pulpit, but this time she seemed to feel the occasion, and the place, called for an especially high level of drama and solemnity.
Following the councilwoman, Louella Givens took the podium. She also congratulated the school for reopening back in the Ninth Ward. The school had been up against heavy resistance, she said, particularly from the late State Superintendent of Education, Cecil Picard. He had said schools would reopen in the Lower Ninth Ward, “Over my dead body,” Givens explained. After a pause, she added, “We buried him in February,” referring to Picard’s recent death. The current state Superintendent was sitting a few feet away from Givens. Presumably this line was intended partly as a warning to him or other state officials who might make the mistake of opposing the Lower Ninth Ward.
Givens’ defiance was typical of the event. Hilda Young, President of the school’s Board, also took up the theme of triumph over skeptics and opponents, telling parents the school’s return to the Ninth Ward “was not supposed to be.” She congratulated the school’s staff for making the move happen anyway. “Many of these teachers are still not back in their homes,” she said. “They have been working for two years, rather than doing things they needed to do for their own personal lives.” This claim is borne out by the fact that while many of King’s teachers lived in the Lower Ninth Ward before the storm, almost no one has moved back there since, at least not into houses.
After all the guest speakers had taken a turn, King’s long-time principal Doris Hicks finally took the microphone to enthusiastic applause. A tall woman with a mass of auburn curls, she stepped around the podium into the crowd and spoke as if to friends. “I’m just so pleased to have such wonderful parents,” she began. “Wonderful parents.” Then, addressing new parents: “I know you want to be involved with King. Just ask the parents who have had their kids here since Kindergarten.”
At 61, Hicks has been principal at King since its beginning in 1995. Before that she taught for 25 years. Her talk at the orientation was a charismatic, practiced performance. Paul Vallas, Recovery School District Superintendent, described her a few minutes before as “a force of nature,” presumably speaking as one who has been pushed by that force. She praised parents but also harangued them: “If your child is late every day, they are missing an essential part of the lesson. We are going to institute a wake up call again. Some parents need that. Sometimes you have a busy night the night before and it’s hard to get up. You know who you are.” The audience remained attentive and never seemed to mind being chided.
To round off the evening, Hicks called all the teachers to the front of the room and explained that they would be providing some entertainment. Forming a line that stretched from one side of the room to the other, the teachers swayed together and clapped and sang like a church choir as the audience began to leave. The song was another celebratory pop number. Could they really be teachers? What other faculty would sing for its students? What other faculty would get together to rehearse something like this? All yellow-shirts and black pants, they presented an impressive united front. Granted, this was a big occasion with a big audience and an impressive array of guests, but none of it felt contrived or unpracticed. Not the singing, not the principle’s talk to the parents, and not the bright yellow shirts.
A “Failing” School
While King has been making headlines recently for its return to the Ninth Ward and for receiving a visit from the President of the United States, it had more significant successes before the storm. Despite class sizes averaging 35, an enrollment of over 700 students who almost all qualified for free lunches, and a location in a neighborhood perceived as the city’s bastard child, King’s staff created a school children wanted to attend and where parents wanted to send their children and teachers wanted to teach. Ninety percent of King’s teachers have come back to the school since the storm, and of the 450 students enrolled last year, Hicks estimates 80 percent had been at the Ninth Ward site before the storm.
King was deemed “failing” by the state shortly before the storm, but of the 107 “failing” schools controlled by the Orleans Parish School Board, King had the highest “performance score”—a state measurement of test scores, attendance, and dropout rates. And King’s score was only 1.5 points below the state’s average. Almost all the schools that escaped the “failing” designation served higher income neighborhoods or were magnet schools like Ben Franklin on the campus of the University of New Orleans, schools that skim the cream of the city’s students.
The School Board’s response to King’s success was to try to turn it into a magnet too. This would no doubt have raised test scores and provided the School Board a much-needed feather in its cap, but principal Hicks repeatedly declined to make the change. Becoming a magnet would have meant turning away children from the neighborhood in favor of better performing ones from elsewhere in the city. That would have run counter to King’s history as a school whose students almost all lived in the Lower Ninth Ward. Ninety percent of them walked to school.
King came into being in part because of pressure from parents to put a public school in the neighborhood, and since its beginning, the school has pushed a community-involvement ethos. “All stakeholders should take part in the running of the school,” Hicks says. “Staff, parents, and the community should come together to operate the school. And that’s what they did.”
What does it mean for “stakeholders to take part”? Hicks cites the “SPMT” that King instituted, or “School Planning Management Team.” This group met regularly and was “a deliberate attempt to involve parents in everything we do.” The school also began a program called “100 Men of King” with the intent of recruiting men from the community to read to students. Hicks admits the idea did not quite live up to its name. “We used to say ‘100 Men of King.’ We fell short of that,” she says with a chuckle. “Later we called it ‘Men of King.’”
The emphasis on community involvement and “bottom up” organization draws on a process developed by Yale Professor James Comer. “We call it Comerizing,” Hicks says. Policemen came in to the school to read. Parents came in to read. The school sent letters to parents asking “When can you come in to read?” “We want the children to see everybody reading,” says Hicks. During “Wednesday Read-Ins,” students also go to other classes to read. Another program was called the “Jazz Up Reading Initiative.” Hicks readily admits the school tries to give such programs “cutesy names.” By involving parents, she wants those who may have had bad experiences in school themselves to see school in a new light through King and “to make them think, ‘They really want me here.’”
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