Filed Under:  Education

N.O. charter school ranks second among La. schools

5th May 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Harden
Contributing Writer

Within a week, the three schools under the governance of Collegiate Academies were accused of violating the civil rights of their students while the organization’s flagship school, Sci Academy, was ranked as the #2 high school in Louisiana by the U.S. News and World Report.

Recognized nationally for their success in accelerating the academic achievement of kids who entered the school at least several grade levels behind, Sci Academy has earned praise since it was founded in 2008.

But when the organization decided to expand, and was granted the opportunity to take over George Washington Carver High School in 2012 (now called Carver Collegiate and Carver Prep), from the beginning they met stiff resistance from the community.

While one school is showing truly impressive academic signs of success and earning national awards, the two Carvers are mired by student protests and community outrage.

According to Sci Academy, 95 percent of the graduating class has been accepted into college, receiving more than $2.6 million in financial aid, the majority of which is merit-based. All 77 seniors (out of a total 425 students) are graduating, and more than 90 percent of the graduates are the first generation in their families to enter college.

At Sci Academy, student Chance Holmes, a junior, describes a school that is more like a family. Holmes said that Sci Academy challenges him in ways that he needed, and gives him the skills to succeed in college.

But not far away at Carver, the students’ grievances (including being disciplined for “anything and everything,” not being given books, not being allowed to go to the bathroom for long periods of time, and not being allowed to bring their own food) were supported by the Southern Poverty Law Center. On April 15, two New Orleans attorneys filed a civil rights compliant demanding an investigation into all three schools, and “whether students were subjected to emotional and physical abuse under the guise of ‘discipline.’”

The disparity in “success” – and the simultaneous public and media celebration and condemnation – raises deeper questions of how success in education is defined, and whether if what works for some students works for all students.

The Collegiate Academies schools are known for an intense college preparatory focus, high expectations, and zero tolerance discipline policies. They also have gained attention for out of school suspension rates as much as seven times the state average – the highest in the entire city.

The U.S. News and World Report rankings looked at schools’ ability to “produce measurable academic outcomes to show the school is successfully educating its student body across a range of performance indicators.”

Factored in were performance scores on state tests, college readiness, Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate test data, and the percentage of economically disadvantaged and minority students.

Sci Academy came in just after No. 1 ranked Thomas Jefferson High School for Advance Studies in Gretna, and ahead of No. 3, New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School.

The report’s number one pick for the very best high school in the entire country is Dallas’ School for the Talented and Gifted – a school that only accepts students it deems to be “highly capable.”

All of the Collegiate Academies schools are open-enrollment.

However a frequent criticism against the zero-tolerance, college-focused charter high schools in New Orleans is that students who won’t score high on standardized tests are too often pushed out or counseled out.

For Holmes, he was used to the accelerated academic load.

Sci Academy is less strict than where he attended middle school at New Orleans College Prep, Holmes said. Prior to College Prep, Holmes attended Lusher Charter School.

Holmes said that, at first, the strict rules and dress code seemed like a little much, but that when the reasons behind the rules were explained to the freshmen class, they made sense, and were “no big deal” to follow.

For the 2012-2013 school year, Sci Academy’s out of school suspension rate was 58.39 percent, according to the Louisiana Department of Education. For 2011-2012, it was 49.2 percent. The state average is 9.2 percent, while the national average is closer to 7 percent.

Holmes said he has never been suspended.

But as Holmes describes what it takes to get suspended at Sci Academy, it is different than the instances documented in the civil rights complaint and the students’ demands – the vast majority of which came from Carver Collegiate and Carver Prep.

At Sci Academy, Holmes described a multi-layered and complex system in which a student must be given a “DLV” (Disrupting the Learning Environment) three times, before being suspended out of school.

No one should get three DLV’s, Holmes said.

While the accumulation of “demerits” at Sci Academy leads to detentions (for things like uniform violations, not walking on taped lines), at Carver they seem to lead more quickly and directly to out of school suspensions.

The civil rights complaint and anecdotes from Carver families detail students being suspended for rolling their eyes, talking out of turn, and wearing the wrong color belt.

The U.S. News rankings don’t take discipline data into account.

University of New Orleans Assistant Professor of Education Brian Beabout noted that “It is important to look under the hood of what is being rated.”

Often, rankings rely on the data that is relatively easy to measure, and cheap and easy to collect, he said.

It’s impossible to entirely escape bias, Beabout said, not to mention the fact that it is scientifically impossible to define what makes a good school.

Beabout refers to the 2008 book by Richard Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobsen and Tamara Wilder, “Grading education: Getting Accountability Right.”

Extensive research into what is valued by society for a public education leads to the book’s following list: basic academic skills, critical thinking, arts and literature, preparation for skilled work, social skills and work ethic, citizenship, physical health and emotional health.

But of the eight, Beabout said that particularly in recent years, there has been an intense focus on just one or two of them – primarily math and English skills – to the neglect of the other seven or eight.

Test scores continue to grow, Beabout noted, and were growing before Hurricane Katrina and the mass takeover of New Orleans schools by the state. And for the most part, “We’ve elected leaders on philosophical agreement with the accountability system.”

Teachers on the front lines, most acquainted with the social and emotional needs of students, often have limited tools to focus on the traits and values that don’t officially count, he said.

At Sci Academy, Holmes, parent Karen Harris and teacher Alexie Gaddis, all said they were very impressed by the genuine commitment and enthusiasm from the teachers, and the commitment and enthusiasm displayed by the students.

On Friday, the school celebrated “signing day.”

Harris, whose daughter Keiara is a senior and headed to Davidson College in the Fall, said that Sci Academy helped her very bright but shy daughter come out of her shell and blossom. When Harris first visited the school, she said that she got the sense that the teachers “were really there for the kids.”

Keiara attended the International School of Louisiana prior to Sci Academy.

Holmes said he had a very close relationship with his advisor, who is always there to help him with anything he needs, such as time management while playing sports and taking four AP classes.

Harris acknowledged that there are things at Sci Academy that could still use some “tweaking,” but said that she has seen improvement over four years regarding things like communication with parents.

Harris said she has never been hesitant to go up the chain of command when she needs to address a problem.

Gaddis, who teachers pre-Algebra, said that when she first visited the school she was immediately attracted to how engaged the students were in their lessons. Gaddis graduated from Loyola University with a degree in Psychology and Spanish before entering Teach for America in 2012. She is in her second year at Sci Academy, and said she plans to stay in the teaching profession, and at Sci Academy. One of her biggest challenges, Gaddis said, is that her skill level doesn’t always match her desire, but that she learned an incredible amount in her first year, and that she is inspired by the excellence around her.

Gaddis said she works about 70-90 hours a week.

For all three Collegiate schools, the average years of experience for teachers is 3.9 years. Sixty-eight percent of all of the teachers are either current TFA corps members, TFA alumni (having fulfilled their two year requirement) or from the TeachNola program. Both TFA and TeachNola require about five weeks of training, but do not require recruits to be certified in education.

Gaddis said that she knows seeing her students accepted into college is only a step, and that for her, it is more important to watch them graduate from college.

Sci Academy is too new to have built data on how their students do once in college.

Without doubt, the Sci Academy class of 2014 students heading off to college are something to celebrate. For Holmes and Kieara Harris, the strict discipline and intense academic focus has helped them reach their goals and their futures look bright.

Holmes plans to be an athletic trainer, and Harris has wanted to be an architect for as long as she remembers. She already has architecture credits from Tulane University.

While Sci Academy has rigorous academics, both students are involved in other activities, including football, basketball, softball, student council, peer remediation and yearbook.

The enthusiasm and dedication to her kids shown by Gaddis is admirable. Gaddis said she decided the best way to make a difference and serve her city was not to get her graduate degree in psychology as initially planned, but to be a teacher like her own mother and father.

And while it must be taken in a larger context, the number two ranking shows a measure of indisputable success.

But if the U.S. News and World Report picks a school designed only for “talented and gifted” kids as the nation’s number one high school, then the question remains of how society educates and values everyone else.

At the same time they are sending 95 percent of their graduating Sci Academy class to college, the Collegiate administrators are dealing with responding to the civil rights complaint that includes an accusation of forcing a child with cerebral palsy to walk on a straight line.

At least at the two Carvers, connecting with the community and serving all children with equity and compassion, each with their unique and individual aptitudes that may not be measured by a standardized test, continues to be a challenge unmet.

Beabout said that he thinks the pendulum has begun to swing back toward placing higher value on the other aspects of education – the six or seven things on the list of eight besides academic achievement.

At UNO, Beabout continues to work to find better systems of accountability that work to measure those other qualities in education, but that require more money, time and thoughtfulness.

He also trains principals to recognize when the state’s rigid and narrowly-defined accountability system may actually be detrimental to education.

There’s not one best model, Beabout contends, but rather a need for different types of schools that meet the unique needs of different types of students and families.

This article originally published in the May 5, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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