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How to Transform a School

Only a few months have passed since the University of New Orleans opened P.A. Capdau UNO Charter School to ample fanfare and lofty expectations. After the spotlight dimmed and 261 students were settled, the real work began for Principal Shannon Verrett and his faculty and staff. At a schoolwide assembly the first day of class, Verrett welcomed his students and told them exactly what they should expect. “My concern, ultimately, was preparing them for this new level of instruction,” he says. “I wanted to make sure that I was straightforward enough to communicate to them that so much work and planning and love and commitment had gone into this … I didn’t want them to take it for granted.” A lot of work has gone into the Gentilly neighborhood school – including extensive repairs and fresh paint, new textbooks, and state-of-the-art education tools. It was one of more than a dozen Orleans Parish public schools classified as failing because of consistently poor student performance, so the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education handed Capdau over to UNO last summer with a clear directive: raise the school performance score to a passing level within five years. The takeover is the first under new legislation allowing BESE to give control of failing schools to new operators through the charter system. By most measures, things are on track to improve under Capdau’s new leadership. Attendance is up as well as parental involvement; discipline problems have decreased, and student attitudes seem to be changing. The early positive indicators have spurred UNO to declare it will apply to take over another subpar Orleans Parish elementary school in time for the 2005-06 academic year. Details on those plans are still being developed. The university is also set to receive $1 million in federal funding to seed a new initiative for nonprofits and universities to partner on failing school takeover. UNO isn’t alone. Two other groups have expressed interest in starting new charters from failing schools in Orleans. The Knowledge Is Power Program, a national organization that operates 38 schools in under-resourced communities in 15 states is looking to start its first Louisiana school. KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini says the organization will submit a charter application for a middle school by the February deadline. However, because KIPP’s process includes a year of training for the new principal, the school would not be launched until fall 2006. In the meantime, KIPP will develop a transition plan for the school. Mancini says KIPP prefers to look at its charter schools as transformations instead of takeovers. “We’re growing a new school from scratch and phasing out the old one,” he says. “We think this is an incredible opportunity to help put more children on the path to college and strengthen public education in Louisiana.” The other organization interested in takeover is the New Orleans Charter Middle School. Tony Recasner, its director, says his group will apply to operate one of the eligible elementary schools, though they haven’t selected a specific one yet. Recasner says after seven years of success, he’s confident the organization has the knowledge to launch a new school. “We’ve got a lot of experience behind us in this operation; we know what works,” he says. Recasner says the plan will be to start with the middle-school grades next year and add the lower grades later. Measuring success Results from the state’s LEAP test, which will factor largely into determining Capdau’s success, won’t be available until next October. So is it too early to call the first takeover a win? While hard data is limited, BESE member Leslie Jacobs, who spearheaded the takeover initiative, says she’s very optimistic. “Turning around a failed school is not a one-year miracle,” she says. “I think the takeover of Capdau has gone as well as anyone could have hoped. Still, at the end of the day you’re going to judge the school on student learning and it’s premature to do that.” Orleans Parish School Board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz agrees something positive is happening. Fahrenholtz says on a recent visit to Capdau, he saw a completely different school than the one the district surrendered last summer. “The orderliness was the first thing I noticed,” he says. “The kids seemed to be moving around with a purpose … everyone seemed to be about something.” Fahrenholtz, who backed the UNO takeover bid, says he has no qualms about handing a failing school over to an organization that promises change. “My job isn’t to protect the Orleans Parish School Board. My job is to teach 65,000 kids, and I’ll do it any way I can.” Fahrenholtz believes UNO and other universities and organizations are in a better position to secure government and private-sector funding than the school district, which he says spent too many years squandering money while students suffered. Observing students at Capdau now, Fahrenholtz says there’s a clear determination. “I got the impression that they may have thought this is their last shot, and if they don’t do right there’s someone right behind them waiting to get into that slot. I think many of them are appreciating the fact that they have this opportunity.” A Feeling of Self-Worth Walking the halls of Capdau with Principal Shannon Verrett is like looking through a child’s scrapbook with a proud father. The smile doesn’t leave his face as he greets kids by name and points out the latest changes at the school. “It’s just been awesome watching everything we’ve planned, everything we’ve spoken, develop,” he says. “And we’re still a work in progress.” For James Meza, dean of UNO’s College of Education and Human Development, Capdau was a long time coming. Meza had for years appealed to the state and the school board to allow UNO to manage some of the district’s failing schools. He sees Capdau as the proving ground for a shift in local public education. When he learned UNO was getting Capdau last June, Meza and his team moved to bring on board the best principal they could find and oversaw improvements inside and out. “We had to create a feeling of self-worth,” he says. “When you make an effort to raise the quality of the environment… teachers and students begin to feel that they are special, because they’re in a special place. Of course that’s one of the first steps in moving towards higher expectations.” Later in the summer, Verrett set about hiring 16 faculty members from across the metro area and instructing them on his plans for a curriculum tailored to each student’s individual needs. UNO accepted more than 600 applications for only 261 slots at Capdau, proving, many say, the desire among parents of Orleans public school kids for reform. A lottery was held to determine enrollment. School opened with grades kindergarten through third and seventh and eighth. The school will add the remaining middle grades next year. From no loitering on the street corner to a zero tolerance for vandalism, Verrett says students got the message on the very first day that it was no longer business as usual at Capdau. “Before they even got into the building they saw that things were being run differently,” he says. “I shared with them from the very beginning a sense of ownership and pride, that this is their school.” That message seems to have paid off. Since school opened, the building, once marred by graffiti and littered with glass from broken windows, hasn’t suffered one incident of vandalism. Meza says parental support of the high standards and strict discipline at Capdau has been overwhelming. “They’re really behind us,” he says. “The reality is all parents want the best for their child.” The challenge is making quality education available to all children. But Meza says school takeover should be an avenue of last resort used only when other attempts to save schools have failed. “We should be working in partnership with the system,” he says, adding he wants to meet with Superintendent Anthony Amato to discuss how Capdau students can move into one of the district’s redesigned signature high schools. For his part, Amato says he’s ready to talk to Meza and eager to see the results at Capdau. “There’s no monopoly on education, we’ll use whatever works.” Amato says he’s already begun making significant changes at the district’s failing schools that he hopes will reverse the tide of student achievement. As for Verrett, he says he has no regrets about serving as the charter school’s inaugural principal. His goal, as it’s been from the beginning, is to help his students realize their potential. “I always say, every child is motivated. The challenge for educators is that we need to find which direction they’re motivated in. If they’re not moving in the right direction, then we need to work to shift that motivation.” •

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