DAWN RUTHThe only art work in Tyra Newell’s New Orleans office the day of this interview is an image of a brave teenager taking the full blast of a fire hose on his back, protecting a smaller boy and a woman huddled in front of him. The year and place of the image is 1963, Birmingham, Ala., the beginning of the Civil Rights struggle, the most revolutionary challenge to the social establishment in U.S. history. The text reads: “Courage, n., mental or moral strength to venture, preserve and withstand danger, fear and difficulty.”
The image rests on a bookcase, waiting for Newell, managing director of New Leaders for New Schools, to decide whether to hang it behind her for others to see or in front where she can see. “It’s a constant reminder of what this job takes,” she says of the poster’s message. “For me, it’s encouragement to do the right thing, go the extra mile. It is easier to do what the adults want and not what’s in the best interests of the kids. That takes courage.”
Newell, a New Orleans native, left a position managing a $9 billion budget for Chicago public schools to manage a $1 million budget for the New Orleans office of New Leaders for New Schools, a national organization formed in 2000 to train leaders for urban public schools, the toughest of all schools. Like Teach for America, a teacher training program, and the charter schools that are springing up nation and citywide, New Leaders for New Schools quietly gives the education establishment some old-fashioned competition.
The organization’s team-building, hands-on approach to leadership training is welcomed by experienced teachers, some of whom narrate horror stories of autocratic administrative policies that leave teachers out of school curriculum decisions. Ivan Gill, a science teacher at New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, who holds a Ph.D in geology, says he’s been supervised by the good and the bad and he knows first-hand how poor leadership poisons schools and alienates excellent teachers.
“The leadership of a school is critical,” Gill says, “and it’s a wicked, hard job.”
Leading a school is especially difficult in an urban environment, where school integration and housing considerations have led many middle-class families to move to the suburbs, leaving poor families behind to survive as best they can, often in crime-ridden environments. In New Orleans, a long tradition of Catholic and private education and the New Orleans School Board’s creation of selective-admissions schools have exacerbated the problem. As a result, inner-city schools have struggled to overcome discipline and crime problems while trying to increase student achievement.
Whether these problems are the reasons or the excuses for the failure of most New Orleans district schools to raise student performance up to state and national averages is a matter of conjecture. However, this year’s standardized test scores show that many of the city’s new charter schools are making remarkable gains, indicating that innovative approaches to learning are working in some environments.
Funded by $4 million in private donations, New Leaders for New Schools, based in New York, has brought its own innovative program to New Orleans and joined the local movement to prove that all children can excel in school, regardless of their backgrounds. The organization has placed seven “residents” into non-selective New Orleans schools this year and plans to train about 15 next year. Four of the residents are training in charter schools and three in the state-run Recovery School District.
In exchange for about $70,000 worth of free training, residents pledge to work in New Orleans schools for at least five years. The seven candidates were selected from 170 applications of experienced educators, Newell says.
Nationwide, the organization has placed 230 principals and assistant principals in six cities since its founding by Jon Schnur, a former education advisor to President Clinton. Some of the organization’s former residents have accomplished astounding results, its administrators say.
For the two academic years spanning 2004 and ‘06, all of the schools led by New Leaders principals achieved increases in student achievement, they say, with 83 percent achieving double-digit gains. At one low performing school in Chicago, for example, math scores doubled in two years from a proficiency rate of 33.6 percent in ‘04 to 66.9 percent in ‘06, Newell says.
New Leaders provides an alternative approach to training and certifying principals and assistant principals, an approach that the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to approve in August. The vote means that school leaders trained in the program are considered qualified to direct Recovery District schools as well as the autonomous charter schools financed by Louisiana’s education budget.
New Leaders’ principals-in-training don’t sit in college classrooms taught by professors who may never have been school principals themselves, earning enough academic credit to take the state certification exam. These carefully chosen residents are mentored by principals who learned their craft from the School of Hard Knocks. In addition to an intensive five-week summer program taught by respected principals and other leaders, they work side-by-side with mentor principals for a year getting hands-on experience.
During their fully-paid apprentice year, they also attend four weeklong seminars led by “leadership coaches.” After they have finished this combination of classroom and practical training, they go into the job market. While working as assistant principals or principals, their residency continues for two additional years in the form of continued mentoring by their coaches.
The organization has received mostly positive reactions to its program by local educators, Newell says. However, no one believes that any one approach or reform will produce a quick fix for educational problems that have taken decades to create.
“It’s a merging of the good things of the past with the good things of the present,” she says. “We have a historical opportunity to do things better and different.”
Perseverance is absolutely what it’s all about,” Newell adds. “As Jon Schnur says, ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
New Leaders residents and location of their New Orleans assignments:
Duke Bradley, former instructor at DeKalb Technical College in Atlanta; Joseph Craig Elementary School.
Edward Brown, eight years of teaching experience in New Orleans; Priestley School of Architecture and Construction.
Karen A. Bryan, thirteen years of teaching experience in New Orleans; Benjamin Banneker Elementary School.
Brianna Dusseault, five years of experience teaching at charter schools in Boston; New Orleans Charter Middle School.
Sara Leikin, nine years of teaching experience, most recently outside Atlanta; KIPP Believe College Prep.
Aqua Stovall, three years of teaching experience, most recently from outside Atlanta; McDonogh 15 KIPP Transformative School.
Charlotte Tillman, six years teaching experience, most recently from Spring, Texas: Joseph Craig Elementary.