Chartering the Course

With his disarming laugh and easy manner,  Anthony “Tony” Recasner could be mistaken for a man of leisure, someone who has escaped the stress of modern life. In reality, as one of the pioneers of the charter school movement in New Orleans, his schedule includes opening new schools, giving local and national presentations and meeting with national leaders including President Bush.

His admirers say he’s a miracle worker, a man who has given hope to the futures of children who seemed to have had none. When he founded a New Orleans middle school in the early 1990s, he never dreamed that he would be one of the founding fathers of a Herculean effort to reform the failing New Orleans school system.

“Talk about ‘the Power of One,’” says Barbara MacPhee, retired principal of the New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School. “He was one of the first to demonstrate there’s nothing wrong with these kids. With his intelligence and personal charm, he could’ve made more money elsewhere but he used his talents in ways that I think will transform this city.”

 Recasner’s journey started in 1992, when he gave up teaching psychology at Loyola University and took over the education of about 100 inner-city middle school children. He and a colleague developed a school that eventually outperformed all non-selective New Orleans middle schools on standardized tests and became the city’s first chartered school in 1998.

The New Orleans Charter Middle School operated for seven years before Katrina destroyed it. After the storm, he consolidated its remaining students with those that had attended Samuel J. Green, a failed kindergarten-eighth grade school that he took over as a charter just weeks before Katrina struck. With the help of New Orleans Charter Middle School’s dedicated staff, he started over again at Green in January 2005. In only two and a half years, Green’s once stagnate test scores took off. Recasner’s reputation has attracted partners such as nationally known restaurant owner and food writer Alice Waters, New Orleans writer and philanthropist Randy Fertel and the New Orleans Saints.

 Now president of Middle School Advocates, the nonprofit organized to manage his growing list of schools, Recasner’s entrée into New Orleans public education came about by chance. MacPhee suggested that the private Isidore Newman School enlist him to help recruit disadvantaged children for a summer enrichment program. “They had a wonderful experience at Newman,” Recasner says of his first days as psychologist-turned-middle school educator, “but they were about to enter pretty lousy middle schools. Their parents asked if there was anything we could do.”
That cry for help led Recasner and Jay Altman, a former Newman teacher, to find a school that would allow them to continue the program as a full-time extension. The school board allowed them to hook up with James Louis school but it wasn’t until the following year that Recasner left Loyola to become the middle school’s first principal. The school’s location changed often until they raised enough money to purchase the former St. John Prep, located near Xavier University. By the 2001-’02 school year, three years after receiving the city’s first charter, New Orleans Charter Middle School’s students ranked just below the state’s average in test scores while serving a highly impoverished student body.

Recasner is well on his way to turning Green Charter School into a success story as well. In 1999, when the school was still a New Orleans public school, it was one of the lowest performing schools in the city. In math, only 6.6 percent of Green’s eighth graders scored at or above a basic level. When the school’s scores had not improved by 2005, the state issued a charter to Middle School Advocates.

The next testing cycle further proved Recasner’s magic. Even with Hurricane Katrina robbing him of four months of instruction, language arts scores doubled among eighth graders and more than tripled in math. While still lagging behind the state’s average scores, Green’s eighth graders outperformed the Recovery School District’s schools across the board this year. In math, 40 percent of eighth graders scored basic or above, meaning Green’s 2008 students outperformed their 1999 Orleans predecessors by 33.4 percent.

Recasner’s background in school psychology is the key to his ability to transform schools, says Middle School Advocates Chairman Lawrence Kullman. “His training in psychology attuned him to the problems of adolescents. It’s a very special skill he has. He cares deeply for these kids.”

His skills were put the test when he took over Green. In the summer of 2005, he found himself in charge of a violent student body: 60 percent had probation officers.
When the school reopened in January 2005, the climate started out about the same. The main source of weaponry for fighting came from a rock-strewn parking lot.

Students filled their pockets with rocks to throw at each other. Always the psychologist, Recasner says he recognized that the fights were not the result of inherent hostility but expressions of “frustration and fear.”

Thanks to the New Orleans Saints, the parking lot became a 50-yard football field covered in artificial turf. It is now used for flag football, soccer and health programs. “The fighting stopped,” Recasner says. “It’s now rare to have a fight.”

Randy Fertel provided the link that Recasner needed to make Green unique and further transform the school environment. Knowing that Alice Waters, a former educator, wanted to do something for New Orleans, Fertel made the introduction.

After a successful fund raising effort to create a $1 million garden on the Green campus, the school became the nation’s second Edible Schoolyard, the first founded by Waters and her foundation in inner-city Berkeley, Calif. Now a substantial part of the Green educational experience is connected to gardening and organic food production.

 With Green Charter well established, Middle School Advocates reopened New Orleans Charter Middle School last fall at the former Nashville Avenue site of Arthur Ashe – a defunct school once operated by the New Orleans School Board. The organization liked the name, so this year it changed New Orleans Charter Middle School’s name to Arthur Ashe Charter School. Recasner says he hopes to capitalize on the former tennis star’s name by emphasizing a tennis program. Additional schools are planned for the future.

“Our goal is to operate five schools,” he says, “and to make sure each school is unique.”

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