Ed. Note: With this issue we introduce our new education column written by Dawn Ruth. Ms. Ruth is a former reporter for The Times-Picayune whose beats included higher education. She won the American Association of University Professors 1986 Higher Education Writers Award for an education series she wrote entitled “Cheating Our Children.” In addition to her writing, she teaches English at Nunez Community College.

EDUCATION: SCIENCE AND MATHBarbara MacPhee, principal of the New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School

Few educators get the satisfaction of seeing an ideal come true. Here’s an exception to the rule:  Barbara MacPhee.

In her 14 years as principal of the New Orleans Science and Mathematics High School, now called the New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, MacPhee proved to herself and others that any child can excel in math and science. 

By adopting the philosophy that academics come first and hiring like-minded teachers, she accomplished what some thought was impossible: 95 percent of her school’s students passed the math and science sections of the Graduate Record Exam on the first try in 2004-‘05, even though many of them initially came from some of the lowest performing high schools. More impressive, they out-performed some of the city’s selective admissions schools. “Sci High,” as the school is sometimes called for short, accepts all students regardless of skills and test scores.
“The biggest gift of this school is the absolute proof that there is little wrong with our kids,” she says. “They can do rigorous academic work. We just haven’t made them do it.”

MacPhee retires this summer after 40 years in education. She started out teaching English and social sciences in grades 7-12 and later served as an assistant to former public schools Superintendent Everett Williams. During those years, standardized test scores revealed that many New Orleans public school students failed to score at grade level. In August 2005, the state identified 73 city schools as academically unacceptable. The test results lead some people to question the students’ ability to learn. MacPhee worked in the system for two-dozen years before she got the chance to show that schools fail students, not the other way around.

Before Katrina struck, MacPhee says some New Orleans schools stopped substantive instruction as soon as state-mandated LEAP testing ended in early spring, filling the days instead with celebrations and trips to the cinema. In fact, adolescent concerns tend to dominate American schools in general, she says, and “as a nation, we will pay for this in the economy.”

After becoming Science and Math’s first principal, she immediately adopted a make-every-minute-count kind of program.

MacPhee’s strict adherence to no frills education — no parties, no Mardi Gras costumes, no non-instructional field trips — is just part of the atmosphere that resulted in good test scores. She encourages teachers to use a hands-on approach to teaching that includes active participation in the learning process. A geology class, for example, recently helped City Park officials identify dead trees for removal by making a map of their locations using global positioning system computers.

Under the former Orleans Parish School Board, Science and Math was a half-day school instructing students bused in from other school campuses. It focused on the two subjects students tend to find difficult, serving about 310 students before the storm destroyed its facility on the Delgado Community College campus. Two months after Katrina, the school expanded to a full-day program when the Orleans Parish School Board approved its charter. By January 2006, only four months after the storm, classes resumed in the Uptown campus of Allen Elementary school, a feat that required MacPhee to work 12-hour days, seven days a week. 

If Katrina hadn’t come along, MacPhee says she may have continued working, but the hard work of recovery depleted her energy reserve. “I’m just whipped,” she says. “Girl, I be tired.”

MacPhee’s high expectations are sugarcoated by a casual, non-threatening style. She will quote Shakespeare and then slip into street lingo for emphasis. She dresses in comfortable linens, wears glasses and doesn’t hide her white hair behind expensive hair color. Her office is decorated with pictures of students stuck to the wall with pushpins. Only one picture includes her own image, a photo of her standing with First Lady Laura Bush, whose foundation donated $75,000 for library improvements. (She’s probably the only Harvard College graduate to link the word “embarrassing” to the revelation of her alma mater.)

She greets visitors, teachers and students with warm enthusiasm, sometimes with great praise. “He’s the best math teacher in the world,” she offers about one teacher who entered her office.

On the day before Easter break, she delivered three intercom messages to students in her friendly but expectant style:  “Don’t skip your G period (elective) class;” “Have a good holiday;” and “I hope you make good use of it. You have projects due.”

Soon after that, she scurried down the hall to address students who were spending their holidays on a weekend field trip to The Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium research facility in Cocodrie. Students asked if she was coming along and were disappointed to hear she wasn’t. A few minutes later, the teacher appeared outside MacPhee’s office to thank her for taking time to wish them a good trip.

She speaks her mind on anything from the ineffectiveness of some schools to the meddling practices of the federally imposed No Child Left Behind legislation. The legislation requires, for example, that all high school seniors attend recruiting sessions by U.S. armed forces. “I think they should have a choice,” she says.

Even though opening the school in a new location has been time consuming, MacPhee says that in some ways her job is easier post-Katrina. As principal of a charter school, she has more control over the school’s state-allocated budget, which allows her to target money for hiring more teachers at higher salaries. The state allowed her to hire 16 teachers to instruct more than 300 students pre-Katrina, but now she has 22 to teach roughly the same number of students. Also, she’s able to pay beginning teachers $4,000 more a year.

On the other hand, directing an all-day school brings other challenges. At the beginning of the 2006-‘07 academic year, the school tested incoming students’ reading skills and determined that two-thirds read below grade level. Only 14 percent of the freshman class could read at grade level. To solve that problem, she hired a reading teacher trained to teach at the third grade level and required the weakest students to take reading. By April, 43 percent read at grade level but such problems are likely to adversely affect the school’s current test scores, she says.

The school’s operating board began looking for her replacement in the spring. Mary Zervigon, a member of the board, says when faculty were asked what kind of person they wanted to lead them into the future, they said, “We want someone just like Barbara.” 

MacPhee says she will miss working with students in her retirement years, but she’s looking forward to committing time to other interests such as writing fiction and playing the French horn. Moreover, she says, “I’m going to reintroduce myself to my friends.”