Several times a day, Sharon Latten Clark walks the cavernous hallways of Sophie B. Wright Charter School like a nurse checking on her patients. The halls carry the patina of age that thrills historians, but means endless maintenance headaches for Clark, the school’s principal. Most of the halls in the 100-year-old, 100,000-square-foot building on Napoleon Avenue are painted white and sky blue. They shine with the cleanliness of a hospital and are as quiet as a library.
On a recent afternoon during one of Clark’s rounds, a girl wearing a white shirt with the tail hanging out crossed an open door at the end of a hallway. Her form disappeared within seconds, but not fast enough.
“Amber, what’s wrong with your shirt?” Clark asked, raising her voice to be heard from 30 feet away.
Amber appeared in the doorway again, tucked the shirttail in, waited for approval and then continued up the stairs to the third floor, the location of the only functioning water fountain. Then a boy no taller than a tabletop appeared.
Clark asked him why he was in the hall. He pointed to the bathroom. Anticipating the next question, he pointed at the pass dangling from a rear pocket. “It’s righchy-here,” he said.
That comment brought a quick correction from Clark. “‘Righchy-here’ isn’t a word, baby.”
Language arts, social studies, math. One after another, Clarks opened doors to see what the students were learning. In each classroom, she found the same scene: students bent over assignments; teachers monitoring their progress.
In language arts, students wrote in journals. The assignment was to identify the one personal possession they would want on a deserted island and explain their choice.
“Drew, I love you,” Clark said to a boy so intent on his assignment that he didn’t see her enter.
“I love you, too, Mrs. Clark.”
“We always say that,” Clark explains.
Clark, principal since 2001, says that she knows the names of at least 360 of her 400 charges. When she calls on them they delight in her attention. Many of them are older versions of the Uptown students who attended the school before Hurricane Katrina, but many others come from all over the city. Parents and buses bring them from the West Bank, Eastover in eastern New Orleans and the City Park neighborhood.
The word is out: Sophie B. Wright Charter School has transformed itself from a “failing” school by state standards to being one of the leaders of the pack when it comes to miraculous improvement. When Clark left an assistant principal’s position in Phoenix in 2001 to take her current job, the school’s performance score, which measures test scores and other factors, was 26.9, Clark says. In 2008, the figure had jumped to 74.6, state figures show.
Dramatic improvements have made the school one of the darlings of New Orleans’ charter school movement. Seventy-five percent of its fourth grade students who took the LEAP English test scored basic or above in 2008, and 92 percent scored basic or above in math. In fact, in math, 42 percent scored at levels of “advanced” or “mastery,” making its fourth grade math score the third highest among 47 elementary schools. Only Lusher Charter and Lake Forest Elementary Charter ranked higher in math.
These achievements have cast a spotlight on the school. It has been featured on a national news program, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited the school as part of a March visit to Louisiana.
“The culture here has changed,” Clark says. “The whole tone has changed to academics. Some days it’s boring around here.”
Even hallway disturbances are different, she says. She recently separated two boys who were arguing about their reading levels. “They were going at it over who could read the fastest,” she says. “I like those fusses.”
Clark credits the turnaround on a number of factors. Perhaps the most important is that she has had a head start in getting it right. Chartered in 2005, Sophie Wright was one of the first charter schools in the city. It was also one of the first schools to reopen after the storm because damage to the building was limited to the first floor.
Before obtaining the charter, frequent changes in Orleans Parish school superintendents created chaos in curriculum development. Each new superintendent – four in four years – changed curriculum programs, which led to endless meetings and constant retraining of teachers. Becoming a charter meant getting a different governing board with Clark essentially taking on the role of a superintendent.
“We have a very supportive board that’s not political,” she says. “We have complete consistency all the way through.”
Autonomy allows principals to target more money for academics, and in the case of Sophie Wright it led to a surprising increase in parental involvement. Clark says 90 percent of parents are involved in their children’s education. Many call the school if their children don’t come home with homework assignments. Before the storm, very few parents attended report card conferences or parents’ nights. “I might have had 10 good parents,” she says.
“Now they know they have more voice in the school.”
Clark also incorporates a strategy that she learned as a student at Xavier Prep, a private, Catholic school for girls. Classes at Sophie Wright are gender based, a practice that Clark swears by. “They (the students) actually prefer it,” she says. “There are no distractions.”
The leading motivator of change was Clark herself, says Monica Ponoroff, a Tulane University tutoring specialist who supervises 125 Tulane students and other tutoring volunteers. “It’s all about the leadership,” Ponoroff says.
“This school is a dream.”
Slender and smartly dressed in black, Clark looks like a runway model, but her focus has been academics from the beginning. After graduating from Xavier University, she moved to Atlanta where she earned an MBA in human resource management. She taught for a while, liked it and decided to get a master’s degree in education. She is currently finishing a doctorate program at the University of New Orleans.
She returned to New Orleans after 12 years of absence to be closer to her widowed father. “I’m lucky I got to stay,” she says. “I truly love my job.”