Dozens of pint-sized, backpack-laden schoolchildren walked through the rainbow arching over the doors of Dibert Community School on a recent morning on their way to the cafeteria. Dressed in black-and-gold uniforms, they gathered for a pep talk about the school’s FIRST values: focus, integrity, respect, self-determination and teamwork. Teachers encouraged these principles by praising individual students for achievements in schoolwork, politeness and honesty. Upstairs, a group of older boys gathered around middle school principal Diana Archuleta, who was wearing a University of California at Los Angeles T-shirt. They were wrapping up a discussion about the nationwide problem of bullying in schools. Archuleta asked them what they had learned.

“Kids who bully were bullied themselves,” says a dark-headed boy.

“Good insight, Santos,” says Archuleta.

Down the hall, a petite teacher wearing a Louisiana State University sweatshirt discussed dental hygiene. In the “Harvard” classroom, a projector displayed this mathematical question: Kayla’s mother gives her eight puzzles and her uncle gives her five, so how many does she have?

It was a typical day of instruction at Dibert. Vital academic subjects are combined with equally important societal guidance. Tossed in for good measure is the not-so-subtle suggestion that attending college is cool.

 “The goal is college, not just the 12th grade,” says Sivi Domango, Dibert’s new school director.

 For the past 18 months nothing has been quite the same at Dibert, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade (K-8) school located on Orleans Avenue. The school goes all the way back to the infamous Huey Long era. After struggling academically for years, it started a new life last fall as a charter school operated by FirstLine Schools, one of New Orleans’ most successful charter management organizations. Since then, it has received a $100,000 facility rehabilitation. Down came the chain link gate and metal detectors that made the school feel like a prison, and up went optimistic yellow and turquoise paint. It also has a slightly altered name and a new academic focus.

Making the Grade
When the state posted letter grades for schools earlier this year, based on standardized test scores and other factors, Dibert’s grade was an “F.” Only 45.6 percent of its students performed at or above grade level in 2010-2011, Louisiana Department of Education figures show. Even though its post-storm academic record is significantly better than most New Orleans schools before the storm, it still lagged behind the state Recovery School District’s other directly run schools and therefore became a candidate for academic turnaround. RSD officials have been turning its lowest-performing schools over to charter operators and, in this case, a group of parents and the former principal asked to join FirstLine, says CEO Jay Altman.

“Often the first year of a turnaround is spent getting the culture of the school right,” Altman says. “Dibert is going to be a great school.”

Taking over an entrenched failing school is more challenging than starting a school from scratch, Altman says. Many K-8 charters in New Orleans today started as new schools with only two or three grades, which allowed them to build up to the eighth grade with students that they had already trained. But with “turnaround” schools, the success of new operators is judged by the performance of students who may not have received adequate attention in lower grades.

FirstLine has taken on the challenge of two “turnarounds” in the past two years – Dibert and Joseph S. Clark High School. Clark is a former RSD directly run school located in Tremé. The state considered closing it down because of poor performance. It became a FirstLine charter this year after some contentious discussions with parents and alumni that finally resulted in a narrow vote to charter the school. Clark was the first failing high school to be transferred to a charter organization.

After years of shaping the futures of elementary and middle school children, Altman said he relishes the challenge of turning around Clark, which has had some of the lowest student performance in the state. Only 11 percent of its students scored basic or above on the graduate exit exam in English during the Spring 2011 testing cycle; only nine percent scored basic or above in math.
“I think we will see that go up significantly,” Altman says.

Charter Pioneer
Altman, a former Isidore Newman School teacher, was one of the early pioneers of the charter movement in New Orleans. He co-founded a New Orleans middle school almost 20 years ago that could easily be argued to be the prototype for today’s charter phenomenon. In 1992, he and Anthony Recasner, a former psychology professor at Loyola University, took over the education of about 100 inner-city middle school children and proved that economically disadvantaged students can function at grade level if given adequate instruction. They developed New Orleans Charter Middle School, which eventually outperformed all non-selective New Orleans middle schools on standardized tests and became the city’s first chartered school in 1998, about a decade before charter schools became the norm in New Orleans.

Not long before Hurricane Katrina struck, Altman and Recasner founded Middle School Advocates, a nonprofit organization that allowed them to obtain a second state charter for Samuel J. Green, a failed K-8 school. Before they took it over, Green was one of the lowest-performing schools in the city. In 1999, when Green was still operated by the former Orleans Parish School Board, only 6.6 percent of its eighth graders scored at or above grade level in math. When scores hadn’t improved by 2005, the state turned the school over to Altman and Recasner.

Katrina destroyed the New Orleans Charter Middle School just after Altman left New Orleans for three years to help develop urban charter-type schools in England. Recasner took the remaining New Orleans Charter Middle School students and consolidated them with Green students. Two years after that, Middle School Advocates reopened New Orleans Charter Middle School at the former Nashville Avenue site of Arthur Ashe, a former Orleans Parish School Board school. Both Green and Ashe’s standardized test scores have improved over the years. This year, for example, 73 percent of Green’s fourth graders scored basic or above in math.

Altman returned from England in 2008 to resume his position at Middle School Advocates and Recasner became chief executive officer of Agenda for Children, a nonprofit dedicated to the welfare of Louisiana’s children and families. When Altman’s team started gearing up to open a charter high school, they changed the operational name to FirstLine, which evolved from a brainstorming suggestion about naming the organization after second-line parades.

FirstLine now operates five New Orleans charter schools. Having acquired three of the five schools within the past two years, it has become one of the city’s largest charter management operators. In addition to Green, Ashe, Dibert and Clark, FirstLine acquired an operations contract with Langston Hughes Academy after its financial manager was arrested in 2009 for embezzling school funds.

Altman doesn’t plan to add any schools in the near future. He says he plans to spend the next few years focusing on the schools his organization operates now and “making them really great.”

2011 LEAP scores of FirstLine schools that have been in the group for over three years:

Percentage of fourth grade students who scored “basic” or above:

Samuel Green: English, 60%; math, 70%
Arthur Ashe: English, 69%; math 73%

2009 LEAP scores:

Percentage of fourth grade students who scored “basic” or above:

Samuel Green: English, 40%; math, 22%
Arthur Ashe: English, 74%; math, 54%

2011 LEAP 4th grade averages for RSD direct-run schools

English, 56%: math 53%

2011 LEAP 4th grade averages for the state

English, 73%; math, 71%