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A Headstart for Kids 

Local colleges and universities get into the act of K-12 education reform in New Orleans.

The huge gap between the quality of K-12 New Orleans public education and the requirements for succeeding in area colleges has been one of many tragedies of our city's failing public school system. In recent years, barely a third of the students who graduated from New Orleans public schools made it to college. Combine that with a significant high school dropout rate, and college can seem unattainable for many local public school students. As the system undergoes massive reform in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, colleges and universities are trying to close the gap.

The creation of autonomous charter schools at the elementary, middle and high school levels has given local universities the opportunity to sponsor public schools and join the educational reform movement at the front lines. The universities' new role reflects a general need for charter schools to rely on support networks such as those afforded by Tulane, the University of New Orleans (UNO), and Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO).

In addition to university support, groups such as the Algiers Charter Schools Association and New Schools for New Orleans help charter schools deal with operational and management issues that confront school boards and administrations. The universities have varying degrees of involvement in charter schools, but their collective efforts represent a growing trend of getting higher education more connected to New Orleans public schools.

For UNO, the process has been under way since 2000. The university originally offered to manage 10 public schools in one of the area's first proposals to convert existing schools to charter status. However, the idea was so new that it touched off a bitter public dispute that pitted the university against the school board and the local teacher's union. The proposal languished for several years, and by 2004 UNO's plan was whittled down to managing one school -- Pierre A. Capdau Middle School. It was an immediate hit with parents.

Post-Katrina, the idea of universities managing local charter schools returned with a full head of steam, along with the surging charter school movement and a push to revive the UNO neighborhood. "If you look around UNO, there is no neighborhood," says Jim Meza, dean of UNO's College of Education and the individual who spearheaded the university's efforts to get involved with local public schools. "We felt that we had to have a vibrant neighborhood in order to have a vibrant university. The way to attract families back to a neighborhood is to build quality schools."

Currently under the aegis of the Capital One/UNO Charter Center, the university operates Pierre A. Capdau, Medard H. Nelson and Pierre A. Capdau Early College High School -- while also providing support to Edward Hynes Elementary and Ben Franklin High School. Today Meza's plan calls for the university to manage and support schools in the UNO neighborhood -- just as he originally proposed in 2000. He envisions a seamless network of schools in which kids can stay under the UNO umbrella throughout their education, all the way to graduation from the university.

"If we as a group can graduate every year 100 first-generation college students, that is a great step," says Meza. "I hope I live long enough to see the kids that came to us in kindergarten walk across that stage." With Capdau and Medard starting at the pre-kindergarten level and the Early College High School starting at 9th grade (where Capdau and Medard end), Meza's network is beginning to take shape.

The UNO model includes resources such as teacher training, budget management, legal assistance and other services that can transfer seamlessly from one school to the next. UNO's teacher training program will help provide good, qualified teachers to affiliated schools while letting the program's teachers-in-training gain valuable classroom experience. In addition, some Early College High School students will be able to earn college credit on the UNO campus -- and some college professors will teach in high school summer programs. The Early College High School is a model program that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has created around the country. The small schools allow students to earn two years of college credit at the same time they are working toward their high school diploma.

To keep students in the UNO network, Meza says scholars at Nelson and Capdau will be heavily recruited to the Early College High School and from there to the university. There is even discussion of giving preference for admission to students already in the UNO network, including college scholarships. "College begins in Pre-K," says Meza. "It actually begins even before that."

TULANE UNIVERSITY HAS PARTNERED with Lusher, a K-12 school that, like many others, gained charter status after Katrina. As the largest private employer in the city, Tulane had a vested interest in seeing the nearby Lusher School reopen for families the university employs. Of the 900 students that attended Lusher this past spring, 400 had a family affiliation with Tulane. Tulane's relationship with Lusher is similar to that of UNO's with Franklin in that the university provides support and collaboration but not direct management. Support comes in the form of funding and business-management assistance. In addition, junior and senior Lusher students can qualify to take some Tulane courses.

Tulane University President Scott Cowen, who was the leading voice for public school reform on Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission, says his university's success is connected to public education's success. "The stronger we have a pre-K-12 education system here, eventually the benefits will accrue to the universities themselves because more and more of those students will go on to college."

Cowen recently added a graduation requirement mandating that all students earn public-service credit, which Cowen believes will be fulfilled largely in service to local public schools. He sees the university's partnership with Lusher as a model that could lead to more involvement with other schools to create a support network similar to the Capital One/UNO Charter Center.

"Most of all," Cowen says, "we're committed because we believe that improving the quality of public education is the single best investment that could really change the whole character of New Orleans for decades to come."

While many have hailed universities' involvement in K-12 education, some remain wary. Sophie B. Wright Principal Sharon Clark says there is a fine line between support and micro-management. "At what point do the lines cross?" she asks.

Sophie B. Wright receives support from SUNO, plus volunteer and student reading-buddy contributions from Tulane students. Clark says her personal experience in working with universities has been extremely beneficial. Her main concern is that classroom-specific decisions such curriculum and teacher hiring remain with school administrators and not be subject to outside influences -- such as board members or support groups. That's where Clark draws the distinction between support and micro-management. "When you have a board that micro-manages a school and takes that much interest in the school, you open the door to politics," she says.

In some quarters, there is apprehension toward universities' involvement in K-12 public education. Given the local public school system's history of corruption and poor performance, the nascent movement toward charter schools (with their "independent" governing boards), and a post-Katrina mix of selective admissions versus open admissions schools, there are overarching but understandable suspicions regarding the newest crop of education reformers and their ability to serve the greater public good. In the city's politically charged post-Katrina climate, racial tensions are always just beneath the surface of every public discourse -- a reality that often surges to the forefront when white "outsiders" assert varying degrees of control over predominantly black institutions. University involvement in K-12 education is part of this larger equation. Meza saw that first hand when UNO took over Capdau.

"We had to build trust in the community, because here's a predominantly white institution going into a historically black school, telling them we're going to take you over and save you," Meza says.

In most cases, university involvement has been short of full takeovers and limited to a supportive role -- one of helping with the business side of the ledger. In addition to SUNO's involvement, other traditionally black colleges and universities such as Dillard and Xavier plan to become more involved in K-12 education as they revitalize their own storm-damaged institutions.

The stakes are highest for UNO, which directly manages three schools. What's at stake is credibility. Because UNO trains and certifies teachers, if one of the schools it manages were to fail, UNO's entire College of Education would fall into question. Nevertheless, significant involvement by universities seems to be gaining momentum as a K-12 educational movement.

For the foreseeable future, as UNO, Tulane and SUNO test out their new partnerships, the state will encourage more university involvement. The state Board of Regents, which oversees all higher education in Louisiana, has been awarding competitive grants to universities to promote collaboration with K-12 schools. The annual grants have focused on teacher programs thus far, but they could also foster more extensive partnerships.

"There is a clear and very public recognition that higher education is dependent upon elementary and secondary education," says Dr. Joseph Savoie, Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education. "We produce the teachers that teach the children who become our students. And we're dependent on those students becoming taxpayers to support our operations."

One example of the state's grant-making policy is a $900,000 award to UNO to support its new charter center. Such grants give partnerships additional funding so that K-12 school budgets, which are based on enrollment, can remain intact without diverting any funds to the university partners for their services. Savoie says he's encouraged. "It's seldom that you get this kind of reform momentum going," he says.

click to enlarge Jim Meza (left), dean of UNO's College of Education, meets - with Shannon Verrett, director of Secondary Education of - the UNO Charter School Center. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • Jim Meza (left), dean of UNO's College of Education, meets with Shannon Verrett, director of Secondary Education of the UNO Charter School Center.
click to enlarge Tulane University students do volunteer work in public - schools. - PAULA BURCH-CELENTANO
  • Paula Burch-Celentano
  • Tulane University students do volunteer work in public schools.
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