"In a system of 60,000 children, one day is the mathematical equivalent of an entire lifetime," says Mary Croom-Fontenot, executive director of All Congregations Together. The New Orleans Public School system (NOPS) currently enrolls just above 68,000 students. "This can't wait," she says. "We have to fix this system now for these children."
Croom-Fontenot is the lone employee of All Congregations Together (ACT), a citywide grassroots network of more than 20 faith-based organizations. ACT's mission is to empower its members, cultivate leadership and address whatever community issues its members say are important. ACT's focus is currently trained on education, because, Croom-Fontenot says, that's the main concern of ACT's members and their top priority for change in the city.
Many of ACT's members are parents and grandparents of current public school students. Students as young as 10 years old also participated in the surveys and focus groups that defined the group's education agenda. The education committee alone is comprised of 40 members from across the community.
"Neighborhood elementary schools on third-year Iowa tests average 25, which means that 75 percent of the country outscores those schools," says ACT education committee member Brian Sweeney. His voice rises as he points out that St. Tammany Parish's scores routinely top 60. "There's no reason those scores can't exist here. The kids here are no different than anyplace else -- same competency, same civil rights, same expectations."
INT HE AFTERMATH OF RECENT ELECTIONS, the new school board might welcome a set of objectives and deadlines that, like a sound school curriculum, could guide their progress to those kinds of scores. In fact, such a document exists. Formulated over the summer and finalized on Aug. 18, the ACT Education Platform distills the concerns and priorities expressed to ACT's education committee by thousands of New Orleans church and mosque members. (ACT currently has no Jewish partners, though it has partnered with synagogues in the past.) In the weeks leading up to the election, all of the major candidates -- including incumbents Una Anderson and Jimmy Fahrenholtz, and newly elected board members Heidi Lovett Daniels, Lourdes Moran and Phyllis Landrieu -- endorsed the platform with their signatures, agreeing to carry through its 10 main tenets and numerous subpoints. Runoff candidates Torin Sanders and Elliott Willard in District 7 and Cynthia Cade and Dwight McKenna in District 2 have also signed the platform. In doing so, they made the endorsement unanimous -- no matter who wins on Nov. 2.
With so many signatories, you might expect the ACT platform to be a vague stew of rhetoric and intentions. At the heart of the platform, however, is a frank analysis: the mostly poor children who attend local public schools bring with them the "preschool effects" of poverty that set them behind grade-level and age expectations. In other words, without benefit of special enriched programs, many poor children don't have a chance to develop basic skills like word recognition and an understanding of the concept of numbers. While ACT believes that Orleans kids have the same abilities as children in St. Tammany and elsewhere, the effects of pervasive poverty here demand individualized attention, early and ongoing assessment, "aggressive remediation strategies," and a lot more resources in pre-K through third grade.
This bundle of attention, assessment and remediation is the centerpiece of the ACT platform. The organization considers it important enough to trump any other funding priorities, including school repair and construction, until remediation in the earliest grades shows results.
Remediation in this case doesn't mean help for failing grades or missed homework. Rather, it means intensive work on basic skills that are the building blocks for literacy and numeracy. Those, in turn, are the foundation for all academic work. Results could come as quickly as two years, ACT says, if the board adheres to ACT's timeline, which calls for a finalized, detailed, evidence-based plan for early remediation no later than six months from the fall school board elections.
That plan, ACT specifies, should include massive increases in staffing and resources for in-school remediation programs as part of a comprehensive, five-year plan for improvement, starting in 2005. The platform further states that improvement in the early grades is so important that programs for pre-K to third grade should be treated separately from programs addressing other grades.
The basic concept, says Fontenot, is simple: if kids don't have the basic skills they need for academic success, give them those skills by any means possible at the very start of their school career.
"This is the goal," says Sweeney, holding out a Xeroxed image of a teacher seated on a stool surrounded by a small knot of rapt 5-year-olds. Beside her is a magnet chart stuck with cheerful figures, numbers and letters. "Remediation specialists know how to do this. It's not that complicated."
CURRENT RESEARCH BACKS UP THE CLAIM that kids from poorer homes often come to school with lower verbal and mathematical skills in place. In their report Inequality at the Starting Gate: Social Differences in Achievement as Children Begin School, University of Michigan researchers Valerie E. Lee and David T. Burkam found that children from the highest socioeconomic tier outscore kids from the lowest tier by a ratio of two to one at the beginning of kindergarten. Because a disproportionate number of American blacks and Hispanics are poor, failing to address poverty in the earliest grades has a disproportionately negative impact on those minorities, the team found.
"Young children do not begin school as equals," Lee and Burkam write. "Although the age when children enroll in school is close to constant (typically five years old), their cognitive status when they begin kindergarten varies considerably."
District 5 school board member-elect Phyllis Landrieu says this problem isn't a new one. Many local public school parents themselves had a bad education experience, she notes, which may have a further negative effect on their children's preparation. These kids are not stupid," Landrieu says. "They need to be able to pass the LEAP test, and if they don't pass the test, they get discouraged." If choices have to be made to focus on pre-K through third grade remediation at the expense of other programs, that's fine, says Landrieu. "I signed it, didn't I?"
Heidi Lovett Daniels, whose District 1 includes 13 of the city's 54 failing schools, agrees that basic skills must be addressed early on. "If you've already arrived at eighth grade, we can get you to graduate, but it's not going to be a systemic, comprehensive education," says Daniels. She urges that resources be aimed equally at math, social studies, science and English/language arts instruction in Pre-K through fourth grade, in eighth grade, in English as a Second Language (ESL), and in special education. (The last two areas cut across all grade levels, including the earliest years of schooling, Daniels points out.) Daniels also provides specific benchmarks for high-quality instruction in the lowest grades, including a teacher-to-student ratio of 15:2, individual assessments of each child's skills and learning style at the start of the school year, the availability of hand-held objects, or "manipulables," that students can use to creatively express their ideas, and the coordination of school social services with community groups to make sure students are cared for after school, fed and offered free tutoring.
Returning board member Una Anderson says the system has already increased both assessment and remediation efforts under Superintendent Anthony Amato. Students in kindergarten through third grade are now given DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) assessments three times during the school year, and students who need help are pulled out for intensive work on particular skills in a small group setting. She also lauds the increase in the number of students attending pre-K as part of the state's publicly funded LA 4 program for at-risk 4-year-olds, as well as Amato's success in involving those students in Suzuki violin and other "mind-growing" programs.
But Anderson hesitates to prioritize early learning over other grade levels. "I don't want to send a message to any of our students that their academic development is being ignored," she says. "This school system is implementing reform at all levels to ensure that students are learning. We have to do it all at the same time."
DDANIELS , LANDRIEU AND DISTRICT 4 member-elect Lourdes Moran all say that volunteer mentors can make a big difference at every level of instruction. Moran also says she is concerned that not enough parents know about the supplemental tutoring services, many of them funded by the state, that are already available to their children.
Community resources and supplemental programs are part of the picture, says ACT. But the heart of the reform effort is an intensified program inside the schoolroom, within school hours, funded by public school funds. Nor will it do to point the finger at parents. "Regardless of what parents are like, the schools must teach the children," says Sweeney. "It's a contract between the children and the school system -- not the parents and the school system."
Replicating programs that work in private academies or high-performing citywide access schools isn't a solution, says Croom-Fontenot. "That wouldn't be fair," she says. "It's like comparing apples with elephants. We have to address the perceptual and conceptual deficits that confront our neighborhood schools."
As a nonprofit organization, ACT cannot endorse candidates. Prior to September's election, the group sponsored debate forums for candidates in each of the school board districts, and next week will hold debates in the two contested districts. "Our focus is to educate and uplift the issues," says Croom-Fontenot, who adds that the group is bipartisan and partners with a range of officials. "We believe there's power in relationships," says Croom-Fontenot. "Not individuals."
ACT holds a lot of sway, ranging as it does across neighborhoods ("Desire to the Garden District," Croom-Fontenot likes to say) and groups of socially engaged churchgoers who tend to be consistent voters. But board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz says its just one of a range of citizens' groups that get his ear. "I'll pretty much work with anybody," says Fahrenholtz. Business groups such as Committee for a Better New Orleans/Metropolitan Advisory Committee and educational boosters like Schools to Careers and the Greater New Orleans Education Foundation also clamor for board attention, says Fahrenholtz.
"ACT will come to us with a global idea, but they'll also come to us with well thought-out plans," says Fahrenholtz. Still, their concerns have to be balanced with those of other citizens' groups, he says.
It's also unsure how much power the board actually has to carry through on the ACT platform signed by its members and members-elect. Act 193 relegates the board to the role of setting policy, putting the real power over what happens in the classroom in Amato's hands. ACT representatives say they hope Amato embraces the group's education platform in a future meeting. The group also plans to meet with Gov. Kathleen Blanco and members of the Louisiana congressional delegation.
THIS YEAR DOES NOT MARK the first time ACT has exacted a promise in writing from candidates during an election. Starting in 1991, the group began holding elected officials accountable for specific promises on everything from reducing truancy to demolishing crack houses. It also made a practice of issuing "report cards" to officials during public meetings that rated their performance on promises they had made.
Asked about the consequences of rejecting what ACT calls "the people's agenda," Croom-Fontenot alludes to the case of former school board member Tommie Vassel. In 1998, Vassel was the only member of the Orleans Parish School Board who refused to sign ACT's education platform. That platform included pledges to increase funding for teacher training, reduce class size and focus efforts on helping students graduate on time. Five months later, Croom-Fontenot points out, Vassel was the only incumbent school board member to lose his bid for re-election.
ACT's influence may have played a role in the latest election results as well. Bad blood between the current board and ACT dates back to 2001, when the board reneged on a promise to commit to a pilot program of school visits by teachers. Alerted that the board was prepared to vote the program down at its regular business meeting, ACT assembled upwards of 200 marchers and held a candlelight vigil, then crowded the auditorium of McDonogh 35 High School with protesters who marched out as soon as the vote was taken.
ACT took a break to rethink strategy after that, says Croom-Fontenot. During the confusion of early June, however, when the state legislature considered state Rep. Karen Carter's bill to expand the power of superintendents in districts with failing schools, ACT members, including Croom-Fontenot, testified that the board did not use its power over the school system responsibly. ACT 193, which sharply curtailed the board's power, passed quickly.
Few in the community will openly criticize the organization, though some grassroots education activists say that ACT represents what they call a middle-class point of view. Croom-Fontenot smiles at the allegation. The strength of the organization, she says, is that it encompasses every part of society. Some of its most stalwart members belong to the socially prominent Holy Name of Jesus Church on St. Charles Ave. Among its current member churches are the Full Gospel Church of God in Christ and St. Peter Claver, both in Treme; Masjid-Ur-Raheem mosque in Treme; and her own church, St. David Catholic, in the lower Ninth Ward. Congregations in Algiers, eastern New Orleans, Central City and Gert Town are also among its members, she says.
Asked whether ACT is holding the school board "accountable" in an environment in which accountability has become a major buzzword, education committee member TroyLynne Perrault waves off the question. "We don't want to get sidetracked into divisive issues and language," she says. "We'd rather think if it as getting the school board to focus."