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Very Honorable Mention 

Four public school principals turned around their failing schools in New Orleans

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Sharon L. Clark

Sophie B. Wright Charter School

  "I came here because I wanted to work in a failing school," says Sophie B. Wright Charter School principal Sharon L. Clark. When she came to New Orleans from Arizona in 2001 to work as principal of what was then Sophie B. Wright Middle School, Clark got her wish.

  Back then, the Uptown school was among the lowest performing in the city. Its performance score — calculated using standardized test scores, graduation rate and other factors — was 27.7, a solid "F" by state Department of Education grading standards. The school's dropout rate was twice the state average; it was labeled an "academically unacceptable school" and was at risk of closure.

  Rather than shuttering, Sophie B. Wright became a charter school in 2005, before Hurricane Katrina led most public schools in Orleans Parish to go in the same direction. It expanded its mission to include high school, and last May, the first-ever senior class graduated. The class of only six students had a 100 percent graduation rate, and Clarks says all of them went to college.

  Last year's school performance score was up to 86.1.

  "Hopefully, with our graduation rate ... we'll be a B or A minus, from an F when I started here," Clark says. "What has made the difference is that we have a consistent educational program. We have a shared vision." That vision is shared by the whole community, she says.

  "Our parents trust us, so our parents don't have to micromanage us," Clark says. "The kids go home and tell them, 'They really care for us. They're really trying to get us to excel.'" — Maldonado

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Dr. Doris Roche Hicks

Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School for Science and Technology

  Dr. Doris Hicks says she and her staff at Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School for Science and Technology in the Lower 9th Ward were "very reluctant" at first to join the charter school movement.

  "We felt it was just the demise of public education," says Hicks, principal at the school. "We were loving what we were doing [as a traditional district-run school] and not worrying."

  King, which opened in 1995 as Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary School for Science and Technology, was not a failing school by state standards. It had been meeting or coming close to its target growth rates every year when, after Hurricane Katrina temporarily closed the campus, Hicks found out her school was being pushed to join the state-run Recovery School District.

  Ultimately, Hicks says, the change — and the removal of bureaucratic obstacles faced by traditional schools — worked out better than she could have imagined.

  "We were always being called into meetings," Hicks says. "Those things were getting in the way of going about educating our kids."

  Within two years, the school, which was operating out of Edgar P. Harney Elementary in Central City after the storm, reopened in the Lower 9th Ward. It also expanded into high school and this year will graduate its first class of seniors, 30 students, most of whom have been there since ninth grade. The class has seen no dropouts or withdrawals, Hicks says, and she expects most or all will attend college next year.

  "That's our goal, and we think we're achieving this goal," she says. — Maldonado

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Mary Laurie

O. Perry Walker College & Career Prep High School

  O. Perry Walker College & Career Prep High School was one of only two public high schools to reopen in New Orleans in December 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. The Algiers Charter Schools Association took over Walker, which first opened its doors in 1970, and veteran educator Mary Laurie was hired as principal. She gradually is turning the historically under-performing high school into an academically diverse school that "embraces the arts," Laurie says. "Every child on the planet is born with a strength," and it's Walker's job to nurture it, she says.

  "We have to get children in the school to educate them," Laurie says. "What brings them to school — if it's band, it's band, if it's choir, let it be choir."

  The principal often walks with Walker's marching band at parades. "It's a great honor," she says. "I want them to know there's someone there."

  Walker now offers college courses through dual enrollment at Tulane University, SUNO and other local universities. The school's performance score jumped 20 points from its 2005-2006 mark, though Laurie says there's "still a long way to go."

  "We're far from OK," she says. "There still is so much work to do. We don't want to lose sight of our kids." — Woodward

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Rene Lewis-Carter

Martin Behrman Charter Academy for Creative Arts & Sciences

  Martin Behrman Charter Academy for Creative Arts & Sciences, which operates under the Algiers Charter Schools Association, opened its doors in December 2005. The school was among five new charters that opened that month, and Rene Lewis-Carter was hired as principal just two weeks before classes started.

  "I wanted nothing more than to be in New Orleans and improve it and teach," she says, adding that Behrman's students were as eager to return as their parents. "They wanted to be back in these antiquated buildings with people who understand them, people who know them."

  Before Katrina, the school suffered from low test scores, but in its 2006-2007 school year, scores were among the city's best — and they continue to improve. But more important than those scores, Lewis-Carter says, is her hope to "eliminate the climate and culture (of failure)" within the school system and "make Behrman a place where children want to be."

  Despite the school's drastic improvements, Lewis-Carter says her work isn't done. "Not until every child is successful," she says. "We're on our way ... we're just not there yet."

  Lewis-Carter hired veteran educators from across the country to reboot the school and places a "relentless emphasis" on her students' success and has high expectations for her staff. "I want for these children what I want for my child," she says. "Every adult in this building is expected to model that. ... There's nothing I won't do for the children at Behrman." — Woodward

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