Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Takeover Pains

More movement on the schools in New Orleans issue: if the state of Georgia has any brains whatsoever, they should send a team down to NOLA and look at what's been going on with the state takeover here. They should take lots of notes and talk to lots of folks, because if they're going to take over Clayton County (and have an effective mechanism in place to take over other county systems) they're going to need to learn these lessons in advance and not repeat the mistakes. I've already briefly compared Louisiana's state takeover with Georgia's takeover proposals.

The round-up starts with the currently under-the-weather-but-indefatigable Leigh, who's been touring the RSD/OPSB master plan meeting circuit.

Leigh's first play by play is here as she discusses a public meeting she had to get on tape. Her next post is a roundup of the next two links.

Christian attended the meeting under discussion and provides some historical analysis to what is going on.

E at We Could Be Famous rips the master plan apart for failing to build on gains where they have been made. Contrary to popular belief, there were some outstanding programs in New Orleans public schools, and some outstanding teachers and initiatives, and some fantastic facilities, that have been allowed to wither on the vine without support for years. Now that so much new money is coming in (theoretically/hopefully), there are questions why there has been so little redevelopment of already in-place infrastructure, physical and academic.

My thoughts on all this: more of the same things that have gotten us to where we are in the first place. As E calls it "snake oil salesmen" as Dante has called it "silver bullet fixes." The master plan is reinventing the wheel without addressing real issues of why New Orleans schools are constantly at risk.

Analytically, I'll address consolidation & building large enrollment schools. I personally find it important to keep neighborhood schools around, especially for elementary grades. But when it comes to high school and middle schools, having a facility that serves so few students is something I find ludicrous. I went to a high school with an enrollment between 1400 and 1500 students.* Glynn County had two such schools. Where I grew up, you went to your local elementary school, they fed into a known middle school, and certain middle schools fed into each high school. When I started Kindergarten at St. Simons Elementary, I knew that if my parents stayed anywhere near their same neighborhood, I would move into 6th grade at Glynn Middle School, and that I would graduate from Glynn Academy High School in 12th grade. My family knew teachers from all three schools, knew many students at all three schools, or they knew people within their community who knew people within the schools. So it isn't an impossibility to have a neighborhood school that holds a high school enrollment of around 2000.

The benefits of this kind of system are plainly seen to me now. First of all, it builds a social network of students, and provides stability and structure systematically. Files and records more easily followed students. In New Orleans, students hop from school to school and the records follow very slowly. Enrollment isn't ever set in stone, and new students show up in the middle of the school year or leave in the middle of the school year. As far as instruction is concerned, this is awful and undermining. You wonder why some students never learn how to read? You wonder why special needs students are never serviced adequately? They bounce from school to school and have to be evaluated constantly, never recieving the attention that they need. The school system cannot staff correctly for those needs because they are constantly playing catch-up as to what their actual needs are, and those needs are always changing.

Secondly, in such a structured system, teachers are able to teach one (there were a few exceptions) subject matter to one grade over the course of years. This creates teachers that are legitimate experts at their subjects, gives them the institutional knowledge of what their expectations are, and this also allows them to focus fully on their specific subject matter's grade level expectations. It further invests them with their job and experience, as their lesson plans from one year only need to be tweaked for more effectiveness - they don't need to reinvent the wheel for a new subject or a new grade level or both. Test scores and student acheivement are vitally tied to teachers knowing what they are doing, and if the teacher is required to teach radically different subjects to radically different grades year to year, you're only making the teacher's job harder and the students' instruction weaker.

Last year, I was teaching two classes of Earth Science and two classes of Life Science to 80 students. Double the enrollment for the middle school grades at that school (and adequately staff and fund the infrastrucutre) and you could have me teach one subject far more effectively to 80 students of the same grade, and bring in another teacher for the other subject far more effectively to another 80 students of another grade, without either teacher having to totally rearrange their classroom based on which class was being taught. For the fifth class, each teacher could handle one elective, and have that elective better prepared because we weren't spending all of our planning time between two different preps.

Which brings me to my 3rd advantage of a more structured, consolidated system: electives and extracurriculars. When I went to school, most of my actual academic classes were spent with rote learning trivia about that subject matter. Most of my critical thinking skills were honed in electives and extracurricular classes that were based around projects. Drama, art, band, debate, current events, gifted, Model UN, science fair projects, creative writing: these were the places where I learned fundamentals of problem solving, fund raising, publishing, teamwork and, most importantly, advanced researching and critical thought. Other students did the same working in shop class, pre-nursing/first-aid, economics, business classes, computer skills classes, radio operation, sports, sports, sports. This is a fundamental part of the educational structure that New Orleans lacks based completely on resource management.

When teachers are busy prepping for multiple classes, they don't have time to develop adequate extras where critical components of learning take place. And even when these things do come about, such as Students At the Center, instability of schools existing next year or being supported adequately undermine successful initiative which is so badly needed. Extracurriculars and electives also need teachers who have become experts at organizing and sponsoring said extras. The same instability that contributes to a teacher moving schools, grade levels and subject matters; that contributes to students bouncing from school to school, undermines the consistency and effectiveness of electives and extracurriculars.

Fourth, and I hate to use the military terminology here, but a structured and consolidated system allows the system not to be overwhelmed at the point of attack when it comes to special needs students and discipline issues. The Master Plan being discussed for NO has little to say in the realm of addressing these needs. And it really comes down to this: there are so many students in New Orleans public schools that are bright. They can learn within the confines of a normal classroom, they can learn things fast and they can take advantage of the expertise and experience of their teachers. These students' learning is being undermined because the school system has no mechanism for effectively addressing special needs and discipline issues. These on-level learners are being forced into classes where the teacher is spending all their time on the special needs students, and they are being forced into classes where they are in danger of being assaulted by discipline issue students. The awful thing is that, when a student assaults another student or a teacher or an administrator, the RSD has done very little to remove these problems from the student body at large. This undermines academic rigor and learning on an unprecedented scale.

A consolidated, structured system will allow large classrooms of 30 students who are on-level, and can learn in such an environment. That's a more effective use of teachers and more advantageous to students. For the disicpline problems and the special needs students, they can be easier identified (because they aren't bouncing from school to school) and can be placed in programs where they have smaller class sizes, breakout sessions and counseling for their unique situation, and that can happen without sacrificing the forward progress of the two dozen other students who are attempting to learn in a rigorous and safe environment.

So there's that. I'm not sure the RSD master plan is going to effectively address these issues. To me, it sounds like they're just consolidating schools and will continue the practice of overwhelming teachers, support staff and students, and not addressing the real problems that New Orleans schools face.

Georgia would do well to examine these when they consider state takeovers of county school systems.

* - Edit: Earlier, this post listed Glynn Academy and Brunswick High's enrollment between 1900 and 2100, due to my erroneous rememberance of how high school athletics were classified. The highest enrollment was apparently 1700+, as described by "patsbrother" in the comments section.


patsbrother said...

Cousin Pat is incorrect as to the enrollment of Glynn County high schools. When we attended Glynn Academy more than a decade ago, I remember Glynn Academy's enrollment hovering around the 1400s.

According to a Florida Times Union article written last fall, both high schools were then each experiencing a 100-student spike in enrollment. Because of that spike, "Brunswick High School had 1,715 students while Glynn Academy had 1,719, [which was then] the highest enrollment ever at either school." City-Data.com currently reports similar enrollment figures.

This information likely does not affect Cousin Pat's analysis. I realize this may be needless factualism.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Thanks for the correction. For some reason, I thought Glynn Academy and Brunswick High were classified in the region 2 - AAAAA for high school athlectics. That would put their enrollment at 1800+. I was mistaken, and I added an "A" to the classification. I don't know why that was my belief. Both high schools are in region 2-AAAA, which would put them at the enrollment you described.

I shall make the appropriate edits.