Tuesday, March 26, 2013

OWN Reality Show Reveals Charter Secrets

The Oprah Winfrey Network reality show, Blackboard Wars, filmed at John McDonogh Hi School in New Orleans this school year reveals some rather shocking details about how charter schools operate in Louisiana. State Board president, Chas Roemer has often bragged that charter operators have the freedom to operate their schools without the usual bothersome red tape required of traditional schools. But we were always told that charters must comply with basic accountability and school reporting rules. Apparently they are exempt from much more than we were led to believe.

John White and his Recovery School District administrators are always quite anxious to attract “quality” charter school operators to take over any low performing school that has been designated as 'failing" by the state accountability system. This low achieving category includes all of the direct run RSD (Recovery School District) schools. So John White and Patrick Dobard (Superintendent of RSD) were just thrilled when Steve Barr who runs the highly touted Green Dot charter system in Los Angeles agreed to take over John McDonogh High School in New Orleans. Note: I have just been informed that Steve Barr is no longer affiliated with Green Dot. Also, he has no education credentials.

Steve Barr was basically given free rein to do anything he wanted that may turn around John McDonogh. I'm sure Chas Roemer must have been ecstatic because he has recently advocated shutting down most of the DOE in favor of a system that lets anyone run a public school by any rules they choose as long as they can produce passing results on the accountability system. But meanwhile all the traditional public schools continue to be held to such mundane rules as strict student attendance reporting, reporting dropouts, complex discipline rules that require hearings before student suspensions (even for criminals), and student expulsion rules so strict that most educators agree that regular public school students can no longer be expelled no matter what they do. One principal told me that in the EBR school system, the special master appointed by the DOE to rule over school discipline even requires hearings before extremely disruptive or dangerous students are transferred to the alternative school.

Steve Barr, the savior of John McDonogh, was welcomed to New Orleans with much fanfare by the LDOE but not so much by the local citizens and parents of the John McDonogh community. Barr got off on the wrong foot by being quoted in NOLA dot com describing problems with poor student performance by saying, “This is what seven generations of crap looks like.”

To further demonstrate his arrogance, Barr approved a contract with the OWN network to produce a reality series on the turnaround effort at John McDonogh this year. He did not bother to inform his own Board of Directors of the deal and no one knows where the money paid by OWN to broadcast the reality show goes. Needless to say Barr has had a few contentious meetings with his own hand picked Board of Directors for the John McDonogh charter.

The reality series titled Blackboard Wars has been broadcast on the OWN network for about six weeks on Saturday nights and has revealed a lot of very unorthodox practices tolerated by our DOE at charter schools. None of these practices would be allowed by the LDOE in  traditional public schools which are managed by a locally “elected” rather than appointed school boards.

The series started off by concentrating on the trials and tribulations of one of the young TFA teachers with the usual 5 week training/indoctrination course: “TFA will show you how to save these inner city children who have been so neglected by traditional teachers because you are so brilliant and you care so much more about children than they do.” It turns out this young person had no understanding about the lifestyle of a poverty stricken inner city kid and also had no clue about how to teach Geometry to these kids. She got hit in the face while trying to break up a fight, could not even get any of the students to stop talking while she tried to lecture, and kept breaking down and crying in each of the episodes. Secret #1: Charters save a lot of money on teaching staff by hiring a core of these compliant low pay teachers who can easily be replaced by a new batch of fresh recruits paid partially by large grants from rich charitable organizations like the Gates foundation and by LDOE grants. (Our tax dollars)

Dr Marvin Thompson, the principal for John McDonogh brought in by Steve Barr is depicted in the OWN series as a top notch education professional but nothing is said about whether he possesses the basic certification requirements for a Louisiana school principal. Secret #2: Charter schools regularly ignore certification requirements for their administrators because Louisiana can "trust" the charter operators to bring in great talent from all over the country and pay them top salaries without regard to “paper” qualifications. Look at how we got John White.

In a recent episode of Blackboard Wars Dr Thompson threw out a student who had been involved in a shootout off campus because he may become the target of retaliation which could be a danger to the other students at McDonogh. Secret #3: Charter schools seldom suspend or expel troublesome students. They just “counsel them out”. This keeps their official records clean while getting rid of discipline problems and low performers. In contrast, traditional public schools are encouraged by the DOE to keep all students and to even accept rejects from the charters. Last year, a convicted rapist was assigned to a Baton Rouge high school, yet neither the principal nor the guidance counselor were notified of his rap sheet. Later in the year he raped a young student on campus. Only then when the news media publicized the rape and blamed the administration for a lack of security at the school did the principal learn that the offender had been previously convicted for rape. At the end of the year the principal resigned. In a public school in Lafayette last week, a student teacher was thrown out of his practice teaching position because he attended a school board meeting and repeated some of the bad language being directed at teachers by students. Another teacher in St. Landry was hit in the face by a student last week with minimal consequences for the student. But Dr Thompson held an assembly program with faculty and students at John McDonogh and informed them that he had thrown out all the trouble makers so now they could expect a better school environment. We can only wonder how many of these were official expulsions and how many were just “counseled out”.

The most recent episode of Blackboard Wars featured a raucous community meeting held by Steve Bar and Dr Thompson to report on the progress of the school. Dr Thompson proudly announced to parents and community members that the school had improved student attendance from about 35% the previous year to approximately 80% this school year. But according to school statistics accessed on the DOE web site before White purged all the data links, none of the schools in the RSD have had attendance rates below 80% in recent years. Secret #4. Just report anything to the public that makes it look like charters have made dramatic progress compared to the dismal past. Two years ago, the DOE reported to the Legislature that the RSD had reduced its high school dropout rate to only 5% per year. This would have translated into approximately an 80% graduation rate, yet the real data showed that more than half the students starting the 9th grade had disappeared by their senior year. Back at McDonogh, Barr's community meeting ended in chaos with community members calling for Barr to go back to California.

Here's just one more secret. Also in the last episode, OWN filmed an interview by Dr Thompson with a 20 year old young man who wanted to re enroll at McDonogh. In the conversation, the young man emphasized that he wanted to get a high school diploma because his father and most of his relatives had not gotten that far. But then he tells Dr Thompson: “That GED (program) is hard, so I came here.” Dr Thompson responds: “Well, we have a credit recovery program here and we can help you get that diploma.” Secret #5: Credit recovery can be manipulated to give students credits toward graduation that they do not really have to earn. In credit recovery a student is supposed to get extra instruction to allow him to pass a required course that he previously failed. But one of the TFAers who transferred to another parish said that when RSD teachers warn a student that he is failing a course he often laughs and informs the teacher that the school administration will still give him credit for the course using credit recovery. Also, at a recent community meeting in New Orleans, one of the parents approached BESE member Lottie Beebie and confessed that her child had received credit for courses she had not ever taken!

Observation: A common gimmick used by most of the charters is to sell pie in the sky to the community and news media. Plastered on the walls at John McDonogh are slogans like: WHAT COLLEGE WILL YOU ATTEND (I noticed that the large question mark was missing from the end of the slogan but none of the students or producers of Blackboard Wars seemed to notice) This is an empty promise because the great majority of the students there will not in any way be prepared for college. These schools never seem to teach their students that most adults have to work at real jobs to earn a living. Most of the courses at this school do not relate to the real world nor prepare students for real world jobs. These kids are facing a dead end when they get their fake diplomas. But of course this fake college prep for all is being pushed by the top administrators in our LDOE.

Chas Roemer, the new BESE president, believes that BESE can do away with most of the rules governing our public schools. Just let them do whatever it takes to get students to graduate college and career ready. If you cut out the last 4 words of that statement you will have a good description how the RSD charters are getting the job done.