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Guest Editorial

New Orleans turns to charter schools

DON C. BRUNELL

Louisiana has 16 chronically failing public schools, 15 of which are in the city of New Orleans. After years of infighting and finger pointing, the state has finally taken a bold step to solve the problem. The state of Louisiana took over a public school. If we don't stick to our 1992 school reforms here in Washington, the same thing could happen here.

The P.A. Capdau Middle School had floundered for years. Last spring, more than half of its eighth-graders failed the LEAP test, Louisiana's version of Washington's WASL. The school's seventh-graders fared even worse, scoring lower than 81 percent of their peers nationwide on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The school has had eight principals in the last 10 years and changed its education programs three times in the past three years.

In April, following years of warnings and second chances, the state took over the school and turned it over to the University of New Orleans. The University has had a plan in place since 2001 to create a charter school district of as many as ten troubled schools, but opposition from the School Board and the teachers union stopped the plan dead in its tracks. But with Capdau, the University finally got its chance to try a different approach.

The changes came swiftly. Using a $250,000 donation from a local bank, the University gave the neglected school a fresh coat of paint, repaired leaky ceilings and installed new lights to brighten its dark and dingy hallways. Next, the University hired a veteran local principal with a get-tough reputation, replaced all but one of Capdau's teachers, and implemented a new curriculum that tailors instruction to each student. The idea is to help students learn at their own pace, rather than promote them to the next grade whether or not they'd learned the material. As with Washington state's education reforms, Louisiana wants to make sure its high school diplomas are more than just a record of attendance.

With the curriculum in place, the search for students and teachers began. More than 500 students applied for the 264 spaces available at the school. Students were selected by lottery from applicants who lived within a five-mile radius of the school. The grandmother of two students selected for Capdau told state and school officials that the school takeover was the answer to her prayers.

Teachers were not as impressed. Applications to work at Capdau came in slowly. Soured by years of failed school reform efforts, teachers were wary of signing on to yet another experiment in education reform. Eventually, University officials overcame their concerns, and more than 60 teachers applied for 16 available teaching positions.

At a training session two weeks before the start of school, teachers were warned to discard their old ideas. "Perception is reality," the trainer warned, and if they expected their students to be unruly and incapable, the students would respond to those expectations. "I want you to grab those perceptions," said the trainer, "and toss them on the floor."

Of course, the teachers aren't naïve; they understand the difficulty of their challenge. But they are optimistic that they and the University will be able to change the lives of hundreds of students for the better.

The school year at the new Capdau Charter School has just begun. This year, they're focusing on K-3 and the 7th and 8th grades, but eventually, Capdau will be a K-8 school. Parents, teachers and elected officials throughout Louisiana and the nation are watching closely. A success at Capdau could serve as a model for thousands of failing schools across the country.

In New Orleans, a single charter school has brought hope and optimism to hundreds of parents. On Nov. 2, Washington voters will decide whether to keep our state's charter schools alternative. By approving Referendum 55, we can ensure that parents and children in our state have an alternative to failing schools.

Don C. Brunell is President of the Association of Washington Business.

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