In New Orleans, A Second-Chance School Tries Again
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We're going to go to New Orleans now. It's estimated that that city has more than 26,000 youth who are neither working nor in school. Before they drop out or are expelled, some end up at Crescent Leadership Academy. More than half of the students at that charter school have had run-ins with the justice system. A new principal is trying to improve this last-chance school. It's a work-in-progress, as Eric Westervelt from the NPR Ed. team reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Principal Nicholas Dean looks at the scarred and broken parts of his office door with pragmatic resignation. Time to get a better lock. Over the weekend, a person or persons smashed their way into his office and got away with the school van.
NICHOLAS DEAN: Whoever came in appears to know what they were going after. They came in and went straight to several administrators' offices, found a van key and took off.
WESTERVELT: They didn't take computers or cameras. They just wanted the big, lumbering van. Another day at New Orleans' biggest expulsion school, Crescent Leadership Academy, or CLA. The ages here range from 12 to 21, a mash-up of middle and high school. There's no school bell yet at CLA. It's on order. Principal Dean is the human ringer, using voice and a gym whistle to signal it's time to change classes.
DEAN: All you guys better be in classes in this direction.
WESTERVELT: The first-year principal admits he's often flying without a compass, but by all accounts, the 37-year-old wings it beautifully, fueled by a kinetic energy that seems to swing between efficient productivity and raw stress. The health app on his smart watch shows he averages more than five-and-a-half miles a day just roaming the halls and school grounds.
DEAN: To know what's going on - no surprises - know which teachers are strong, which teachers are struggling, why and how on both sides and to know who all the students are to create that sense of trust.
WESTERVELT: Last year, the students went to school in temporary trailers in the city's Lower Ninth Ward. Now they're in a spacious, if still slightly bedraggled, former Catholic school in the city's Algiers section on the West Bank of the Mississippi River.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUS)
WESTERVELT: Students are bused in from just about every part of New Orleans. More than half end up here after getting expelled from the city's charter schools for violence, fighting, weapons or what they term aggression-related offenses. At least half of the students are already in the city's juvenile or criminal justice system, and 15 percent meet the definition of homeless. They're living with friends, extended family or shelter housing.
DEAN: We have no choice but to be flexible. At any given time, 110 students are coming with 110 different issues. A-hundred-and-ten different things happened last night.
WESTERVELT: Before Principal Dean arrived, advocates for children here told me the school was an academically inept way station for at-risk youth barreling down the school-to-prison pipeline. They told me they were on the edge of suing the school for failing students academically, socially and emotionally. Dean is the principal. His boss, the superintendent of this school, is Tracy Bennett-Joseph. She concedes the charter got off to a rocky start when it took over the functions of the city's traditional expulsion school two-and-a-half years ago. Learning often took a backseat to basic safety.
TRACY BENNETT-JOSEPH: Students that came to us, they had some serious, you know, criminal backgrounds and just fights, gangs. We've been - what? - this is our third year. We've had - I think it's 14 of our students have been killed. That number is definitely - has a statement to it as far as what our students are dealing with outside of school.
WESTERVELT: But those very critics now say they have seen big improvements. They're giving Dean and Crescent Leadership Academy a second chance, so are the second-chance students CLA serves.
TAHJ CRUELL: I mean, it ain't no bad school. The principal, Mr. Dean, he's a good man.
WESTERVELT: Sixteen-year-old Tahj Cruell ended up at CLA for fighting.
TAHJ: He works with you. It's hard to get in trouble because the teachers here understand you. If you get in trouble, it's because you're just ignorant.
WESTERVELT: Tahj, if you screw up here, what's your next step? I mean, what's the step down from here?
TAHJ: I don't know what's after this, and I don't want to find out.
DEAN: You guys are sitting right across from each other. She's perceiving you two guys as the leaders of that conversation. Yeah, maybe other people were talking, but it's stemming because of you two talking.
WESTERVELT: Principal Dean is talking to a student who was just kicked out of class for being disruptive. Dean mixes discipline with concern, says 18-year-old student Derricka Tucker. She's attended CLA since 2012.
DERRICKA TUCKER: It's very improved. It's improved a lot-lot since Mr. Dean came. Like, it's really improved. Now they really own it this year. They barely be having fights this year. They used to have a whole lot of fights last year.
WESTERVELT: Tucker, too, ended up here after being expelled for fighting. My twin sister got into it with another girl, she says, and we both got kicked out of the regular school.
TUCKER: She can't fight with nobody in front of me, like, without, you know, me having to jump in because that's my twin. That's my baby.
WESTERVELT: The teenager will soon have her own baby. Her baby boy is due this summer. She attends school two days a week on an adjusted schedule and works at a super market the other days. Tucker says she's still determined to graduate from CLA in May.
TUCKER: I have no choice. I got to step up. This is a new human being in me.
WESTERVELT: What are you all doing?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Making shapes for geometry class.
WESTERVELT: By all accounts, the school has made progress under Principal Dean. Their graduation rate is expected to jump to 73 percent this year - a big improvement. But academic progress has been slow. Some of the curriculum seems frighteningly basic. In this high school geometry class, teenagers, some with learning challenges, are cutting out paper squares and triangles and gluing them to string.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Square, rectangle.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: And a circle.
WESTERVELT: Critics say charter schools in New Orleans are still too quick to expel. Onerous and absurdly strict disciplinary policies, they charge, result in far too many kids getting expelled, suspended, or counseled out of the school for what are, in the end, problematic but often typical adolescent behaviors. Aware of the expulsion and suspension problem, the city's charters came together to make some changes. They've now consolidated the expulsion hearing process, improved records tracking and added two other schools where expelled students can go. Former Recovery School District Deputy Superintendent Adam Hawf helped create the new single-expulsion review board.
ADAM HAWF: We brought this to the charter school community, and to my absolute surprise, everybody in the room agreed that there should be some sort of centralized process for ensuring that students have due process and that students aren't simply expelled to the street.
WESTERVELT: The result - expulsions in New Orleans' Recovery School District dropped by about a third last year. The rate is still high, but it's now lower than Louisiana as a whole. Josh Perry with the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights applauds the city's positive steps, but he says charters here are still too quick to pull kids out of class for far too broad a range of incidents.
JOSH PERRY: We can do better by our most vulnerable kids than assuming that there is a one-size-fits-all solution for the great majority of them.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING BASKETBALL)
WESTERVELT: Standing near the makeshift parking lot basketball court, Principal Dean is the first to concede that CLA and its students still have a long way to go.
DEAN: When they arrive here now, yes, they're on a road where they need to make a change for whatever the behavior was. And many students will blame others for their issue or minimize the issue - mislabel it. And our task and job is to be able to not tell them, not preach at them, not bark at them, not say you should do this, you should do this, but to ask questions in a way that allow them to have - aha - self-actualized moments.
WESTERVELT: Late in the afternoon, Principal Dean has his own minor aha-moment with the help of the New Orleans Police Department. They found that stolen school van. It was spared the chop shop. Joyriders abandoned it a few miles away with only minor damage. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.