School’s progress touted

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that he is inspired by the progress made over the past year at George Washington Carver High School after he toured the New Orleans school’s campus Tuesday morning.

Duncan met with the school’s principal and Recovery School District officials after the tour, and then spoke to the media and community members.

Carver, which is still operating out of trailers, is one of the RSD’s “transformational” schools and has undergone major changes as it transitions under its new charter operator Collegiate Academies.

Carver was given an “F” in the latest release of school performance scores and has been a focal point for raising academic performance but also has garnered attention with a vocal alumni group that has expressed strong opposition to the changes.

“Part of my job is to get out of Washington and try to listen and learn and ask teachers and students about what works and what doesn’t,” Duncan said. “My only interest is to see New Orleans be wildly successful.”

Duncan said he was interested to learn from students about differences between last year and this year.

Asked about the accountability to the community, Duncan acknowledged the discord that has surrounded the school’s changes. Duncan said that one lesson learned was that more communication in the early stages between the school administrators, parents and the community would have been valuable. But he said the school is in a very different place now than it was last year.

“It’s easy to keep throwing rocks at each other, but it is much harder to sit at a table and to listen and engage as mature adults and figure out what is best for young people,” he said.

Everyone wants the same thing, he said, and that is for children to be successful.

Duncan also addressed other challenges and changes in education both locally and nationally.

Asked about the recent Louisiana Supreme Court declaration that the state’s voucher system is unconstitutional, Duncan said that he was not familiar with the details but that he has never supported vouchers.

The overwhelming majority of the nation’s children are in public schools, he said. “The challenge for me is, how do we make every single public school a school that you and I as parents would be proud to send our children to? That’s where I want to spend my time and energy and resources,” he said.

Duncan was also asked about holding charters accountable for ensuring that the requirements of special needs and non-English speaking students are met. Every public school must serve all students, he said, and it’s incumbent on the chartering authority to make sure the school is inclusive.

“If they are being selective, that flies in face of everything they are supposed to be for,” Duncan said. Charter schools need to stay with the kids for “the long haul,” he said.

As Louisiana’s state-mandated teacher evaluation system goes into effect this year, Duncan said that finding a fair and effective system for evaluation is a national struggle.

Nearly all states are trying to find ways to support “rookie teachers,” help mid-career professionals advance and make sure there are master and mentor teachers who can help develop the next generation of teachers, he said.

“Teachers are unsung heroes in society, doing amazingly hard, tough and complex work rarely with enough resources, and we need to support them,” Duncan said

There have been problems for decades with making sure teachers have the support they need but also are properly qualified, he said.

“My hope is two years from now as a country we will be in a much better place and five years from now in a radically better place,” Duncan said. “For the past 40 or 50 years, we just weren’t in the game — we weren’t even close.”

Duncan also said that he supports paying successful teachers more. “I want to pay great teachers and great principals a heck of a lot more money,” he said. “It’s the best investment we can make.”

From the community, concerns were expressed about a “Teach for America” model not necessarily being the best fit at every school, and the worry that students in New Orleans are being experimented on in the name of educational reform.

Educational activist Katrena Ndang said she wondered if the students who attended in previous years were the same ones at the school on Tuesday and whether it’s the students who are being around or the building.

Based on day’s the tour, Duncan said he was very impressed by the dedication of the teachers and staff and that he was hopeful for the school’s future and opportunities it would provide students.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, who praised the support that Duncan and the Obama administration have given to New Orleans school reform, pointed to figures that show dramatic change. In 2005, 77 percent of public school students in New Orleans were in a failing school. Now, less than 30 percent are. She also pointed to improvements in the percentage of students graduating on time and qualifying for TOPS.

“It’s evidence that the reforms undertaken are in fact working,’’ she said.