McDonogh’s turnaround faces challenges

When Torrey James told friends he was heading to John McDonogh for his sophomore year of high school, he remembered, “They put their hands on my shoulder and said, ‘Don’t die, buddy.’”

Such is the reputation still attached to a school where drug dealers once strode casually into an assembly with assault rifles and gunned down a rival. The cops have been no stranger to the campus on Esplanade Avenue over the years.

James, a slender marching band member in wire-rimmed glasses who enjoys “depressing” poetry, has now spent a full school year braving the hallways at John McDonogh — and he says it’s been no sweat. There are fights, James said, but there were more at his last school, and he appreciates his teachers, who are there early and stay late to offer extra help. (Don’t ask about geometry, the reason he’s been attending summer school lately.)

To talk to students, parents and community members around John McDonogh is to hear at least tentative evidence that the school’s new managers have racked up some successes at the century-old campus since they took over last summer. Test scores are up, as is attendance, administrators say. Some — not all — of the skeptics have been pleasantly surprised.

And yet the group that turned John McDonogh into an independent charter school, like almost all the rest of New Orleans’ schools, has also run into a set of challenges that it was not prepared for — not least, the very real consequences of a harrowing image problem in a school system driven more by market forces than any other in the country.

It’s a challenge that appears at least partially self-inflicted; the school invited in camera crews from Oprah Winfrey’s television network that broadcast the struggles of a high-poverty, urban campus: A suicidal student tackled and handcuffed, a teacher clocked in the face trying to break up a scuffle between two boys, and screaming matches between students and community activists over the school’s new direction.

But John McDonogh’s course this year reflects broader struggles in the state-run Recovery School District. There may simply be too many high schools in New Orleans for the number of public school students in the city. And in a system where students aren’t limited by neighborhood, but can ask for a seat anywhere, savvy families inevitably gravitate toward schools that are already doing well, or at least have a reputation for doing well.

At John McDonogh, that’s meant lower enrollment than expected, mid-year budget cuts and deferred promises. During enrollment for the coming school year, just six students chose John McDonogh as their first choice for the ninth grade, though administrators expect more than that will show up on the first day.

It’s an issue that has played out across the city.

Joseph S. Clark Preparatory High School, just a few blocks from John McDonogh, had one of the worst performance scores in the state before a charter group took it over in 2011 and lifted exam results. But only 41 students chose Clark as their first choice for the ninth grade this coming school year. Two new high schools at the George Washington Carver campus in the Desire neighborhood, established last year by another charter operator, got a combined 27 first-choice nods for their ninth grades, even though the same charter group runs a highly sought-after campus in New Orleans East.

The same demographic trends are forcing painful decisions. On the West Bank, the district is shoehorning students from two different schools onto one campus because the state doesn’t have the money to renovate or keep up all of the existing high school buildings, given the number of students available to fill them. It’s a move that’s brought nearly two years of searing anger from alumni.

At the same time, new high schools have sprung into being without the baggage of negative headlines hanging over them, soaking up extra students. Since Hurricane Katrina, which spawned a wholesale reorganization of the school system, the prestigious Lusher magnet school has added high school grades. So has Sophie B. Wright Charter School on Napoleon Avenue and Martin Luther King Charter School in the Lower 9th Ward.

In the midst of this rapid change, John McDonogh almost disappeared entirely.

Looking at demographic trends across the city, officials with the Recovery District had decided to “land bank” the school’s building, which would have eventually meant selling it off to raise money for other renovation projects. Before alumni began organizing to save the building in 2011, the district had stopped taking new freshman and planned to simply close the school after the last seniors graduated.

Facing bitter resistance to the plan, the district’s new superintendent at the time, John White, reversed course, pledging a “down to the studs” renovation of the school’s building using as much as $30 million of the FEMA dollars that have been committed to rehabilitating schools in New Orleans.

But the promise came with strings attached. Alumni and community members fighting for the school would have to sign off on a proven charter operator. Hence the uneasy, shotgun marriage between neighborhood activists and an education reform figure named Steve Barr, who founded a charter group called Green Dot schools in Los Angeles in the late 1990s and had success turning around troubled high schools in poverty-stricken areas.

Barr came with his own promises. He pledged an iPad for every student, a café on the ground floor where students would learn how to be restaurant owners and a group of all-star teachers who would wake kids up and improve test scores. District officials embraced the cafe concept, promising to install a culinary arts program.

Barr’s new charter group, Future is Now Schools, formed a John McDonogh Advisory Counsel to make sure community input reached administrators.

A year later, the people running John McDonogh sound hopeful but humbled.

“It didn’t go as I envisioned, that’s for damn sure,” said Principal Marvin Thompson, known as Dr. T around the school.

Barr hired Thompson away from the education consulting company that Thompson founded after running the school district in Roanoke, Va., thrilled to have found someone with experience turning around troubled schools who could also serve as black male role model in a setting where many students live without fathers.

The former Marine said this year brought unanticipated challenges.

“Poverty and crime always bring a level of dysfunction to the schoolhouse,” Thompson said. “What I found most challenging was the magnitude.”

Many students seemed rudderless, bouncing from one school to another without paying attention to what classes they needed in order to graduate, he said.

“In 20 years, I’ve never seen so many kids not know what their credit needs were,” he said.

Thompson said he prioritized getting more students to attend on a regular basis, both by putting more stimulating teachers in front of them and by simply badgering them to show up, driving the average daily attendance from the 30 percent range into the 70s.

He shared results from the state’s end-of-course exams, which haven’t been made public by the district yet, that indicate the effort may be paying off. For instance 69 percent of students earned either a “Fair,” “Good,” or “Excellent” on the English II exam this year compared with 39 percent the year before; the rate in geometry climbed to 60 percent from 18 percent. Experts who study test results generally look more closely at how a single cohort of students have improved over time, and the state is moving to harder tests next year, but Thompson sees the results as encouraging nonetheless.

Still, enrollment has been an albatross. The school anticipated 480 students this year but leveled out at just about 370. After the state’s official student count in February, John McDonogh’s funding took a hit.

Thompson cut a social studies teacher, a math teacher, a science teacher, two technology experts and a supervisor for in-school suspensions. He combined classes mid-year. The school did hand out some iPads, but only to students with good attendance records and grades. The culinary arts program has been put off for now, along with the cafe.

When the district asked if Future is Now Schools would be willing to run a few of the remaining grades at Walter L. Cohen, an Uptown high school that is phasing out as a charter operator phases into the same building, it seemed like an opportunity to gain some financial stability. But Thompson said it turned into a drain on his staff and his time. Though Thompson said he is proud of the progress his staff made with students at Cohen, Future is Now and the RSD have ended the arrangement and remain cagey about exactly why.

So far, enrollment data from the district suggest John McDonogh will face similar struggles this coming school year. The school asked for 150 ninth-graders, but got only 11. That’s because the district’s new enrollment system asks families to rank their top choices; most ranked other schools higher and found that there were seats available at their preferred choice, though doubtless many students who simply never filled out an application or arrive in town after the enrollment period will show up once school starts.

Thompson and Barr defend the decision to allow Oprah’s camera crews into the building for the first few months of school last year, which resulted in a dramatic miniseries called “Blackboard Wars.” But not everyone agrees it was the right call.

“I don’t think if I was a parent looking at this show, I would necessarily want to send my kid,” said Clarence Robinson, who graduated from John McDonogh in 1977 and sits on Future is Now’s local executive board as well as the John McDonogh Advisory Council.

Robinson said he spent time at John McDonogh over the course of the school year and saw the school’s administrators spending too much energy simply reacting to crisis, whether it was the TV show or the number of special-needs students coming through the door.

Yet Robinson is hopeful. He said that “from the kids’ perspective, they think everything has been a lot better” this year than in the past. And he has confidence that Thompson can turn the school around if enrollment would just pick up.

“They came in without all the information they needed,” Robinson said. “Anyone would have been overwhelmed.”

Some of the community members who watched Future is Now’s arrival warily have been won over, at least for now. Cynthia Parker showed up to one of the charter group’s first board meetings last summer and promised Thompson that she would be keeping an eye on him. Parker has a grandson who’s been diagnosed with special needs. Like many parents of special-needs students in New Orleans, she has chafed against most charter schools’ “zero-tolerance” behavior policies, worried that her son has been stigmatized and unfairly targeted.

“If students have exceptionalities, that’s something charters should really focus on, and a lot of them are not,” Parker said.

At his previous schools, he was punished constantly, she said, but at John McDonogh this year, the teachers have approached him with a lighter touch.

“They call me up before they even do anything, have a meeting and say, ‘OK, here’s what we’re going to do,’ ” she said.

One fear about the charter takeover that has not materialized: The anticipated wave of Teach for America instructors. Future is Now did let many of the school’s existing teachers go last year, but by and large did not replace them with the young TFA recruits, who have become a regular — and sometimes controversial — feature of primary schools around the city.

Instead the group brought in teachers like Irnessa Campbell, a John McDonogh graduate whose mother taught at the school from 1976 to 2002, and who plans to send her own daughter to John McDonogh next year.

“The kids listen to me,” said Campbell, sitting in her second-floor classroom this week organizing paperwork on the last day of summer school. “You can’t make excuses because life outside of these walls is hard. I know what it’s like. Things don’t change that much.”

Campbell spent three years after the storm at a school in Texas. She said improving public education in New Orleans will take a whole cultural shift. In Texas, parents take more responsibility for making sure their children are ready for school, she said.

“It’s just different, I don’t know how to explain it,” she said.

And of course, budget cuts don’t help, even if they haven’t hit her classroom directly.

“We have too many schools and not enough kids,” Campbell said.

Barr acknowledges that the enrollment shortfall has forced him to scale back his vision for the school. For now, the school has to focus on recruiting students and cementing a culture that demands regular attendance.

“How do we get kids to come to school everyday?” Barr asked. “That was really the goal this year.”

Ultimately, though, Barr said he has begun to question whether John McDonogh can survive as an independent, stand-alone school without finding significant ways to cut costs, perhaps partnering with another charter group to share back-office services. This past year, Future is Now had a $800,000 federal grant to help train staff. And Barr hit the road to raise another $600,000.

“I can’t raise a million and a half dollars every year,” he said.