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'Fast Track' for Schools

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It took 18 months to find the right formula, but University of New Orleans education officials and the Orleans Parish School Board have finally agreed on a plan for the university to manage four troubled schools and turn them around. The proposal couldn't come at a better time.

Mayor Ray Nagin's election has boosted public confidence -- or at least public expectations -- and the new mayor praised the UNO plan several weeks ago before the school board. Nagin's endorsement and a year of discussions between the board and the university eased board members' concerns about UNO's initial "charter schools" idea, and now the plan is moving forward at a rapid pace.

The difference between the previous UNO proposal to oversee 10 schools and the current New Millennium Collaborative Partnership is not just the number of schools involved. The charter schools plan was viewed by some as a "takeover," whereas the current proposal is clearly a "management agreement."

By whatever name, the UNO proposal offers hope for schools that have been struggling under the weight of poor LEAP test scores and low community esteem. UNO already works with three of the four schools, but now it will have day-to-day authority at all four.

The schools are Avery Alexander and Gentilly Terrace elementary schools, P.A. Capdau Junior High and Francis W. Gregory Junior High.

UNO Education Dean Jim Meza, an architect of the plan, has set an ambitious timetable: the university hopes to win the support of principals, teachers and parents by the end of this month and be on campus by the first day of school in the fall. The plan calls for free teacher training at UNO, improving the schools' management and learning climate, and improving parental involvement and student achievement.

"This is a very fast track for the teachers and the parents," says Meza. "We're hoping for a complete buy-in by everyone concerned by the end of May. We're meeting with three schools this week. We plan to begin professional development for teachers in June, and we're looking at LEAP data and will begin to work on school improvement plans immediately."

So far, Meza says, the teachers union appears to be "very supportive" of the plan, particularly the professional development component.

"Probably the major hurdle is that teachers will have a choice as to whether to commit to the initiative," he says, "and if any choose not to, we'll have to replace that teacher with a certified teacher. Any teachers not currently certified will stay if they enroll in a certification program. We want to have a credentialed or high-quality teacher in every classroom."

Meza says UNO already has received calls from teachers expressing interest in moving into the program. He says current faculty at the schools will have first dibs on the positions, however.

If the plan works, it could become a national model. For now, Meza is concentrating on getting it in place.

"We have to produce results immediately," he says. "Three of the schools have been labeled by the state as schools in need of corrective action (because of low LEAP scores). Our immediate goal is to get them off that list and to show significant improvement. The other thing we think we can do immediately is to show evidence of an increase in certified teachers. That will help the district improve its scores and the schools improve their scores."

UNO also gets a benefit from the plan: a chance to put its education students into a unique teaching and learning environment.

"We draw most of our education students from not-public school environments," Meza says. "Public schools for many of our students and teachers are a mystery. But that's only because of perceptions. We can now put them into an environment where they can impact the learning of students in an urban district and learn from their own experiences as well."

Before anything happens, though, teachers and parents must embrace the concept. "We can't mandate change," Meza says. "It has to come from within the system."

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