When I entered the cafeteria that morning, my stomach instantly went into knots, not because of the smell of lunch being prepared but because the room was packed with parents. Anxious parents who had completed the application process were now ready for the big event. We signed in; our names were being called in alphabetical order. They got to the letter G. I looked over at a friend, panicked. 'Did they skip H?' I asked. 'Calm down,' she said.
Then the bingo machine started rolling. I watched parent after parent step up, hoping to grab their prize: a slot for their kindergarten child in an Orleans Parish magnet school. My daughter's name was finally called, number 68 for a slot in Audubon Montessori School, my first choice of three local magnet schools. A number this high meant that the chances of admission were slim.
The next week, the atmosphere was just as tense in the Lusher Elementary cafeteria. That night we got number 40, still not low enough to guarantee admission. We were on the waiting list. 'Dear God have mercy,' my husband and I prayed. Months later, before the school year started, our daughter defied the odds and moved up the list to secure a space at Lusher.
That was the spring of 1998. Every fall and spring since then, my heart goes out to parents who have to compete and jump through hoops in order to get their child into one of the few successful public schools in the Orleans Parish district. I still remember touring school sites, visiting the bathrooms -- not only to determine if they were clean, but to check to see if they had commodes. I was shocked by the facilities at even the 'best' schools.
In 1998, when my oldest began school, there were approximately 86,000 students in the district of Orleans; in the fall of 2004 there were approximately 63,000, according to the district's numbers. Every Louisiana child brings state Minimum Foundation Program money to their district -- the current amount is approximately $6,000 per student. Since the fall of 2002, approximately 2,700 children have left this district each year, a loss of about $48 million between fall 2002 and fall 2004. Considering the total amount lost since 1998, no wonder there is a financial crisis.
The academic crisis is just as staggering. As part of the state BESE (Board of Elementary and Secondary Education) accountability program, each public school receives a performance label: 'Academically Unacceptable,' 'Academic Warning,' and 'Acceptable,' graded on a scale of one through five stars. In 2004, only 31 of the district's remaining 117 schools were graded above 'Academically Unacceptable' or 'Academic Warning.' Of those 31 schools, 16 received an 'Acceptable' grade of one star, five earned two stars, seven had three stars, two received four stars, and only Ben Franklin High School received five stars. Lusher received four stars.
I know of no magic formula for success, but I do know that a major contributing factor to Lusher's progress is parental involvement. When I enrolled my children in Lusher, I entered into a partnership with the teachers, administrators and other parents. The school staff and teachers hold me accountable for reviewing homework, picking up report cards, and sending my children to school ready to learn. In turn, I hold the teachers and staff accountable for helping my children reach their true potential. Parents aren't expected to work at the school or attend every PTSA meeting. But each parent is expected to be engaged with his or her child. That's the Lusher way.
This involvement is more difficult for parents with fewer resources -- including many parents at Lusher. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 15.9 percent of families and 20.8 percent of individuals in New Orleans live below the poverty line. The 2003-2004 report card for Lusher published by BESE states that 24 percent of the students receives free or reduced lunch. In other words, Lusher's economic diversity reflects this city's population.
The children in poverty who attend Lusher benefit from -- and contribute to -- the environment at the school. For a large number of these children, Lusher is their district school -- Lusher is a district school with a magnet or CWAS (City Wide Access School) component. These are the children who would benefit most from the proposed Lusher High School. In the classroom and on the playground, you can not distinguish the children whose parents are unemployed or clean hotel rooms from those whose parents are doctors or professors. This economic diversity, along with the social, religious and racial diversity at Lusher, helps all the children recognize the dignity of those who are different.
It also helps them understand some of the motivations for the various perspectives of the school itself. Many view CWAS schools as the 'haves,' a group pitted against the 'have nots.' Much of this results from a misunderstanding of school district economics. Each school is allocated teachers and operating funds according to a formula. Some schools receive extra for certain programs such as class size reduction and Title I -- programs that don't apply to Lusher. Yet the misguided perception continues: Lusher is successful because it receives resources that are taken away from other schools.
A visit to the school would demonstrate that this is not true. Lusher does not have an auditorium, a gym or any distinguishing physical facility. Instead, its biggest resource is parental involvement. Parents -- and, in many cases, grandparents -- volunteer at the school by stapling papers, fundraising, cleaning bathrooms, painting walls, glazing windows, raking leaves and advocating when necessary. It took three years for the district to replace the cafeteria after a fire in the fall of 2001. It might have taken longer if parents had not demanded that something be done.
I've talked with people who seem to believe that in order to fix the schools that are failing, the school system must first destroy the schools that are making the grade. Who benefits from that? No one. We only harm children in the process. Instead of dismantling or stagnating the 16 or so schools that received three stars or higher, there should be more focus on improving the 101 schools that receive less. I have three children, all with different needs and abilities. I do not sacrifice one for the other. Rather, I tend to the needs of each child to ensure his or her success. So must the school district act to ensure the viability of our city.
Most of the reform measures recently put in place -- including teacher training, literacy initiatives, and plans to keep children in a K-8 program -- must continue. The more professional development that teachers receive in the area of literacy, mathematics, classroom management and conflict resolution, the better the results for the children. I have seen the results of this training first-hand. One of my children had issues dealing with conflict. His well-trained teacher was able to teach him skills to help him manage. I also see the results of the literacy and mathematics program; the frequent assessments of student skill level allow each of my children to work toward achieving his or her true potential. These district-wide programs work at Lusher and should remain in all schools.
Finally, there should exist a basic formula, based on a school's demographics, that determines the need for basic support resources beyond teachers. Once every school receives the minimum requirements, then the schools that need more should get more. Robbing Peter to pay Paul does not work in our personal lives; we should know that it won't work with schools.
One of the biggest lessons I've learned at Lusher is that if this city wants true reform, it will mean getting parents involved in their children's lives. The business community should step up programs that allow parents to take off work to attend meetings at their child's school. The community needs more accessible adult education programs. Mandatory parenting and nutrition classes would reduce the risk of abusing children either physically or verbally. More community volunteers could advocate for at-risk children.
We may also need to redesign the purpose of the school site itself. Imagine a site where children can receive medical and dental services, and that provides after-school and summer programs conducive to parents who work long hours. The Harlem Children's Zone in New York (www.hcz.org) and The Amistad Academy in Connecticut (www.achievementfirst.org) are possible models. Until the city commits to creating child-centered environments, we will not progress.
Several years ago, while most school boards in Louisiana were adjusting to the state's accountability plan, Orleans Parish wasted many nights arguing the merits of the magnet schools (currently CWAS), instead of looking forward and preparing. Today, at an even more critical juncture, I fear the scapegoat for failures in the district will once again be the CWAS and successful district schools. I look forward to the day when all children can attend their neighborhood school and receive high-quality education in a safe and clean setting. I look forward to the day when children who desire specialized programs such as the arts, bio-medical or high technology can receive them without worrying about the longevity of their programs. I look forward to the day when schools that are working can expand to meet the needs of the children who attend the school. I look forward to the day when universities and the business community are truly welcome at the table of public education. Most of all, I look forward to the day when New Orleans Public Schools meets the needs of all public-school children: low-income children, high-income children, middle-income children, the gifted and the special needs children, and Asian, Hispanic, black and white children.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Lona Hankins works as a mechanical engineer. She has three children, two currently attending Lusher School and one in preschool.