My School Gave Me Hope, but Our Superintendent Shut It Down

Voices | Leadership

My School Gave Me Hope, but Our Superintendent Shut It Down

By katie wills evans     Jan 12, 2024

My School Gave Me Hope, but Our Superintendent Shut It Down

This story was published by a Voices of Change fellow. Learn more about the fellowship here.

Last year, as homecoming and winter holidays were upon us, recent alumni came by the school to check on the place they couldn’t wait to leave six months before. This is one of my favorite phenomena of teaching high school. Whether they are just feeling nostalgic or genuinely miss me, it’s always nice seeing their faces.

In the week between Thanksgiving and winter breaks, I had two visits, one from an alum who works near the school and keeps an eye on his brother who will graduate this year, and another from a former student, home from Northwestern University for the break. Both appeared sheepishly at my door, asked for a copy of the class reading and joined my current students in annotating an excerpt of “Heavy” by Kiese Laymon.

The effect their presence had on the space was palpable. When his big brother sat down and picked up a highlighter, little brother and all his friends took the reading a little more seriously, including one student who volunteered to read aloud in his second language for the second time all year. When the Northwestern freshman excitedly shared how the excerpt we were reading connected to Ta-Nehisi Coate’s “Between the World and Me,” my seniors nodded attentively before building on what she shared in discussion. Both students circulated to visit their other favorite teachers with whom they’d crafted solar ovens, made plant medicine tinctures and built a banana museum. On the way out of the building, they hugged and dapped up underclassmen they played soccer with or were involved in the student union with when they were students.

It is these moments that make me realize that teaching has made me soft. I teared up on both the days former students visited, partially because I’m so proud of the people they’ve become. Partially because this beautiful, imperfect school that helped raise them will no longer be a place they can return to.

Last month, the superintendent of New Orleans Public Schools (NOPS) and the Orleans Public School Board decided to close our school at the end of the academic year. With parent confidence in public schools plummeting, schools across New Orleans and other major districts are under-enrolled.

As a result, NOPS was eager to close smaller schools that they deemed to be underperforming, though it is precisely these smaller schools with innovative models that are needed to provide a positive experience for students and families that have felt under-supported by larger, traditional institutions.

A Testing Trap

I teach in New Orleans, the first American city to forcibly turn all its public schools over to private charter organizations. NOPS assigns charters to organizations to run one or multiple schools and then functions like the type of parent who ensures there’s food in the house — but doesn’t seem to notice you unless you’re doing really well or really poorly — and then praises or punishes you, respectively. As part of this system, NOPS periodically evaluates whether private organizations that run public schools should be allowed to continue stewarding public funds, resources and children's futures.

Accountability is fine, welcome even, but my problem lies in the fact that these charter renewal decisions, made by New Orleans’ publicly elected school board and the superintendent they appointed, are heavily based on school performance scores calculated by the state of Louisiana.

Notably, half of a high school’s score is calculated based on standardized testing, a practice with racist origins that is well-documented to be inaccurate, inequitable, ineffective and increasingly irrelevant. Acknowledging the flaws of standardized tests, Louisiana expanded its evaluation matrix to include graduation data, specifically what percentage of students graduate on time, and a “strength of diploma index,” which is based on what certifications, dual enrollment classes and other academic achievements students earned during their time in high school. These two measurements come closer to actually evaluating how a school impacts a student’s life, though, like standardized testing, they often reflect much more about a student’s life than just what’s happening at school.

If our school had a failing school score based on all these metrics, I’d be less angry about this result, but 95 percent of our score was calculated based on test scores. The Louisiana Department of Education calculates graduation rate and strength of diploma metrics on a one-year delay so that the state can verify the data. My school has only been open for four years, so last May was our first graduating class.

Though 94 percent of our first alumni, including all of our students in special education programming and 75 percent of our students who are English learners — an anomaly in the city and state — earned their diplomas last year, these achievements will not be counted in our score until next year. Unfortunately for my school, this means that standardized testing makes up almost the entirety of our school performance score, which happens to be the year the school board and superintendent used to decide if we should be allowed to continue educating children.

In two separate hearings, students, alumni, family, staff and community partners of the Living School explained their issues with the calculations and pleaded with school board members to use their power to override the superintendent’s recommendation and give us one more year. In the second meeting — which was more of a wake than a hearing — we were not heard, and the board ultimately voted to uphold the superintendent’s recommendation to close our school.

How Should We Support Struggling Schools?

This story, like all New Orleans stories, is heavily shaped by our unique context, but its themes are echoed in schools across this country. I am heartbroken and furious that all my students and I have accomplished in the face of great challenges is deemed less important than the results of a handful of exams.

I know too many teachers and students in America feel the same. As our students face a world that’s rapidly changing, and teachers have to face the responsibility of preparing them for a world we can’t yet imagine, we need to seriously consider the harmful impact standardized testing continues to have on students, teachers and schools, despite increasing evidence that these tests are not indicators of future success.

When schools like mine are punished for low test scores, it’s hard not to believe that school systems aren’t just shifting accountability that should be placed on them onto hard-working and under-resourced teachers and students.

Like most educators, I believe that teachers and schools should be held accountable for how well they prepare their students, but just as I give students time to grow and develop, new charter schools like ours deserve the same time and support.

As I write this, I’m fielding texts and emails from current and former students of my school and allies from our teacher’s union asking what they can do to fight for our school and the vibrant community we’ve built. Like me, they know that a school performance score calculated based on standardized tests is not a reasonable or important measure of the impact of the work we are doing together. Like me, they know that the worth of our school community would be better measured by the personal growth my students demonstrate, supportive school staff and peers, and culturally relevant curriculum. All of these things give me hope that our schools can and do prepare students for things more valuable than standardized tests, though none of them have earned my school any school performance points.

Shortly after being appointed to her role and moving to the city, NOPS superintendent Dr. Avis Williams spoke to WWNO. In the interview, she asserted that she is asking three questions of all school district leaders: What does ‘school quality’ really mean? How do you assess schools using a letter grade based primarily on test scores? And, what does it look like to include culture and climate when it comes to accountability? If closing the Living School is Dr. Williams and the OPSB’s answer to these questions, I find them incoherent.

To tell teachers and schools you want us to find innovative ways to serve all students and tell families that they have a choice in how their children are educated — only to close a school that provides that after one year of poor test scores says the quiet part out loud: We want schools to do better, but we won’t change our systems to support those who are trying.

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