Answers to 10 Questions About Education

In advance of the Mid-City Neighborhood meeting November 5th which focused on education, we asked State Superintendent of Education Paul Vallas and Superintendent of the Recovery School District Paul Vallas and their staff to answer the following 10 questions. The following answers were put together by the “Two Pauls” and their staff. Overall I would say that the answers they provided show us that we have a long way to go for our community to have a strong voice in decision making regarding our neighborhood’s schools. But I do thank Paul Vallas for attending the meeting (Paul Pastorek couldn’t make it due to an earlier surgery), and I do thank them for their answers even if they aren’t all satisfactory.

Question #1. We would like children who live in our neighborhood to be given priority to attend schools in our neighborhood. This helps build community. Mid-City is not a gated community, it is economically diverse, and it makes little sense that a child could live across the street from Dibert, but with City Wide Access laws, because Dibert is full, they might have to go to school in Algiers. We support your idea of zones or districts, and what can we do to make that a reality?
Answer: Paul answered this question at the meeting on Monday.
My Notes: Vallas mentioned “catch” areas around the schools, but it seems this represents only a block or two around the school based on what he did in Philadelphia. What we would like are bigger districts, like a couple of miles around each school.
Question #2. The site of Fisk-Howard needs to be demolished, and we would like a new school to be built there in your next round of building new schools. We’re not sure yet if we would like to charter it directly or have it be a community school, governed by the school board, much like Karran Royal is doing with Oak Park. What should we be doing to make this happen?
Answer: New facilities will be driven by area demographics and analyses performed under the Master Plan. RSD is, however, evaluating all sites that cannot be reasonably repaired and/or are over FEMA’s 51% damaged. RSD is first demolishing all critically damaged modular units. During the first quarter of 2008 the rest of the buildings will be evaluated for demolition.
My Notes: Aren’t the neighborhood plans part of the “Master Plan”?
Question #3. Will the elected school board be a thing of the past in New Orleans? Are we moving to a model in which the person who runs our schools in New Orleans is not elected, but rather appointed by the governor or the state BESE board? What will happen after five years with the Recovery School District, and when the charters run out?
Answer: Not necessarily. That is up to the Legislature and the people. After 5 years, the BESE must consider what to do with the schools in the Recovery School District. The Charters are eligible to be renewed when their existing term expires. The entity that will renew it will depend on who is governing the schools at that time.
Question #4. There is a city block for sale where the old Physician’s Hospital was located, next to Warren Easton. How can we help Warren Easton acquire this land? We would like it to initially just be a field that Warren Easton could use for athletics, band, etc, much like Jesuit’s field. The asking price is $6 million dollars. What can we do to help Warren Easton get this land?
Answer: This is an OPSB facility. The land acquisition question would be in their court.
Question #5. A 10 foot chain-link fence was put up around Dibert Elementary by the RSD last year. Mid-City is a National Historic District and this fence violates the historic character, and the City Zoning Ordinance. The principal, the teachers, the students, the parents and the community did not want this fence. We would prefer an accessible school yard where children in the neighborhood can use the basketball and playground equipment. We recognize that part of the function of the fence is security; however the appearance of the fence is detrimental to the school environment and the neighborhood. What can we do to get this fence removed?
Answer: Every one does need to know that once you remove a fence play lots go to ruin and then the calls come in for repair. I think the issue is the kind of fence and whether there should be a fence. For the time being, we need a fence and we need access to be monitored. But, in time we will move to a different fencing around select portions of the property.
My notes: No business nor home in that area could put up the same type of fence. Why should we have to take this from the Recovery School District? Also, the RSD doesn’t seem to be monitoring sites such as Fisk Howard, where children play in the flooded building. Moreover, they didn’t seem to monitor Thurgood Marshall or Dibert for two years after the flood. I understand why a fence is necessary, but we want a shorter fence or a wrought iron fence that fits with the historic character of the neighborhood. We would also like for children to have access to the basketball courts and the playground.
Question #6. There were alarmingly high levels of arsenic found in the soil at Dibert last March. What can we do to fix this problem?
Answer: A group of advocates for Environmental Human Rights contacted Paul Vallas on July 17, 2007 by letter re arsenic levels. I then worked with the Department of Environmental Quality, State of Louisiana, to retest a number of sites. In August they collected soil samples from Craig, Drew, Dibert, and McDonogh #42. On September 4, 2007 I received their report: “Sample results indicate that arithmetic mean arsenic concentrations in soil at each school are below the state background level of 12 mg/kg for arsenic in soil and well below risk-based levels of concern for children. You received a copy of the results on Monday.
My reply: What concerns me still though is that there must be one or two places at Dibert that have a very high level of arsenic. In the DEQ study Karen Burke gave me, eight samples were taken at Dibert, and in 6 there were very low levels (less than 5 mg/kg wet weight). That is great news of course. But in sample 7 there were 16.6 mg/kg, a number close to the 22.8 mg/kg reported in the earlier Natural Resources Defense Council study, and in sample 8 there were 40 mg/kg, certainly a dangerous level by any standard. The state DEQ has determined that anything greater than 12 mg/kg is potentially dangerous. I’ve asked to be told where samples 7 and 8 were taken at Dibert. Maybe for now we could try to keep the kids from playing in those areas, especially the area that had 40. The other schools tested fine, it was only Dibert that had two results that were high.
Question #7. The new model for public education in New Orleans seems to involve intense structure, much like a military boot-camp. For example, many new schools forbid the children to talk during lunch. If parents would prefer a school that emphasizes freedom over structure, what options do they have in public education in New Orleans?
Answer: As was discussed by several of the schools different structures are in place at schools based on their school philosophy and focus. In the RSD schools all curriculum plans are aligned to the Louisiana Comprehensive Curriculum. Five week benchmarks assessments are in place for grades 2 through 11 for this year with the first administration in elementary schools planned for the 5th week of school. EPIC has been introduced at the high school level for all students. Each high school student will be provided a take home laptop appliance to use as an instructional tool.
RSD has been working to update all classrooms by improving the wiring and physical structures, implementing modern technology with the use of laptops and visual projectors, dry erase boards, graphing calculators, newest and most updated version of textbooks, cooperative learning centers with manipulatives and a wealth of literacy materials. Over 500 Promethean Boards have been installed in core curriculum classroom to enhance the learning experience for our children. Each core EPIC teacher has been assigned a personal laptop with wireless connectivity and a district email account.
We have reduced the number of security personnel from 335 to 229 while adding an additional 13 school sites. School site security assessments have occurred at each site. The operation of the Truancy Center in partnership with the Orleans Parish Sheriff Office, Families In Need of Services, New Orleans Truancy Assessment Services and other Juvenile Court offices is in full force. RFP’s addressing attendance and truancy was solicited and is being evaluated.
My Notes: Huh? I guess the answer is “no” then because of security guards? At the meeting many were alarmed to hear about the hyper-discipline. It was also interesting that just about every school mentioned as a discipline issue that students were not allowed to chew gum. Does gum chewing lead to more violent crimes?
Question #8. What will happen to the site of Israel Augustine? Could we open that as a high school or a Middle School?
Answer: We have no design on the use of that building, but it will be included in the master plan to determine the use of the building.
My Notes: I hope the neighborhood plans play a role in this “master plan.”
Question #9. The current trend seems to be getting rid of Middle Schools. Is this a good thing in your opinion?
Answer: Some benefits I see from going K-8 are that our current standards include a gym for the entire K-8. In the past, gyms only went into the middle and high schools-certainly because of cost. In any case, K-8 provides communities a lot more opportunity; keeps families of kids intact.
Question #10. Why is there so much disparity among schools in New Orleans? Why do charter schools receive $1000-$1500 more per student than Recovery School District schools, and typically principals and teachers earn more money at charter schools? How long will this trend continue?
Answer: As it pertains to RSD schools these contentions are not true. Each Charter is its own LEA and gets MFP and federal grant funds directly, so the funding is the same as any RSD school. If a Charter does have extra funds it is most likely because they have raised those funds in the private sector. Each Charter has the ability to spend the educational funds as they see fit, so I am not intimately involved in the finances of each charter budget. It is my understanding that the school based salaries of the RSD schools (charter and operated) may vary slightly, but are similar and mutually competitive.

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