Some 90,000 children attend the public schools in this beautiful port city near the foot of the Mississippi River. Another 40,000 attend local nonpublic schools.
By their own admission, the New Orleans business community, as well as local civic and religious leaders, has provided only minimal support for the public schools. This places New Orleans at nearly the bottom on the scale of per-pupil expenditure among the 50 largest school districts in the United States.
And it makes those working in the public schools particularly sensitive to the outward appearance of the older schools (decadent, mildewed, poorly lighted, inadequately ventilated), and to the charge that their schools don't come up to the academic standards of the nonpublic schools in the area.
A major problem for towns where school-age children drift in and out as parents find and lose jobs and as home situations fluctuate is some way to provide teaching of basic skills in an orderly sequence. New Orleans has tackled the problem by serving up an individualized skill teaching program known locally as SCIP (Secondary Curriculum Improvement Program).
SCIP is based on mastery teaching; that is, each child masters one specific skill before going on to the next step, and teachers take on the responsibility to see that two things take place:
1. The material is geared to each child's ability.
2. Teaching methods are altered to fit the learner's needs.
Superintendent Gene Geisert say it is a problem "getting teachers and principals to alter their educational philosophy to conform with that of SCIP." He elaborates:
"No longer can subject matter be presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. SCIP also implies that many teachers will have to change their teaching methods. . ."
And then the crux: "Their courses," he explains, "will have to be highly individualized, and the involvement of parents in the tasks that the students are expected to perform is essential."
I visited a 7th-8th-grade middle school (Priestly) and was shown by the SCIP supervisor just how the programs are worked out cooperatively among teachers, students, and parents. And shown, too, the stacks and stacks of special materials needed to move hesitant learners along the way.
We talked with one teacher who is very enthusiastic about mastery learning and who is clearly "motivating" her students. I gave a silent chuckle as I looked at one of her "motivational cards" (being subject ourselves to making typos in the newspaper business). The direction should have read: SEEK ADVICE, but said instead "SEEK ADVISE."
Advising aside, the efforts of the teachers in Priestley to go from full-class seat work and lecturing to many hours a day of individualized tutoring programs is gargantuan, but those who favor the program are enthusiastic. They can point, as well, to improved reading and arithmetic test scores on nationally normed tests since SCIP was introduced.
I was taken to a very special New Orleans school, one that houses only those students who have failed to make the grade in a regular high school, but who are willing to try once again. They have to be more than willing "just to try." They must write out a contract giving a specific date when they expect to pass each course, when they will be able to pass standardized tests, and when they feel they will be ready to return to a regular school. And they must convince the director of the "Achievement Schools" program that they will abide by their contract.
The building I visited was in a run-down neighborhood, and the outside of the school made it comfortable in the neighborhood. Not so the inside, where the walls had been student-painted with bright colors.
The atmosphere was relaxed and the 80 or so students were neatly dressed and either in a class (completely individualized for skill training) or relaxing in a game room.
Parents also must contract with the school for admission of their child, and must agree to frequent meetings with school staff.
"We'll meet them anywhere they want. We'll meet in a barroom if necessary; on the corner; in front of the place where they work; at any time of the day or night."
While we were visiting, another staff member was talking with a parent, renegotiating a contract that had been broken by a student. He, the student, wanted another chance, and his mother was there to help work out the details.
Truancy was part of the problem, and she was agreeing to go to VASAU for counselling. VASAU is a special center for students caught up in smoking (tobacco as well as dope), and alcohol, or both.
Students from any school may attend VASAU for as much of the school day as is necessary, getting counseling for whatever problem is causing the use of smoking or alcohol, and getting tutoring if necessary.
But most of the students who go to VASAU spend part of each day either in an "Attainment School" or in a regular secondary school. . . .
There is another part-day school program, this one for high-schoolers interested in dance, music, theater, visual arts, writing, film, and videotaping. I was on hand for the first half hour of dress rehearsal for the spring production of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts.
I'm sorry to slight those whom I neither saw nor heard, as well as those whom I did, but my absolute favorite is the trombone soloist. Fantastic. And second , the backdrops.
I puzzled for a minute or two as to what they were and how they are constructed, when I tumbled to what they were and got my confirmation from the school's director -- macrame. I can't think what miles of twine went into them, but they were absolutely marvelous.
The level of work is very high at the creative arts center and provides enormous enrichment for some 300 of the 90,000 public school children in Orleans Parish (county).
It was interesting to go from an "Attainment School" to a sampling of the best in dance and music from the "best" in New Orleans public schools. One got a strong measure that those coaching the singers were as intensely interested in their success as the teacher-tutors were for their former dropouts and juvenile offenders.
It was a day for this journalist of meeting "carers." My guide for the day, a Cajun and a product of the Orleans Parish schools, is a deep carer. HE kept regretting that I wasn't getting to meet some of the other carers in the school system -- for him, they are the key to the success he feels the schools are currently having.