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New school leader named; board debates enrollment increase, 'differentiated' learning

Board meetings over the past few months have been marked by tension over a central question: who is to succeed the charismatic Barbara MacPhee as head of New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School after she retires.

Parents and students have attended the past few meetings awaiting a decision.

At the Jan.12 meeting, the board – officially called Advocates for Science and Mathematics Education — went into executive session and came back with an answer. Dick Best will be the new head of school and will move to New Orleans in the next month or so. Board members said they would give no additional details, including Best’s current place of employment, out of consideration for his family’s privacy.

“I can say that he really wants to be here and we really want someone who really wants to be here. So we’ll be happy when he gets here,” board member Mary Zervigon said.

In other business, the finance report to the board noted that the school’s paper expense is high because the school does not use textbooks.

Erica Severan, member of the Foundation for Science and Mathematics, the school’s fundraising arm, explained that the plan is for the school to shift to differentiated textbooks. This system is referred to as “differentiated instruction” (or “differentiated learning”). It involves developing teaching materials that reflect differences in learning ability.

This means that students who may be reading at a lower grade level than their peers will be able to stay in the same classroom but work from a different textbook. “The textbook will be on their reading level instead of the level the teacher feels may be too difficult for them to understand,” Severan said.

The foundation believes this will reduce the number of students falling behind.

But according to some students, the effort is not entirely successful.

“Not having textbooks is destructive to our education. Think about it. We have first- and second-year teachers who have never taught a class before, let alone a high school class. They need textbooks to help guide them and construct lesson plans. Instead, they send us home with sheets of paper to basically teach ourselves and expect us to learn,” senior Christopher Kennedy said.

The current attempt to raise enrollment numbers at the school has also been a pressing issue.

Sci High administrators say they want the school to expand. And the closing of both Sojourner Truth and Abramson presents an opportunity. A school fair is scheduled at both schools and representatives from Sci High will be present. There will be hundreds of prospective students. However, Sci High’s enrollment stands at 375 and the building can only hold 500.

“Because decisions about schools are made so spontaneously in this city, including which schools to attend, I want to sort of over enroll next year as a cushion,” said MacPhee, who is also a board member.

That way, if students or parents change their minds about attending Sci High, the school enrollment numbers will remain sufficient, MacPhee said.

Other board members expressed concern about the small classrooms. They must keep in mind that the room sizes are for elementary-aged children, so it is already a tight fit for them as a high school. And, under the Minimum Foundation Plan, state funding for the first few months of the school year is based on the prior year’s numbers.

“If we accept a lot of Sojourner Truth and Abramson students our class sizes will be 25-30 kids and some up to 33. They are currently smaller than that,” school administrator Laney French said.

This also poses a problem with the student-teacher ratio, because there isn’t money to hire  additional teachers.

The consensus was that making a final decision on how many students to accept will take some time, and  that the school should apply for additional grants to supplement the Minimum Foundation allocation.

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