Principal Julie Lause works with students at revamped Harriet Tubman Charter School. Photo courtesy of Julie Lause.

One in a series of conversations with New Orleans educators

By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

How do you turn around a failing school? That’s the challenge Julie Lause has set for herself as principal of Harriet Tubman Charter School. Tubman is being  reorganized this year under Lause’s leadership after a previous management team failed to meet minimum state standards and was stripped of its charter. Turnarounds are going to be more and more a part of the New Orleans educational landscape as new management teams take over schools that are still in failure after five years.

Lause has been an educator in New Orleans since the mid-1990s. In 2006, she founded KIPP Central City Academy – which is now one of the highest performing schools in the city.

In addition to her service as Tubman’s new principal, Lause is chief academic officer of the school’s newly formed charter operator, Crescent City Schools. We asked how things are going in the Tubman turnaround effort:

LENS: How have you adjusted to life at Tubman? What are your plans for kids at Tubman?

LAUSE: We have learned so much about Algiers since being here, and we genuinely love this community, and have embraced it. We have physically transformed the building, we’ve renovated every bathroom, painted the whole thing. We worked very hard to get the word out that Harriet Tubman would be open this year, and recruited in the neighborhoods to try to get as many Tubman families back as we could. We have 70 percent of the original kids back at Tubman this year. Some families love us being here, some are still a little cautious. As for how we are approaching the kids, unity is a big theme here, and school culture. Everyone needs to be on the same team. The biggest priority for us is making sure kids are really comfortable here, that they can relax and have fun learning.

LENS: Why did the old Tubman fail?

Optimism prevails as Lause guides turnaround.

LAUSE: Harriet Tubman Charter School was operated by the Algiers Charter School Association since Katrina. This year, the BESE board voted not to renew the charter, which means that, in our city, charter schools that do not meet benchmarks are closed after 5 years. This represents the accountability that charters are held to. We feel strongly that, in a system of choice, there’s real accountability for charter schools in this state.

LENS: What about teachers? How much of your faculty is new?

LAUSE: All of our teachers are new to this building.

LENS: Was that a strategic decision on your part or was the old faculty reluctant to get involved with the turnaround?

LAUSE: The former ACSA teachers chose to stay with ACSA, I believe.

LENS: What kind of academic innovations have you introduced?

LAUSE: Everything we do at Harriet Tubman is deliberate, that’s the first thing. Though we started with 550 kids, we didn’t bring them all on campus the first day. We had a series of staggered orientations for our students that started in small groups to get them comfortable and teach them all of our values, routines, and procedures. Each team of about 120 students came for seven days and spent time meeting each other, their teachers, and me. The first days were just with me, with teachers watching. Then teachers took the ball from there, and I would support. So they got to see me lead with kids, and the kind of tone we want to set with kids. One of the things we believe is that school should come alive for students, and we don’t want to have a harsh fussing tone with them, but a very encouraging tone. That starts in orientation where we explain why we line up the way we do, why we have our rules. This makes kids more comfortable when you explain everything and then practice. That way, when they show up for the first day of school they already know our bathroom procedures, our reward system, our teachers’ classrooms. We believe being very deliberate with students puts them at ease, and we do our best to clearly explain our expectations for behavior, for academics, and for their student work.

LENS: What curricular innovations have you come up with? Have you contracted with a company that monitors student performance?

LAUSE: We use good teaching, first of all. There’s nothing like a great teacher. We hire terrific teachers and then we give frequent feedback about how to improve their teaching. That raises the level of teaching everywhere in the building. We do have a standards-based program, with teachers explicitly teaching lessons and giving students lots of time to practice and master the standards. Teachers give an exit ticket in each classroom every day so we can check how well students are doing. That data is entered into a school-wide document that our leadership are always looking at. We can use that data for conversations about how to improve teaching, how to increase student mastery. We’ve also contracted with the Achievement Network, which is an organization that creates common interim assessments that many schools in New Orleans use. That way, we can see not only how our kids are doing on a standards-based assessment, but we can compare notes with other great teachers around the city. That collaboration also helps teachers constantly improve. We really believe that if the teacher teaches well all year, we shouldn’t have to do “test prep” to prepare them for the LEAP and iLEAP. All year, teachers are teaching to the standards and these interims are a way for teachers to do course corrections and make sure all the students really are mastering the material.

LENS: Do you find that your background with KIPP is shaping your approach to the Tubman turnaround? KIPP is famous for very regimented, rigorously disciplined schools. Is Tubman that strict? Do the parents buy in?

LAUSE: The design for this school is really based on over 15 years of my experiences in public, private, and charter schools in New Orleans. Harriet Tubman is unlike any other school in the city, and that is deliberate. One value we share with KIPP and other high-performing charter schools is the emphasis on school culture. We are strict, and our parents are enthusiastic about that aspect of our program. We really believe that a deliberate focus on making the school safe, fun, and engaging for kids will lead to great academic gains. We know our students are really far behind, and we believe that getting them engaged is the best way to improve their learning. How can we add energy to the classroom? How can we make something a game so there’s additional motivation to achieve? Our kids are working so hard to catch up to grade level, but it’s discouraging to be behind. Mixed in with that hard work is a fair amount of motivational techniques to keep them going when they feel like giving up. Yes, we’re strict. We don’t allow fighting, and we don’t even allow talking about fighting. We explicitly teach respectful language, eye contact, and handshakes. We help students resolve problems so they know they can come to us instead of handling things on their own. I built a team of caring adults who are really good at what they do. We are particularly strong at building school culture and changing kids’ negative thoughts about school, themselves, and each other. We spend a lot of time talking about unity, and how, when you want to do something difficult, you put together a strong team to get the job done. Our difficult task is preparing for college and they have to feel unity among their team of students in order to get that done.

LENS: Any extracurricular activities at Tubman – arts? Sports? Or is the focus just on academics?

LAUSE: Our focus is primarily academics. Our academic program is high-quality and fast-paced. We do have a robust arts and enrichment program, with art, music, drama, and physical education for every child every day. Middle School students have their choice of 20 enrichment classes, everything from French to Hip Hop Dance to Rockband, to Football. We have our first football and volleyball games this weekend, and I can’t wait to see how our kids do.

LENS: At its September meeting the Tubman board was advised that a third of Tubman students are three grades behind and that the school’s performance score is 60.9, well below the minimum 75 required by the state. How do you climb out of a hole that deep?

LAUSE: We anticipate making large gains– in the range of 15 points or more. In terms of individual student gains, we aim for each child to make two years growth in one year.

LENS: Tell readers about the early stages in your career. You began at Summerbridge, right?

LAUSE: I moved to New Orleans in 1995. At that time in New Orleans, the majority of the elementary schools were failing. Summerbridge was a two-year program for middle school kids going into high school. There were so few good public schools that we really were focused on getting them into the private schools, the Catholic schools, or the public magnet schools. The philosophy at that time was the way we’re going to change the system, is we’re just going to prepare more and more kids for better schools. And they’ll have to build better schools. To me, that really reflects the hopelessness of the system at the time, that the only thing we could do was change the kids. Summerbridge was a catalyst for so many other educational reform programs in the city, like New Orleans Charter Middle, New Orleans Outreach, and FirstLine Schools. I have two of my former Summerbridge students here as teachers at Harriet Tubman, so it has come full circle for me.

LENS: You were on the original faculty of KIPP Phillips, founded just before Hurricane Katrina. The storm blew you to Texas. Tell us about that.

LAUSE: We were three weeks into school and we were so busy with starting a school that none of us had any idea that there was a storm coming. Most of the kids in the St. Bernard Housing Project, where KIPP Phillips was located, were taken to Houston and put in the Astrodome. After the storm, four or five of us from school went to Houston to check on our kids. We found some of them, but mostly we found hundreds and hundreds of other kids whose parents wanted them to be in school. Two weeks later, we started a school, New Orleans West (NOW) College Prep, with 375 New Orleans students in Houston. I don’t even know how we did it, we just got it done. That’s been the theme to me in New Orleans since the storm, seeing the need and filling it.

LENS: How did you go about starting your own charter school?

LAUSE: After my year at NOW, I was encouraged to apply for KIPP’s year-long fellowship and start a school. I wanted to open my school in the Central City neighborhood in New Orleans, and opened KIPP Central City in the fall of 2006. There weren’t a lot of schools open in the city at the time. If you were going to start a new school at that time, you were literally walking through abandoned buildings. I’ve walked through every abandoned school in Central City, counting rooms, figuring out which schools had too much damage. That was an entrepreneurial time, when you didn’t necessarily go through RSD for a building. I really wanted (William J.) Guste (School). FEMA said no, the Housing Authority said no, that it was too damaged. It was a year-long battle, but we eventually got it. As a school leader, I learned a lot about just getting it done, and making it work.

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...