At the Living School, 16-year-old Jameson Phillips finally brought himself up to grade level.
“It’s the first time in his life that he’s not behind in school,” said his grandmother, Shawn Bazile, who took in Jameson a few years ago.
The key, she believes, has been the school’s small size and dedication to one-on-one attention for all of its students. After years of misdiagnosis and confusion, Jameson was formally diagnosed with autism. But – like every special-needs student at the Living School – Jameson still attends regular classes, supported by classroom aides and occasional smaller group settings as needed.
Somehow, that approach has given Jameson a whole new confidence about himself. A whole new attitude toward learning, Bazile said.
“It’s the first time he’s been happy at school. The first time that he wanted to go to school,” she said.
But tonight, the Orleans Parish School Board decided to close the Living School, based on this year’s recommendation for school closures submitted by Superintendent Avis Williams.
Williams had recommended that the school board terminate the contracts of three schools: Living School, a small charter on Bullard Avenue in the East; and two k-8 schools, Robert Russa Moton Charter School on Curran Boulevard and Lafayette Academy on Carrollton Avenue.
By the end of the day on Monday, the operators of Moton and Lafayette gave in on their own, opting to hand over their charters. The schools would remain open, but under new charter operators. Those weren’t easy decisions — Community Academies of New Orleans had made its case to keep the charter for Lafayette Academy, all through a review with the superintendent’s staff and a hearing before the board. Then on Monday morning, the charter operator announced that Lafayette would remain open but would be taken over by a new, yet unnamed, charter operator next school year. And just as the board meeting started on Monday evening, the agenda was revised to note that Moton’s charter operator, Advocates for Innovative Schools, had rescinded its intent to renew its charter.
Yet, as the meeting began, the fate of the Living School remained unclear.
Staff and students from the school packed the board room for the meeting, speaking with passion and Monday’s meeting, asking that board members look beyond test-heavy performance metrics to see all the learning that’s going on within the walls of their school. They asked for a year extension to prove that the school could achieve.
But everyone knew it was an uphill battle. The Orleans Parish School Board has never gone against a superintendent’s recommendations for school closure.
Despite repeated, empassioned arguments to keep the school open, the board followed its usual course. “I know the superintendent’s heart aches at this point, but she is bound by the Charter School Accountability Framework that we put in front of her,” said board member Nolan Marshall, as the board turned a blind eye to the arguments and voted to support the superintendent’s recommendation to close The Living School, a move that senior humanities teacher Katie Wills Evans described as “cowardice.”
For Bazile, Jameson’s grandmother, the recommendation itself raises key questions about how schools are assessed within the city’s all-charter system.
On paper, the Living School’s state-issued School Performance Score (SPS) is the lowest in the city, due to a dip in their test scores last spring. But when Bazile began to understand the calculations behind that SPS, she realized that the data tells an incomplete story.
It doesn’t account for the school’s high level of special-needs students, for instance, she said. Also, the Living School’s dip in test scores last spring is not offset by last year’s impressive graduation results, because within the state’s school-performance formula, graduation results lag by a year.
Bazile doesn’t know where else her grandson will thrive.
She wants to ask the school board why they couldn’t weigh student success on a broader level, she says. “I want them to look around and decide what’s more important – the test scores or the actual student?”
Former laser-tag space blossoms into school, with garden
Living School was designed to be small, to provide students with an alternative to the city’s large, traditional high schools where enrollment can be as high as 1,100.
Very intentionally, the school chose to open in New Orleans East, which has the highest-population of school-age students. About 65% of the school’s current students live in the East, though data shows that the school serves all but two ZIP codes.
In 2019, when the school opened, there were no open buildings in the East. So the Living School rented a space off Bullard Avenue in a former laser-tag space.
Though some school officials emphasized that the recent recommendation by the superintendent was about test scores, not real estate, there were rumors that the school’s presence in an independent building – not district-owned – may have made it more of a target for the district, which is now under-enrolled and trying to “right-size” the number of schools and buildings within its portfolio.
From a student and staff standpoint, the Bullard Avenue building is one of the school’s selling points. The school’s 180 students learn in a unique, open, brightly colored space, where biology teacher Rahn Broady runs a science classroom with high ceilings, walls hung with eclectic artwork, rows of glass terrariums and tanks, cardboard models of ecosystems and detailed drawings of plants studied in his horticulture classes.
It’s unlike any other in the city, Broady said. “I got pigheads, plant tinctures and turtle shells in here.” The roomy space allows him to lead biology and environment classes that rely entirely on hands-on, project-based learning – “how students really learn,” he says. “Instead of memorization, they’re making memories.”
On Monday morning, Jamaj Miller, 15, a sophomore, had a very specific question for Broady. “Is homozygous always dominant?” Jamaj asked, as he started a brief, high-level conversation about genetics with his teacher.
“He has some of the highest recall in class,” Broady said, nodding toward the young man. But Miller said that he didn’t come from a particularly noteworthy academic background. Instead, because of family mobility, he had rarely stayed in schools for more than a year until until he’d arrived at Living School, where he had planned to stay until graduation.
Miller likes it because it’s a “democratic” school, he said, where students have successfully suggested changes, ranging from the dress code to the school-lunch contract to the carpet in the main hallway. “We have a voice,” he said.
Two-third of students have special needs, through IEP or language
“I grade every student differently,” said Broady, pointing toward the corner, where he’d hung nearly a dozen intricate horticultural sketches created by sophomore Yashawa Fluker, 16, after Broady named him as the class artist for one of his science courses. “Every scientist needs an artist,” Broady said.
In elementary-school classes, Fluker remembers falling asleep. “I don’t want to think I was a hard-to-teach student,” he said. But in the end, many of his classes simply weren’t interesting. He contrasts that with Living School, where no one lectures for the entire class period, he says.
“We keep him on his toes,” Broady said.
The prevalence of project-based learning in every classroom is a hallmark of the Living School, where science teacher Jimmy Luttrell teaches his kids the physics of the city’s levees and the engineering behind the solar generators and even solar phone chargers they build. Senior humanities teacher Katie Wills Evans makes books about New Orleans, invites guest speakers to the classroom, and take her students on frequent field trips to help them explore and learn.
In one hallway, a group of Broady’s Honduran students, who work in construction, are building a small house on a desk to show the environmental effects of construction that they’ve witnessed first-hand.
Also, students learn about plants, their medicinal effects and their contributions to environmental habitats through Broady’s horticulture class through a lush school garden set on the canal next to the mall. To get to it is a two-minute walk out the front door, past the insurance office and the nail shop.
Within the garden is sugar cane and a variety of native herbs and plants along with a student-requested “The Banana Museum,” where Broady oversaw the planting of several varieties of bananas. A series of hand-made, hand-painted markers describe the banana plants and their nutritional and horticultural qualities. The markers also outline the city’s rich history with the fruit and its ties with the government of Honduras, back in the days when Standard Fruit Company (now Dole) and United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) were based in New Orleans and importing bananas from Central America through banana boats that were a common sight, docked along the Mississippi River here.
Because of the school’s emphasis on project-based learning and its unique staffing, which places an aide in most classrooms, Living School has become well-known for its work with special-needs students.
Two out of three Living School students have special needs, either as kids with IEPs – individualized education plans – or as English learners, students who are not yet proficient in the English language. The vast majority of students enter at least one grade below level, with some starting as freshmen in high school with reading skills that would qualify them as functionally illiterate, Pasternak said. On top of that, 10% of students are homeless, he said, a proportion that jumped to nearly 30% after Hurricane Ida.
Though NOLA Public Schools has cited charter schools for not properly providing special ed services, parents of Living School students say that before they enrolled here, their children experienced being pushed out or discouraged from enrollment in other schools, because special-ed services are expensive and can require extensive coordination of staff and service providers to meet student needs.
And once enrolled, special-needs students are routinely relegated to a lower-level graduation track, said Living School teachers who witnessed this during time spent teaching in prior schools.
Because of those challenges, it’s a special point of pride that, for the Living School’s first graduating class last year, 100 percent of its students with IEPs graduated with the highest-level diploma, the TOPS University Diploma, which qualifies them to attend college with the help of a TOPS scholarship.
Wills Evans, the senior-class humanities teacher, said that she had an autistic student who graduated last year with a TOPS diploma. She was bright and could explain classwork, Wills Evans said. “But standardized testing was not her thing.” The school’s staff worked closely with this student to earn a diploma because it helped her meet her individual goal: attending a community college to be certified as a barber-beautician.
That goal might not be seen as a priority for many charters, “A lot of schools would have put her on a non-TOPS track rather than taking that hit on their test scores,” Wills Evans said. “But we didn’t play that game. We did what’s best for our kids. And now that cost us our school.”
New Standards Aren’t Yet in Play
The dynamics of school closures can be confusing, because other local schools have F scores and aren’t being threatened with closure.
The problem for Living School is that last year’s dip in testing scores came at an inopportune time – at the end of their five-year contract, when they are facing a contract renewal.
One year of test scores should not be enough to shut down a school, testified Richard Ashmore, a Living School board member of six years and a retired professor of psychology from Rutgers University. “The cornerstone of research is precise measurement,” Ashmore said. “The 2022 SPS is an incomplete point.”
And in an odd turn of fate, Living School was not being judged by the best assessment framework, according to NOLA Public Schools’ own guidance. When Williams took office, she was charged with improving the Charter School Accountability Framework, or CSAF, which was seen as inequitable in some key aspects. Living School director Stefin Pasternak actively participated in work groups to change the metrics.
In August, the school board passed newly revised charter standards, But they don’t go into effect until next year.
If they were in place, Living School would not have faced closure. The explanation of the changes are technical, but worth a little explanation.
Nearly half – 45% – of the School Performance Score is based on graduation rates and a second graduation category called “strength of diplomas,” which includes on-time graduation, college-level certifications and Jump Start credits.
Giving that muscle to graduation makes sense, Pasternak said. “We would actually argue that these are the two factors that are most important and have the most long-term effect on a child’s life: did they get across the finish line and with what?”
But for four years, Living School didn’t have that data, because it was a “slow-growth” high school that added a grade per year, starting with a class of 9th graders. Under the old formula, the missing 45% – the graduation data – is basically filled in by LEAP and ACT scores, which are weighted more heavily to create a full 100% score, Pasternak said.
Basically, that formula created a Living School score this year that was almost entirely based on test scores.
Under the new, revised way of calculating scores, the missing graduation data would instead be replaced by a median graduation score of all New Orleans schools, Pasternak said.
And under the revised, more equitable standards, Living School would have earned a C grade, with a 66.4 SPS, said Pasternak, who actively participated in NOLA Public Schools working sessions.
“We’d be a C school and we’d be renewed for five years,” Pasternak said. “Instead, we’re an F school, slated to be closed.”
We created this for kids who weren’t getting equal opportunities
The newly adopted school metrics also give more weight to the progress index, also known as a “growth score,” which looks at the school’s individual students and measures each student’s improvement from one year to the next.
Living School would have benefitted from that change, because many of the school’s students arrive with low scores and the high school does fairly well in bringing them up: this year it earned a progress index score of 70, a C.
That’s why Living School was created, to help each child grow individually, said Rosland Brown, the school’s site and records director and who came from KIPP Believe with Pasternak to help found the school. Brown, a New Orleans native, is disheartened by the idea that her beloved institution faces closure. “We created this for kids who weren’t getting equal opportunities,” she said. “And I’m absolutely sick of people who come in from out of town and tell us, ‘You aren’t serving kids good enough.’”
Brown says she sees growth in most children from the day they enter Living School’s front door, both in life and academically.
Looking over from the reception desk, Brown smiles as she sees Jarmarrie Gordon, 16, a sophomore, sitting at a cafeteria table, reading. A natural leader, she entered the school ready to run the place, teachers say.
Yet what Gordon most appreciates about the Living School is one of the school’s basic tenets: that everyone feel accepted. Or as Gordon describes it, “Living School is full of students who are creative, depressed, hardworking, homeless, dyslexic, and entrepreneurial, who come from all different backgrounds and are welcome at our school.”
Gordon, too, is furious that her school will be closed, because of test scores alone. “I am honestly angry that a complete stranger could take a look at our test scores and act like those scores defined our students,” she said.
In an ideal world, absolute scores would be secondary to progress indicators, said Doug Harris, the well-known education-reform researcher and chair of Tulane University’s economics department, who believes that growth scores should be weighted more heavily than SPS letter grades.
Closing schools with higher growth ratings can put students “in a worse spot,” Harris said in a recent interview.
“Growth should be the primary consideration,” he said. “You don’t want to close schools where students are learning at really high rates, no matter what the letter grade says.”
This story was revised to clarify the process that Community Academies went through, with the superintendent and the board, before Monday’s announcement. Also, due to an editor error, a sentence about Yashawa Fluker’s drawings had been deleted. That has been restored.