Set Up to Fail

A former teacher says an acclaimed college-prep charter school in New Orleans is setting students up for failure…

By Jake Guth
sci1There’s an old adage that if something seems too good to be true, then it likely is. Sci Academy, one of New Orleans’ top-rated charter schools, exemplifies that adage. As a success story/victim of New Orleans Public Schools, depending on which way you want to view it, I approached my job interview at Sci Academy with a big grain of salt. The Craigslist ad for a coach described an academically-driven school that was attempting to start an athletics program.

I still remember how blown away I was by my first visit to the school—how it was unlike any *public* school I’d ever seen: the polite kids I interacted with, the noticeable absence of discipline problems. The red flags should have gone up right away. Like the fact that I had no experience coaching. Or that I was given the keys to a room that was used as the school storage closet and told to clear it for a weight room. Or that there was no budget and the equipment was all donated, meaning that the helmets were well past the three-year certification usage limit and many of the pads were moldy. None of it mattered. I was 24 years old, a minority from New Orleans, and I’d landed what seemed like a dream job.

I am ashamed to admit it, but I drank the Kool-Aid and asked for refills. Being surrounded by mostly young, many non-certified educators, all of whom have really big dreams and aspirations of making a difference in the lives of kids, while being force-fed a steady diet of talk about perseverance and the *Stockdale Paradox* will do that to you.

Image result for sci academy new orleansI could see for myself that Sci was doing all the wrong things, yet claiming phenomenal graduation rates and supposedly putting kids in college *to succeed.* The Kool-Aid was losing its flavor. But I didn’t quit. I’d started advising students my first full year at Sci and I quickly built powerful relationships with them. I worried that, if I left, they might completely shut down towards an adviser who wasn’t able to reach them like I could, and who would then respond by punishing them for their failure to cooperate. I made a commitment to the 12 kids I was advising that I’d stay for a full four years in order to see them graduate.

An admirable mission
Viewed from the outside, Sci Academy’s vision sounds admirable: ‘prepare all kids up for college success, equipped with the passion and tools to begin innovative and world changing pursuits.’ Sci accepts and welcomes kids of all backgrounds, despite whatever challenges they may have.  Ninety-two percent of the student body is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, while growing numbers of students are classified as ELL. The number of students who’ve been diagnosed as suffering from severe trauma and are being taught in a self-contained setting is on the rise too. As we were told constantly, the reason that Sci performs less well than top New Orleans schools like Franklin or Lusher is that those schools are selective, whereas Sci accepts all kids. But the real problem is that Sci makes promises it can’t deliver. College success may be in Sci Academy’s very credo, but the school’s approach is setting students up for failure.

The year after I signed on to start Sci Academy’s athletics program I joined the school’s mental health staff. I was picked to run an intervention group for behaviorally-troubled kids with IEPs, despite the fact that my only experience consisted of the six months I’d worked at the school.

The year after I signed on to start Sci Academy’s athletics program I joined the school’s mental health staff. I was picked to run an intervention group for behaviorally-troubled kids with IEPs, despite the fact that my only experience consisted of the six months I’d worked at the school. My Sci story isn’t unusual. The staff has a multitude of first-year teachers and teachers without completed certification, including the teacher of a SPED program for students with mild-to-moderate learning abilities. Burnout and frustration mean that *veteran teachers*—those with at least two years of experience at the school—end up leaving at an alarming rate. This past year alone saw nine staff members quit, eight of whom were *veterans,* in addition to four staff members who left mid-year. The result is that new staff members, including non-certified teachers, end up holding positions they aren’t qualified for, doing a further disservice to Sci Academy’s students.

A chaotic reality
While staff turnover has always been a problem at Sci, it got measurably worse two years ago as the school responded to a lawsuit alleging that by suspending students for trivial matters, Collegiate Academies, the network that Sci is part of, was violating their civil rights. The lawsuit resulted in a *drastic sweep* to install an In-School Suspension System as part of a concerted effort to keep more students within the school. Now, instead of suspending kids for disciplinary infractions, these students would be sent to a Positive Redirection Center (PRC). In theory the new system was intended for kids whose egregious misbehaviors were *disrupting the learning environment,* and included proper documentation, calls to parents, a *reflection guide* and mediation if necessary. In reality, however, teachers now had free license to send kids out of classes for trivial matters such as sucking their teeth, rolling their eyes, or my personal favorite, not working hard enough, a subjective judgment that was left up to the teacher.

Image result for sci academy lawsuitBefore long, the in-school detention center was overcrowded. The interventionists who ran the PRC quickly grew alarmed, then frustrated and finally exhausted by the sheer number of kids being sent out of class. It isn’t hard to imagine what happened next: kids started working the system and choosing to opt out of class when they didn’t want to be there. Once the school day was half over, kids would be sent home for disciplinary reasons without being counted against Sci’s suspension numbers. Other kids would simply walk off of campus. A divide formed between teachers and discipline staff, with both sides losing trust that the right decisions were being made. Meanwhile, significant numbers of kids, while technically *in school,* still weren’t in class. The system soon devolved into a mess that ended up burning out the very staff who’d been tasked with implementing the new system.

Numbers games
School leaders at Sci Academy preach the Stockdale Paradox constantly: maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be. But after the *brutal facts* would inevitably come the talk of how we were going to meet our short-term goals, as in *let’s get strategic about what we can do on assessments to get these numbers up.*

Teachers at Sci are supposed to get 90% of students onto the honor roll, defined as at least a 3.0 GPA. But when student grades started to slip in recent years, the school’s response was to change the definition of an *A,* broadening it from the standard measure of content mastery to include student effort. Under the new policy, students could still earn *A’s* even if they weren’t fully comprehending the content they were studying. And it didn’t stop there. In an effort to produce numbers that look better than they were and maintain a high graduation rate, students were allowed multiple make up attempts on assessments and could turn in assignments weeks late. Even blatant plagiarism was ignored if it meant the difference between a student passing and failing.

The school’s numbers games have added up to college persistence rate that’s far lower than Sci’s marketing materials would have you believe. I spoke recently to a member of Sci’s class of 2015, now at the University of Louisiana. I could hear the sadness in his voice when talking about what his classmates are up to and how so few of them are succeeding in college.

Image result for collegiate academies new orleans laThe school’s numbers games have added up to college persistence rate that’s far lower than Sci’s marketing materials would have you believe. I spoke recently to a member of Sci’s class of 2015, now at the University of Louisiana. I could hear the sadness in his voice when talking about what his classmates are up to and how so few of them are succeeding in college: *It is real sad how poorly my classmates are doing when they were told they were doing so great a year ago,* he told me. *It’s clear as day that we aren’t ready to be in a world that negates what Sci taught us about multiple chances and being able to extend deadlines. *

Of the 12 students I advised at Sci Academy, I saw seven of them finish with a diploma. As an adviser, I often went *off script* with my students. I didn’t force on them meaningless lessons about the Stockdale Paradox or insist that they believe in an ideal if they weren’t invested in it. I spent my time and energy building them up for whatever their futures might actually hold: teaching them how to write resumes, finding jobs and holding real conversations about life if college wasn’t an option. Some are studying, some are working on job training, some are working on independence—and that’s okay. I only wish that Sci Academy would have better prepared them for a realistic future.


guthJake Guth was born and raised in New Orleans. He studied journalism and public relations at the University of Alabama and the University of New Orleans. He spent four years working at Sci Academy, and is now an entrepreneur focused on helping local high school graduates find jobs while they earn degrees or work towards achieving their bigger goals. Contact him at
Jeguth18@gmail.com.

22 Comments

  1. Dear Edushyster:

    I am a senior in college studying mathematics education, and reading stories like this breaks my heart. It is so sad to see people ruining the education of students just to maintain a public image or even, in some instances, just make money. This is not the only school that functions like this either. I am glad that you wrote about this, as the issue needs to be brought into the light. So much of this isn’t ever talked about and the vast majority of the public has no idea it is going on.

    A question I have for you is how do you think we should fight this battle? It’s clear it shouldn’t be happening, but where do we start? I genuinely am not sure, and I would love to hear your thoughts. I believe it needs to be stopped, I’m just not sure how to stop it.

    1. Thanks for reading and writing! I think that there isn’t an overnight fix, but I think a giant step in the right direction would be to install vocational programs in school and accept post-graduate pathways that aren’t exclusively college. The problem with pumping the college narrative and accepting no other alternatives is that kids futures and mindsets are sacrificed. I can recall too many conversations where kids would be deceived by the grades that they see from made-up assessments, from applying extra effort, etc. and they would be led to believe they are “college ready.” However, when colleges would accept the kids with requiring bridge programs, remedial courses, an extra year, etc. – kids would begin to doubt their actual abilities and shut down. Imagine being an “honor roll student” and then being told you need at least a year of remedial courses in college and/or flame out.

      There is an obnoxious amount of hand holding from teachers, second chances, etc. and when those same amenities suddenly disappear at the next level (though, as staff, we all knew they would), kids are not prepared enough to handle the adversity. Instead of focusing so much time and energy on the many rules and regulations that don’t work for kids, that are supposed to ‘go a long way towards future success and discipline,’ so many kids I know would have been better off learning job skills and how to balance occupation work with an educational career and be successful.

      A couple of different charters around New Orleans have started various vocational programming, including cooking classes taught by award-winning local chefs and programs designed to teach how to become a future educator. I think that is the way to go. The scripted answer that we were told to tell kids talking about and asking about jobs instead of college was: “would you rather work in a mechanic shop or would you rather own it?” I think honesty and career-based elective classes would be a great way to start.

      It is time to accept realities and not obsess over numbers that end up hurting kids in their lives past high school.

      1. It seems to me that concerns about kids being deceived about college readiness has little to do with a school being a charter school, private school, or a traditional public school.

        The state flagship university where I teach accepts any student with a 2.0 gpa in a set of academic classes. Do you think that getting straight C’s (perhaps largely though seat credit, a term I had never heard until I started reading blog posts by public school teachers) means that a student is college ready?

        1. I agree that kids being deceived about how ready they are for college can happen at any level. Speaking from having a public school background (graduated in 2006) and spending my work experience at Sci; I would have never been able to imagine getting all the extra chances, ridiculous curves on assessments, extended deadlines, etc.

          I am unfamiliar with the term ‘seat credit,’ I assume it means getting an average grade by just being there? If that is the case, I would think that a 2.0 where you grasp enough of the material without much effort (and end up with a 84-75%) would be significantly better than having a 2.0 that was based off falsities and not being able to understand concepts, with a mastery level below an actual 75% (again, basing this off an assumption of the meaning of seat credit).

      2. Thanks for answering my question! I completely agree with you on the obnoxious amount of hand holding from teachers that exists in most schools. I remember making the transition from high school to college and being shocked that late work was not accepted. It just always was in high school, and all of a sudden if something was an hour late, it was a zero. In college, and the real world for that matter, you are treated as an adult, but in high school you aren’t. If teachers in high school start treating students like adults, this transition from school to college/the work force will be much more smooth.

        I also think that your idea of career-based elective classes is a great idea. You’re correct in saying we need to accept the reality that not all students will go to college, and these elective courses would help move in that direction. I know a lot of people who would have benefited a lot if these were offered in my high school, and it is something I will be pushing for when I am a teacher.

        1. Thanks for agreeing! I think it is a much needed thing to face reality over than accepting lies as the truth. I blame school administrators over anything, but it’s a shame how many lies are pumped (a la high school graduation rate)

  2. I worked the hell out of the system at Sci.

    Now Sci, Has done some good. But it gets swallowed by all the bad and eventually students develope a sense of dependancy and expectaions that were never met.

    Also Sci had another issue of Rewarding(bribing) the bad to do good. And that only egged us on to continue doing what we were already doing.

    I worked alot after school and did various household tasks while I was at Sci. And when I came to school I had little to no inclination to be there and the system itself held my hand by changing grading scales, mass extensions of projects, not very assertive staff and bribing students into co-operating kinda didnt help many students.

    1. Is that why we got along B? I wasn’t big on hand holding, even if I wasn’t there long.

      Guth, I obviously didn’t teach at Sci long, but I too didn’t do well with the scripted advisory, or even some of the systems we were encouraged to use that I found too hand holding or simplistic.

      Oddly, I found, at least the seniors, did well in my class without the systems, and without the ability to make up work or turn in late assignments. Perhaps the key is a more aggressive “release” each year? More accountability on the kids with less coddling from teachers? I’m not sure. I wasn’t there long enough to know. I know the seniors I worked with were some of the best kids I have ever had the privilege to teach and made my decision to leave very difficult.

      By the way brandon, someone owes me a phone call . Or 20.

  3. Hello, my name is John and I am a senior in a mathematics secondary education program. This post really got me thinking about how I will do things in my future classrooms, especially with regard to grading, late assignments, and “re-dos”. Also I would like to point out that this particular issue exists across education and not just in charter schools. For example in the public middle school that I observed in last semester, the teachers were upset about a new grading system they were forced to use where a 60% and above was an “A”. These teachers saw that it made students less accountable for their work and it actually hurt those students upon moving to the high school where a normal grading system (90%=A, 80%=B, 70%=C,…) was used. Now I don’t have a full understanding of why the school was using that system, but I think it is safe to assume that it was at least partly motivated by reasons similar to those that Sci wanted to boost their scores.
    Furthermore, in some of my classes we discuss how some schools have moved to standards based grading to be more in line with the Common Core State Standards. My understanding of this approach is that basically students are assessed on their competency with standards in some way and if they do not meet expectations then they are given more chances either through extended deadlines or “re-dos”. Please correct me if I am wrong, but this seems awfully similar to the methods used at Sci and it may hurt students’ readiness for college and/or the real world. However supporters of standards based grading argue that what is really most important is that student learns the mathematics at hand and whether or not it is a few days late or their fourth attempt at something doesn’t really matter.
    So essentially it is a question of what is it more important that our students learn, the mathematical concepts/procedures or the skills to be prepared and meet deadlines? Obviously both matter, but where is line and how can prepare our students successfully to be competent in both of these areas? Also some students clearly take advantage of extended deadlines and re-dos, what are some strategies to prevent/limit this while still allowing those who genuinely need them to use them? I would love to hear your thoughts. Thank you!

  4. Mr. Guth, very interesting article. Thanks!

    You advised 12 students and 7 graduated. I’m glad you were able to focus on life skills and build capacity in your students to succeed at work if college wasn’t a stepping stone for them.

    Of your seven advisees who graduated, how many enrolled and are now attending college?

    1. Of the seven: four are in college (University of New Orleans and Southeastern Louisiana University), two are working and saving up for an independent living situation before potentially focusing on college, one is at a post-secondary program for students with severe learning exceptionalities.

  5. Thank you for this !!

    This is not only educational but extremely brave and courageous .if there’s anything I can ever do to help you in the future let me know.

  6. I’m so glad that you spoke up because Sci Academy isn’t all peaches & cream. The disciplinary system is the worst of all. I never did understand the Ben Franklin & Lusher argument. Sci tells its students that Franklin & Lusher are doing so much better than Sci because they’re selective, yet it doesn’t explain the arbitrary disciplinary system that’s imposed on its students. As you said with students “working the system”, it’s true. Being a recent graduate of 2015, I used to work the system by purposely getting suspended, so I wouldn’t have to deal with being at school. This was when Sci used to suspend students for not coming to detention. I feel as though Sci should honestly listen its students’ opinions in order to make the school better. Having a school being run like this (jail/prison/dictatorship) is horrible… Thank you so much for writing this article.

  7. First I would like to start off and say there is no perfect School perfect teacher are perfect solution. But I do salute Sci Academy for their good effort and believing in there kids no matter what neighborhood they come from or if they ell. My daughter graduated in 2015 have a full scholarship at a college in New York. she’s in her sophomore year and she’s doing well she have any struggle as any other kid would have but I think Sic Academy . So I’m saying if you going to mention the bad things about Sic Academy let’s talk about the good things about Sic Academy . Building up his confidence for college letting them know they could be anything in the world no matter what the challenges are. And football team uniforms and equipment we all have to start from the bottom but now the football team have brand new uniforms and new helmets brand new pads. And if you saw a problem with the uniforms and helmets why didn’t you do a fundraiser or help them purchase new ones. But instead you decide to write an article about all the bad work SIc Academy instead I’m making a difference.

  8. It is a horrible school. My daughter went there for 4 years. The administration does not care about our children. They talk down to the parents and are full of shit. They just submitted the class of 16 stuff to TOPS in late August. Nicholls was going to send my child home if I did not secure payment as she was not on TOPS rooster. The idiot Maria literally went to every school in Louisiana with a Sci 2016 graduate to ensure they were not kicked out. They don’t care…at all. Some of the teachers do…but the administration is FULL OF SHIT.

    Peace and many blessings to you for this story. I will share if you don’t mind.

    1. Please share! That is awful what happened to your daughter, it sadly isn’t an isolated case either. I just hired a 2016 graduate who earned TOPS at uno and was told a similar story.

  9. As someone who has observed hundreds of classrooms and taught high-risk children for years in public schools, Sci Academy is a place where education stops. The chaos is inexcusable, but what can one expect when the staff is unprepared & inexperienced. Marketing the false promise of college prep is shameful.

    Education happens when schools create a learning environment where children can express themselves through language and the arts. Children learn when they build relationships with other children teachers, parents & their world. They need real project work where they can explore their world, investigate, make choices, and collaborate with peers & teachers to solve problems.

    It’s time to put an end to these charter fraud factories.

  10. THANK GOD someone who has worked at Sci Academy has finally stepped up to say something about what has been going on. As a 2015 Sci graduate, I am reading the comments and I’m not shocked at how some parents have responded to the article.
    In addressing a comment I read earlier about how Sci promotes self-confidence and how we should speak positively instead of just pointing out the bad; I think it is important to note that Sci has a system of favoritism. Being apart of that favorites bubble I can honestly say that AP or Advanced Placement students had been treated exceptionally different from other students since year one. We were all placed in the same classes together, given the same schedules, allowed to take different electives in our second year, went on trips to the museum instead of going to class, and so on and so on. So of course there were some of us who did not face as many adversities as others and thus parents whom believe Sci is number one. There was a certain focus placed on us that wasn’t given to other students because we were able to give them those numbers that they wanted. Even some of our teachers treated us differently. However, as one who also pushed against that bubble I know that if you didn’t exemplify a ‘perfect scholar’ you did not receive all those amazing opportunities.
    so yes Sci did some good things for us but I and many other of my peers do not feel that those things did not always come from the goodness of their hearts. And as someone who always speaks out about the dictatorship and prison like system readying us to fail that Sci has I am pleased to see someone who was once on staff saw it too.
    Thanks Coach Guth

  11. Thank you so much, Guth 2.
    It pains me to know that I wasted 4 years of my life at that school. I do, however, want to thank you and all the other teachers who shared to passion and care for us. As a graduate of the class of 2014, and a veteran of the organization Rethink, I believe that I have worked on the wrong schools. Once, I gave an explanation to one of my old teachers saying that I have an issue with how I was being taught, I was completely ignored. I understood the difference in teaching styles. I understood that I was a hands on learner, and I don’t do well with tests, but very few people cared. Because of this my grades seemed to be mediocre. As I went off to college, not one I chose for myself, I flunked. I studied and took notes, but once I got infront of those tests, my anxiety struck and everything I knew didn’t exist anymore. I wish that my issue was taken more seriously. I wish that my education, life preparation skills, and learning patterns were more focused on rather than discipline and obedience.

  12. As someone else around your age who grew up in New Orleans as well, I would just like to first say that yea many of the issues you pointed out about the school system in New Orleans are very real. But you make it sounds like they fooled everyone, saying that sci “academy” was considered by the New Orleans community to be in ranks with Ben franklin or lusher. lol everyone in the city knows that sci academy only sprouted as a charter school with a similar name, borrowing from the success of the original charter school on Loyola st. behind lusher, who’s name was eerily similar to the original science and math charter school /chain of school worth a dang was “New Orleans charter science and mathematics high school”, behind lusher that didn’t just accept any student or hire unqualified teachers. I mean setting up for failure? Nahh …they were just trying to get more New Orleans schools rebuilt and back on it’s feet to fill in the gaps, in hopes the similar school guidelines and borrowed name would make for a good school. Good teachers are what makes for good schools, not recent grads who knowingly take jobs for the money ( drinking the kool-aid as you described it). The New Orleans school system has long been broken before the storm and Sci academy came along. The only reason the one on Loyola was any good, was because they hired passionate and motivated teachers who came from around the country from schools like yale and MiT (Not just doing it for the money) in wake of katrina to help rebuild the city. Ben and lusher has good turnouts because they had long had the same credo of only selecting passionate teachers who wanted to be teachers from the get go. Not by hiring recent grads who saw a chance for a job/kool-aid and just went with it. Sure blame the broken system everybody already has long known about… but it just seems like you’re trying showcase your skills as a journalist that weathered the storm/ endeavor of teaching disobedient kids, who live in a city that long has made them feel as if they were doomed to fail from the get go. yea… great mindset as a teacher there. Who’s the one that set up those student’s to fail again? The broken system, or former teachers like yourself who never should’ve been. Oh wait the problem is one in the same.

Comments are closed.