A former teacher says an acclaimed college-prep charter school in New Orleans is setting students up for failure…
By Jake Guth
There’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.
I 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.
Before 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.
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.
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: *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.
Jake 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.