Wyvern Club – November 19, 2008
Shaun B. Rafferty
1. Introduction. The Wyvern Club believed an archive of its papers would have historical
interest, so it established one. Our papers have recorded what some sensible professional
New Orleans men have thought and thought important over fifty years, as we just
celebrated. In many cases, members have provided firsthand accounts of their own
experiences as players in the evolution of the City. Inevitably, as the fifty years have
coincided with the City’s loss of economic prominence, some accounts have painted a
sad picture of local political and economic malfunction. Why then do we live here?
Every one of us could have pursued a lucrative trade in areas of growth rather than
decline. Obviously we all have other considerations, including our roots, our families
and force of habit. Then also there is the ever-present sense among our citizens that
maybe, just maybe, our time may soon arrive.
2. New York Times Article. Many of you read the August 17 edition of the New York
Times Magazine. It had an interesting article that presaged the current economic
meltdown, upon which we need not dwell. But it also had an article that amazingly
discussed education, reform, experimentation, excellence and New Orleans as compatible
concepts. For as long as I can remember, the only national discussions of New Orleans
public education focused on statistical rankings at or near the bottom. Remarkably, this
article surveyed our current educational landscape and boldly suggested we have a
chance not just to reach the median but to leap clear all the way to excellence. The
themes of the article were as follows:
(a) Pre-K. Obviously it started with a discussion of the truly abysmal pre-Katrina
public educational system, characterized by rock-bottom performance, desperate
zero-sum politics, criminality, violence and hopelessness. The mention of
stationing FBI agents at the Orleans Parish School Board headquarters is enough
to bring back profoundly painful memories for all of us.
(b) Society. The article certainly discussed New Orleans daunting social problems
that contribute to our educational performance. Families in our city have gone for
generations without meaningful public educational opportunities. Parents and
grandparents who can’t read by definition can’t read to their children. Katrina
then scattered families hither and yon. I heard Tim Ryan speak one night on the
subject of UNO’s charter schools. He said money was not the problem, each of
them were running a surplus. But he said his people were shocked to see the
abject neediness of the kids. Many of them, he said, had returned to town without
parents (who stayed behind in Houston, etc.) and were living virtually without
supervision. Aunts or grandparents are trying, he said, but are overwhelmed by
housefuls of distantly related kids. He said UNO’s schools not only had to
provide free lunch, but also free breakfast and dinner.
(c) National Effort. The article reviewed the nascence, even before Katrina, of a
national movement to address and reform urban education. In 2000, Paul T. Hill
wrote a book called “It Takes a City.” He advocated a total structural
decentralization of our national system of public education. Top-down central
planning and administration, he said, should be replaced by a bottom-up
approach. Schools would receive individual charters from local or state school
boards and would operate as much as possible as independent schools. They
would have their own internal governance and great autonomy. They would have
the freedom to innovate and respond to the needs of their communities,
unburdened by the dictates of the central office. However, they would also have
almost total responsibility for their success. And a school’s success or failure
would be measured by a competitive marketplace. Parents would have the free
choice to send their children to any number of schools in a community and
schools would receive their funding on the sole basis of enrollment. Such per
student stipends would not quite be the individual vouchers that some have
advocated. They would not apply to private schools, for example. But they
would serve to focus schools on the value of each individual child. In a
traditional public school, each additional child is a burden. In a Paul Hill school,
each additional child would bring a benefit. Schools that attract more students –
at least convincing parents that they provide a quality product – would get
proportionately greater funding than schools that don’t. With parents free to
comparison-shop, schools would immediately quickly draw the connection
between production and reward and would strive vigorously to improve their
(d) Theoretical Issues. The article discussed several theoretical issues which a
charter school system presents:
(1) Selectivity. One is the ever present tension inherent in seeking to have
excellent but non-selective schools. Charter schools might tend toward
selectivity. Serving a demographical group inclined to high-performance
makes achieving high performance easier. Moreover, charter schools
might find selectivity to be a way of filling classrooms. Colleges for
example find that a perception of exclusivity in the marketplace actually
generates more applications. However, clearly a system that ignores the
most difficult-to-teach children does not promote the value of universal
education. More to the point, selectivity in schools has tremendous
political baggage. For years, pre-Katrina, we witnessed periodic flare-ups
of agitation over the continuation of Ben Franklin and its admissions
criteria. If a system leaves out more than it lets in, politicians will side
with the left-outs. A charter school system perceived as undemocratic
cannot survive long.
(2) Potential for Abuse. Nor will a system perceived as crooked, and that is
another potential Achilles heel of charter schools. When money in large
amounts flows through small charter school boards, some of it might fall
into the wrong hands. The whole charter school movement lives in fear
that a defalcation at one charter school would mortally tarnish the whole
(3) Actually Closing Schools. Finally, one still might have the problem of
dealing with failing schools. Even if one can fire bad teachers who no
longer operate under the protection of a union contract, even if parents
have the ability to move from a bad school to a good one, even if school
boards can revoke charters, will human beings meaningfully exercise
those freedoms? Or will they settle for comfortable mediocrity?
(e) Making a Difference. The article recounted how Katrina focused such attention
on New Orleans. It seems like the only ones not glued to their TVs in September
2005 were New Orleanians. While we were scrambling for businesses, houses
and schools in distant, gumboless locales, the nation was transfixed. Many fine
Americans resolved that New Orleans would rebuild and that they would actively
and personally make it happen. Many of the aforementioned urban education
reformers joined the movement and came down here to make a difference.
(f) Old Barriers. The article showed how Katrina removed many of the institutional
barriers that impeded educational reform and innovation in New Orleans for
years. The strength of the teachers union dissipated as its members left town.
Politics changed dramatically as the electorate changed and/or saw what prior
system wrought. The school age population reduced by more than half, making
the problem far more manageable. Most importantly, the community-wide
cynicism and despair that had infected our discussion of public education since
the 1980’s gave way to a determination to renew our efforts.
(g) Quick Movement. The article then focused on our City’s and State’s immediate
embrace of a paradigm shifting charter-school approach to public education.
More than any other jurisdiction, we have dramatically shifted to a charter school-
based system. As quoted in the Times, Paul Vallas, the nationally-prominent
superintendent of the Recovery School District, and Paul Pastorek, the State
Superintendent of Education, strongly believe in a charter school system. A
recent newspaper article reported that fully 60% of public school children in
Orleans Parish attend charter schools.
(h) An Attainable Goal. The article briefly discussed the attainability of good
schools, but Armando Almendarez does a better job. He is a wonderful fellow,
retired for several years from a lifetime of posts with the Chicago Public Schools.
Katie and I have gotten to know him recently. He believes in the Vallas approach
and has worked as a consultant with the Recovery School District. He says
successful schools have five key but quite attainable elements:
(1) Strong School Leadership. Leadership is primary. The leader of a school
has a greater influence on the performance of his or her institution than the
leader of a bank has.
(2) Class Size. Small class size is important. Classes having fewer than 20
students simply work better. Kids can’t hide in small classes and teachers
can’t ignore kids who try.
(3) Flexible Curricula. The curriculum must accommodate different learning
styles. We learn things differently and so do kids. Curricula that adapt to
those differences serve the kids best.
(4) Professional Development. Teachers need training. Many teachers are
young and inexperienced. Those flexible curricula require great
teamwork. And teaching is just plain hard to master. All of these factors
require schools to have strong internal programs to develop their teachers.
(5) Fidelity. Finally, a good school will rigorously adhere to its program, both
school-wide and over time. Educators use the word “fidelity” to describe
this. They also constantly talk of “metrics,” in other words consistent,
accurate, objective measurement of performance as a means to insure
(i) High Goals. The final remarkable theme of the article is just how high we in New
Orleans and Louisiana have set our goals. In the words of one promotional
brochure: “Imagine a city that expects academic excellence from all of its schools.
In every neighborhood, for every child. What would this mean to the rest of the
nation? . . . If you are ready to make an impact . . . To impact the future of not
only one student, not only one classroom, not only one school. . . To impact the
future of national education reform. If you are ready to make an impact, then join
us.” Clearly we not only want to stop defining the bottom, we want to reach the
3. My Experience. Here’s another quote: “At CATS we will not water down our curriculum
or have low expectations of our students. We will train our students to demand the best
of themselves and challenge them to high academic achievement. The curriculum and
learning environment will stimulate intellectual growth, demand their best performance
and have high expectations that challenge their scholastic abilities.” “[We will] produce
world-class learners by providing the highest quality of teaching and learning, so all
students can achieve academic success.” Grisela Alejandro Jackson helped write those
words and is one of many heroes in this narrative.
(a) Chronology. Grisela and her husband Pastor Robert Jackson grew up in New
Orleans. They went to Vassar around the same time as John Lawrence, Brooke
Duncan and I went. However, I had very little contact with them either at Vassar
or since. But Katie got to know them at a Vassar function. The next day she
realized that their house is next to her studio and they all got to be friends. Before
Katrina we attended a service at their church, Historic Second Baptist, on
Marengo and Freret Streets. After Katrina, Grisela asked Katie if she, as an artist,
would like to serve on the board of an arts-focused charter school Grisela was
trying to organize. Katie said “no” (she does not do meetings), but volunteered
me. Boards always need free lawyers and I, like probably everyone in this room,
had the experience of having served on the board of my children’s private school.
The church and its neighborhood flooded in Katrina. Grisela has always been
interested in education and worked on a number of educational outreach programs
for kids in the neighborhood. After the storm, she and fellow members of the
church decided that reopening a particular school in the neighborhood, Lawrence
D. Crocker Elementary, as a charter school could help bring the neighborhood
back. One of the parishioners, Val Williams, had served as assistant principal at
Crocker. During her tenure, Crocker had climbed out of the “failing school”
category. When she was transferred out, Crocker’s performance immediately
reverted to failing form.
Grisela formed a board that included Val and several other parishioners with
educational backgrounds. She also contacted her old Fortier history teacher, John
A. Jones, Jr., now retired and living in Baton Rouge. He brought in his old friend,
Steve Boyard, another retired teacher and principal. She also brought in Olga
Smoak, our local long-time Vassar recruiter who simply cannot process the word
“no” when she hears it. Grisela has the same condition.
Over the summer of 2006, the group – mostly Grisela, Val and Charmaine
Robertson, another educator – prepared its application for a charter in hopes of
opening Crocker in 2007. The application was very ambitious in that it called for
Crocker to start off as a full Pre-K through 6th grade elementary school. In
December, 2006, we joined a number of other applicants at the Marriott Hotel for
interviews. Our panel, provided by the National Association of Charter School
Authorizers, made it clear that one does not get a charter simply by asking. They
asked penetrating questions and determined we were not ready. Their written
comments focused on what they saw as our naïveté.
Grisela immediately set out to prove them wrong. Through the summer of 2007,
she and the others revised the application, primarily reducing the initial size of the
school to four grade levels, Pre-K through second grade. Last November we
traveled to Baton Rouge for another interview. A side note: the Louisiana
Department of Education is housed in a gleaming post-modern building called the
Claiborne Building, near the Capitol. Far from the bureaucratic fogbottom one
expects from state government, every experience we have had up there, and every
contact with state officials, has been positive, clear and professional. This time,
things clicked. We again had a review panel composed of accomplished master
educators from around the country. They again asked penetrating questions. We
won points for revising our approach in response to the criticism we received.
We had made efforts demonstrate neighborhood support for the effort and won
points there. But the moment we really connected occurred when Val
demonstrated we knew the importance of the “F-word,” fidelity. She did so with
a focused stare that clearly meant business. We won our charter, one of seven
awarded for the 2008-09 year statewide and the only one in New Orleans to have
started as a neighborhood-specific community effort. The day Paul Pastorek
presented the seven charters to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
for formal approval, he singled us out on that score. Crocker Arts and
Technology School – CATS – was born.
Since last December, we hired Anna Charmaine Robertson as our principal, she
hired teachers and staff and they opened the school in August. We have 94
students and seven teachers. Charmaine and her assistant principal Shauntel
Butler worked tirelessly and entrepreneurially to get them. We operate in a large,
comfortable modular building on the Press Street campus of the Gregory Junior
High School. Our students come from all over the city. We have a 2008-09
school year budget of approximately $1.1 million which, if you do the math,
works out to about $11,700 per student. Our money comes primarily from the
state and city in the form of our “MFP,” (Minimum Foundation Program) the
basic $8,000 per-student payment. However, we have also received a generous
start-up grant from the Walton Family Foundation and several other State and
Federal programs for start-up charter schools. Our start-up remains a work in
progress and we have had our share of challenges.
(1) We did not meet our budgeted enrollment and this substantially reduced
our state MFP income. Indeed, we operate right next to Akili Academy,
another charter serving largely the same age group of children. That we
compete with each other is clear to all involved.
(2) Our transportation costs soared by four times over our initial expectations.
We are required to supply bus service to our children. We run three routes
a day, each way. Gas prices obviously contributed to the cost, but mainly
the problem arises from having to serve a city-wide clientele. As of the
moment, we have a splash of red ink in our budget because of this factor
and have to spend next weekend figuring out how to raise money to deal
(3) Our building situation is vexing. We initially heard that Crocker School
would be renovated by Thanksgiving or Christmas at the latest. While it
flooded, it is a 1960’s vintage concrete block building. It does not need
structural repair; new electrical and plumbing systems should substantially
put it back in service. However, we now hear that the RSD wants FEMA
to replace it entirely. We can’t say they’re wrong as the building probably
is reaching the end of its useful life. And we’d certainly love to end up
with a nice modern building. But we also want to get into our permanent
home in the neighborhood soon. For the moment, we expect to stay in the
mods for the rest of the school year and have no idea where we’ll go next
(4) Our start up has not been free of personality issues. Already we have let
two teachers go, one for insubordination.
(b) Other Players. At every step along the way, my respect for Grisela has increased.
She has a Tulane MBA and runs a small supply firm that sells to the Navy.
Governmental financial reporting requirements don’t daunt her. Otherwise, she is
just plain committed, about as much as I have ever seen anyone committed to a
non-profit project. She is tenacious, tireless and smart. Just when one thinks
about how nice it would be to bottle that energy and spirit, one realizes that
indeed we have done so in this community as the following review of the players
in the local charter school movement will demonstrate:
(1) Government. The first and most startling point to be made is that our
governmental educational institutions are working quite effectively:
(A) BESE. One visit to a BESE board meeting will show you that Paul
Pastorek has firm control of the Department. The board obviously
has its share of adherents to the old system, including teacher
unionization. They clearly are on the outside looking in. Paul’s
deputy in charge of the state charter school office is Ken Campbell.
When dealing with him, one cannot help but wonder whether this
really is the Louisiana state government or whether one is
dreaming. He’s personable, accessible, responsive, smart and
supportive. We were most gratified when he visited CATS and,
after his tour, expressed confidence that we would make it.
Likewise we have had nothing but positive experience with
everyone we have dealt with in his office, from the attorneys who
prepared our charter contract to the people who have guided us
through the maze of financial reporting requirements and funds
(B) RSD. CATS is a so-called “RSD charter;” because for reporting
purposes, and building and operational issues, we are under the
RSD umbrella. While our charter authorizer is BESE and our
funds come directly from the state to the school, we nevertheless
have dealings with RSD. We have encountered consistent support
and a refreshing level of competence.
(C) Orleans Parish School Board. Even the Orleans Parish Public
School system deserves praise. They have run a number of
meetings and presentations on school facilities and have done a
good job at the ones I have attended.
(2) Non-Profit Sector. Katrina made many New Orleanians realize that
government alone cannot solve our problems. It led an incredible number
of people to jump into projects involving politics, housing, levees, crime
and economic development. It also drew people into projects in support of
public education. After three years, we have developed quite a non-profit
infrastructure in support of charter schools.
(A) Boards. Mary Zervigon, Jennifer Fallon, Diana Lewis, Sybil
Morial, Holly Sharp, Ronnie Evans, Robbie Evans, Sarah Hunter,
Mary Lee Murphy, Luis Zervigon, Ken Ducote, Jimmy Reiss,
Steve Rosenthal, Alvin Meister, Tim Ryan, Carolyn Chandler,
Clifford Favrot, Jim Huger, Carol Asher, Mickey Allweis, Doug
Thornton, Robbie Vitrano, George Freeman, Jim Nelson, Mary
Kay Parker, Pat Talley, Mike Bagot, Benton Smallpage, Hal
Brown, Ruth Kullman, Poco Sloss, Martin de Laureal, Bob
Burvant, Annie Balart, Alice Parkerson, Arthur Hardy, Rene
Coman. On an incomplete list of charter school board members, I
counted 178 names; the ones listed were the ones I recognized.
Talk to any one of them and I dare say they find serving on their
charter board is the most challenging non-profit they have ever
taken on. Note also that, to serve, they each must submit to
fingerprinting and a criminal background check, obviously for
each of them more of a pain in the neck than a burden. Boards
must follow the open meetings law and are subject to the Code of
(B) New Schools for New Orleans. Clearly the leader of the movement
is New Schools for New Orleans. Sarah Usdin, its chairman,
founded it right after the storm and it is a superb organization.
Matt Candler is CEO. Ian Arnoff, Steve Rosenthal, Cathy Pierson
and Steve Hales serve on the board. Right now NSNO has a
budget of approximately $5 million per year and a staff of 12.
They raised $7-8 million locally, which then enabled them to ask
for mega gifts from the Gates Foundations and similar national
contributors. At NSNO, they do everything they can to support
charter schools. Ask a question, need a resource, having trouble,
NSNO will likely have the answer. They “incubate” schools and
boards. They train school leaders, putting candidates through a
rigorous paid one-year internship during which they learn best
practices from schools around the country. They also recruit and
train teachers in coordination with the Teach for America program.
(C) Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools. Remember
when Buddy Roemer campaigned on the platform of bricking up
the top two floors of the Department of Education in Baton Rouge?
His daughter Caroline Roemer Shirley has his same bantam
intensity. In her first year as the executive director of the
Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, a trade
association, she beat back several efforts to clip charter schools in
the state legislature. The movement senses that, as it gains success
it will also attract predators. Huge governmental relations needs
lie ahead, so this organization will have to perform. Last weekend,
Caroline and her staff put together an interesting conference on
issues affecting charter schools and it attracted over 175 people for
a full day.
(D) The Walton Family Foundation. I cannot say enough about the
Walton Family Foundation, run by the daughter of Sam Walton.
She met with our board personally and the Foundation gave us a
grant of $250,000. It was critical: much of our funding comes as
reimbursement for expenditures already made. Try walking into a
bank and asking for a loan for a charter school. Explain to them
that the school has no fixed assets, no track record, a business
manager who has been on board for three weeks and that they
money the bank lends will only get paid back if the school fills out
voluminous forms (with which it has no experience) correctly. We
desperately needed that $250K.
(E) Cowen Institute. Tulane sponsors Lusher charter and formed The
Scott S. Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives to serve as
a think tank for the movement.
(F) The Capital One-University of New Orleans Charter School
Network. UNO runs 6 New Orleans charter schools.
(G) Algiers Charter Schools Association. The Algiers Charter Schools
Association runs nine charter schools in Algiers. One day they
assembled their entire senior staff to give us free advice on
everything from running a bus service to picking vendors for the
lunch program. Having been at this since Katrina, they knew their
numbers. Theoretically we compete with them, but Brian
Reidlinger makes it clear that they view themselves as part of a
movement and want the movement as a whole to succeed.
(H) KIPP. The KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) organization
runs six schools, all open enrollment. In KIPP schools, the
principal’s office lies right in the front hallway, giving the
principal the utmost visibility and ability to be vigilant. As a first
step, KIPP students receive intensive training in those little aspects
of behavior - manners and such - that serve one so well in life. In a
KIPP classroom, when a kid gets the answer right, the teacher is
apt to pull out a cell phone and call the kid’s parents to tell them
about it right then.
4. Observations. Educators tend to expound at length on educational subjects and my role
as a foot soldier in the movement entitles me to keep you here much longer than I will.
To close, I’d like to make just a few additional observations:
(a) Test Scores. The Department of Education releases what it calls “School
Performance Scores” annually for schools. The SPS is a composite of various
statistics and apparently mere mortals can never understand how they derive it.
But in 1999, 32.7% of Louisiana schools received an SPS below the minimally
acceptable level of 60. Today, that number has been reduced to 7.1%. In New
Orleans, 24 of our 53 reporting schools remain below the level. Of the 24, 8 are
charter schools. Of the 29 above the level, 23 are charters.
(b) Schools Campuses. Every charter school campus I have visited has been clean
and presentable. American public schools historically have had the mission of
turning students into citizens. How can we expect young people to honor the
social contract when we fail at the one thing they ask their government to provide,
a decent place to learn? Those Pre-Katrina public schools were just awful but
now charter schools have to compete for students. The first thing they do is
present a nice appearance.
(c) Teachers Union. Last night’s Orleans Parish School Board meeting clearly
indicated that the United Teachers of New Orleans stands ready to bring back the
bad old days. Thank goodness Phyllis Landrieu, the swing vote, voted against the
(d) Vouchers. Orleans Parish now has a limited voucher system and, as noted, many
have pushed for voucher systems around the country. Vouchers hurt CATS. We
lost at least three students when vouchers became available to them.
(e) Balkanized Structure. We currently have RSD schools, RSD charters, Orleans
Parish schools, Orleans Parish charters, school buildings owned OPSB but run, in
many cases, by RSD, two superintendents, two boards, coupled with the OPSB’s
massive pre-Katrina debt. Many of the charters expire in 5 years and live in fear
that they will revert to being traditional Orleans Parish public schools. We
obviously have to move to a saner public school organizational structure and the
sanest structure would again put the Orleans Parish School Board generally in
charge. But we don’t want to rush. It is not certain the OPSB, even with its
incoming board, will embrace charter schools. We need to follow the charter
program with fidelity, allowing it time to gain traction. There will be time to
figure out the best structure to oversee it.
(f) Your Contribution. Meantime, you can contribute to the cause by talking it up.
We’re making progress. We may even be making history. It’s exciting.
Post-script as of September 14, 2009: CATS has started its second year in a new (old) building
with more than twice the students and a new third grade. Over the summer, the RSD moved us
to the old New Orleans Free School building on Foucher and Camp Streets. We had a brief
hiccup when the Orleans Parish Public School made an end-run to BESE to try to get the
building back for its purposes. But RSD and the LAPSCA came through for us big time. We
were able to beat OPSB at BESE. The school itself was in deplorable shape, so friends, parents,
teachers, administrators and board members pitched in to clean it up. We received a glowing
review from BESE after its evaluation last April. We had a successful fund-raiser in June. Most
importantly, and thanks almost entirely to our tireless Treasure, Michael Neyrey, we have a
balanced budget for the current school year.