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Making Plans

written Sunday, 5/21/2006

Anticipating next year

Bonnabel or West Jefferson? That has been the question.

At which school would I be able to make the greatest impact? At which school would I be happier? Which school could best utilize my skills and talents?

If given the choice, where should I return to teach next year?

For months I’ve been leaning towards Bonnabel High school for two major reasons. First, I would get the opportunity to teach a computer animation class as they launch their new “career academy” programs (funded by the $750,000 grant they received last summer). Second, the school is a three-mile drive from my Kenner apartment, as opposed to the 20-mile commute to West Jefferson. Given the heavy post-Katrina traffic, the savings in time is significant. Also, I still remember having to abruptly say goodbye to my Bonnabel students, and telling them that I would love to see them again next school year. I was their teacher for only two months, but I still think about many of them.

The transition to West Jefferson has had its rough moments, but in recent months I’ve developed quite a fondness for many of my students. Some really challenge my patience with their poor study habits, lousy attendance, disruptive behavior, and apparent inability to comprehend the most basic math concepts. However, as we’ve gotten to know each other better, they understand that I have their best interest at heart. They may not like the subjects that I teach, but I think they appreciate my efforts to educate them in math and in life. Likewise, I no longer interpret their misbehaviors and other shortcomings as disrespectful attacks against me (Well, most of the time I don’t). I realize that they’re just kids, and many are struggling through life under extraordinary circumstances. Many clearly look up to me, as I’ve been a positive influence for them.

I’ve felt valued and well supported at both Bonnabel and West Jefferson. Who could have guessed that within the past week’s time, I would suddenly decide not to return to either school.

Out of nowhere…

Last Wednesday I received a call from Bonnie, the cohort leader for this year’s TGNO math group (which now has only six members, down from the original 15). Since October, she’s led the biweekly meetings where we new teachers get together to vent about our struggles while occasionally sharing a success story or two.

Completely unexpectedly, Bonnie mentioned that there was an opening for a math teacher at Lusher, the New Orleans charter school where she works. I was flattered to be the first person that she called regarding the position. Bonnie is not in charge of hiring, but as the math department head, her recommendation must hold some weight.

During our conversation, and in the following days, I found out more about Lusher.

What is a magnet school?
from Wikipedia

In the U.S. system of education, a magnet school is a public school that draws students interested in specific subjects such as academics or the arts, from the surrounding region (typically a school district or a county).
Some magnet schools have a competitive entrance process, requiring students to take an exam or submit an application in order to enter so admission requires a desire to enter the school. Some simply require an application to enter a lottery system.

What is a charter school?
from NCES glossary

A public charter school is a publicly funded school that, in accordance with an enabling state statute, has been granted a charter exempting it from selected state or local rules and regulations. A charter school may be newly created, or it may previously have been a public or private school; it is typically governed by a group or organization (e.g., a group of educators, a corporation, or a university) under a contract or charter with the state. In return for funding and autonomy, the charter school must meet accountability standards. A school's charter is reviewed (typically every 3 to 5 years) and can be revoked if guidelines on curriculum and management are not followed or the standards are not met.

While many of the schools in the horrendous New Orleans Public School system (Orleans Parish) were shut down or taken over by the state last year, Lusher has thrived. With magnet school status, the school developed a heavily arts-based program for its elementary and middle school students. Several people have told me that parents are known to camp out overnight in attempts to get their children admitted.

Lusher’s bid for charter school status became public in August 2005, just a couple weeks before Katrina. The application was eventually approved after the storm. Now unhindered by the Orleans school system, Lusher has reignited their expansion into high school. Next year, they will have an 11th grade for the first time, with a projected 35-40 students in that class. The middle and high school grades will move to the old Fortier building in the Uptown region of New Orleans. The former Fortier High School, which gained notoriety in 2003 when their class valedictorian was unable to pass the state’s Graduate Exit Exam, was shut down permanently after Katrina.

Test scores demonstrate that, academically, Lusher is one of the best schools in the Greater New Orleans region. Parent involvement is very strong. The faculty meets regularly to collaborate in a cooperative and supportive environment. A few teachers at West Jefferson have confirmed that this type of opportunity doesn’t come along very often. While these colleagues would hate to see me leave, they advised me that most teachers would jump at the chance to work at a school like Lusher.

After talking to Bonnie, I immediately emailed Lusher’s high school coordinator to confirm my interest. On Sunday, I sent him a cover letter and resume. He called me Monday, and on Tuesday I visited Lusher’s middle school campus for an interview. The primary purpose of my meeting with the Assistant Principal, High School Coordinator, and Numeracy Facilitator was to let them learn more about me and let me learn more about the school. Interestingly though, I discovered a few things about myself.

Preparing to discuss my qualifications forced me to realize how much I’ve grown since starting my new career. Even in my “rookie” year of teaching, I realized how much I already have to offer. I walked into the interview with a calm confidence and optimism that I was never quite able to achieve in my nine-year engineering career. I talked about my mastery of the secondary math subjects. I described my ability to connect with my students: I can exchange casual greetings and handshakes with them as they enter the classroom, but as soon as the bell rings, they know I expect them to work. While stressing my numerous good qualities, I humbly acknowledged that I have much room to grow as an educator. I mentioned how I regularly consult other teachers of various backgrounds for advice and perspective. I related my newfound flexibility, which has helped me navigate through a wildly unpredictable year. During this time of transition and expansion for Lusher, I truly felt that I would be a great asset to the school. I left the interview honestly believing that the Lusher administrators could not possibly find a more desirable candidate for the opening.

Interviews were scheduled to continue throughout the week, I was told, and I would hear from them sometime next week.

On Wednesday, I received a certified letter from Jefferson Parish Public Schools (my current employer). Due to the fact that I have not yet finished earning my teacher certification, I would not be guaranteed a job for next year. I assumed, and other teachers agreed, that this was a formality. Most likely I would be allowed to stay employed in Jefferson Parish. However, the possibility of getting shuffled to another school was very real. The projected enrollment at both Bonnabel and West Jefferson is relatively low. While administrators at both schools promised that they want me back, they may not be permitted to hire any more teachers. They may not even be able to retain all the ones they currently have. With my one year of seniority, I was finding that a position at either place was far from secure.

On Thursday, I received a call from the Assistant Principal at Lusher, offering me a spot on their faculty! This call came much earlier than expected, but apparently they were very impressed. I would later hear that immediately following my interview, she wrote only a one-word note across my resume: “YES.”

I immediately accepted the offer, and thanked her for recognizing my undeniable awesomeness.

This is so unlike the cautious, methodical person I used to be. I had just accepted a job without ever getting into details about salary or which grade I’d be teaching. I’d previously heard that salaries in Orleans are more or less on par with Jefferson, and it was hinted during the interview that they’re looking for someone to teach the higher-level subjects.

At this time in my life, though, such details are minor. Regarding the money, my salary has plummeted over $56,000 since last year. If I drop another couple thousand next year, I think I’ll survive. Regarding the math subject, I’d definitely prefer to teach in the higher grades, but I’m willing to teach whatever the school needs me to teach. I think my overall experience will be determined more by the students, my fellow colleagues, and the school environment. The subject, whether it’s Pre-calculus or Algebra 1, will probably be a secondary factor.

Looking ahead to my second year of teaching, I’m thrilled at the prospect of an entirely different experience. This should help me figure out where I belong. I definitely see a desperate need for quality teachers and role models at a school like West Jefferson. Some kids in my Geometry class have already asked if they could request to be in my Algebra 2 class next year. Some have generously given me credit for helping them pass the Graduate Exit Exam, for which we received results this week. Overall, math scores were up since last year. A quick glance at the list of scores gave me the impression that my students achieved a relatively decent passing rate, although many just barely pulled off the minimum score. (Sadly, my senior NW who wrote me one of the kind letters a couple weeks ago, did not pass). If given a full year, I’m sure I could help bring the passing rate up even further. By choosing to go to Lusher, part of me feels guilty for abandoning my neediest students at West Jefferson.

On the other hand, there are deserving kids all over this region. Lusher may be a public charter school with strict admittance requirements and a lofty reputation, but does that make their students any less deserving? Ultimately I want to end up at the school that can take full advantage of what I have to offer. If I could inspire my Lusher students to jump from a 70% ranking in the state to 90%, is that more or less worthy than inspiring my West Jefferson students to rise from 10% to 15%? (Those numbers are completely theoretical.) If I can inspire my Lusher students to appreciate whatever advantages they’ve been afforded, and someday serve their communities in the same way that a good teacher does, maybe that’s the best role for me to play.

I’m still exploring this new career, and hopefully next year I’ll get a better sense of where I belong. Undoubtedly, the adventure will continue.

Winding down

About a month ago, my West Jefferson students were starting to get Spring fever. I urged them to bring this school year to a strong finish. I planned to teach full speed ahead up until Friday, May 19, I told them. In exchange for keeping up, I’d then provide fun activities and games up to the final day of school, June 1. The incentive seemed to work, and most students kept up their usual level of effort.

Accordingly, last weekend I wrote my final weekly lesson plans of the year. A couple days later I wrote the last tests. (These were regular tests. Due to the 2005 hurricanes, there are no “final exams” this year). Now I’m definitely allowing my students and myself to wind down! It’s a wonderful feeling to see the end of this incredibly challenging school year finally draw near. It’s a little bittersweet too, since I now know that I will not return to West Jefferson in August (assuming everything goes according to plan). I’m looking forward to a relaxing final two weeks with my students, and a chance to offer them a proper farewell.

Articles about Lusher

While trying to learn more about my future employer, I found these articles interesting: