Principal Nicholas Dean looks at his scarred, broken office door with resignation.
"Time to get a new lock," he says.
Over the weekend, a person or persons smashed into his office, found the keys to the school van and drove off in it.
It's another day at Crescent Leadership Academy, one of New Orleans' three second-chance schools for students who have not been successful elsewhere.
The students at CLA range from ages 12 to 21. Nearly all are from poor families. More than half end up here after getting expelled from the city's charter schools, mostly for fighting, weapons or drugs. At least half of the students are already in the city's juvenile or criminal justice system. And 15 percent meet the definition of homeless, whether living with friends, extended family or in shelter housing.
"We have no choice but to be flexible," Dean says. "At any given time 110 students are coming in with 110 different issues, 110 different things happened last night."
Dean, the first-year principal, is an Air Force veteran who admits that at this school he's often flying without instruments. The health app on his smart watch shows he averages more than 5 1/2 miles a day just roaming the halls and grounds.
"To know what's going on ... no surprises ... know which teachers are strong and which teachers are struggling, why and how on both sides. To know who all the students are, to create that sense of trust," Dean says.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city's public school system was remade wholesale. More than 9 out of 10 students now attend charter schools, most administered by the Recovery School District. Scores on state tests have reportedly improved dramatically — though student-level data have not been openly released — and the city has been hailed as a national model.
However, a persistent complaint has been that many charter high schools, in the rush to raise standards and scores, imposed a one-size-fits-all, zero-tolerance discipline policy. Parent groups and other critics charged that schools became too quick to suspend, expel or otherwise "push out" students who are more difficult — or expensive — to deal with.
Meanwhile, the district lacks many of the coordinated functions found in other cities, such as dropout-prevention efforts, assistance finding placement in another setting, and adequate adolescent mental health services.
At their highest, in the 2007-2008 school year, expulsion rates in the district were 10 times the national average.
A response came in 2012-2013, when the district created a centralized board to review expulsions. Adam Hawf, at that time deputy superintendent, was the architect of that policy.
"The demand for this actually came from the school community," says Hawf, who has since left the district and is an independent education consultant. "It was a question of fairness."
Under the new policy, the charter schools agreed on a list of offenses that can lead to expulsion, and on a due process. Expulsions fell between 2013 and 2014, driving the city's rate below Louisiana's as a whole.
But suspension rates in the school district are still three times the state average.
Weakening Ties With School
"Kids are still being kicked out of school for normal adolescent behavior," says Gina Womack, who founded Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children. Womack says that over time, rhetoric about "superpredators" has given way to positive behavioral intervention and other discipline practices designed to keep kids in class.
But, she adds, "when you have 61,000 kids being suspended [a year, statewide] out of school, about 8,000 of those kids suspended for more than a couple months, positive behavior support isn't being utilized the way that it should."
The Recovery School District says that dropout prevention and discipline issues, by design, are not part of its mission. "It's something that's handled individually," says Dana Peterson, the RSD's deputy superintendent of external affairs. "That's the point of our unique decentralized school system."
He says the all-choice model, with no neighborhood schools, is the best way for each student to find his or her best fit. "We think that leveling the playing field and equalizing access is something that speaks to the issue in some small way as a district."
Joshua Perry with the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights applauds the city's positive steps on expulsions and suspensions. But he says charters in New Orleans are still too quick to pull kids out of class for far too broad a range of incidents.
"We can do better by our most vulnerable kids than assuming that there is a one-size-fits-all solution for the great majority of them," Perry says.
What critics call "pushout" isn't always expulsion. On paper it can look identical to a voluntary transfer, perhaps to a school such as CLA.
A class-action lawsuit filed against the Recovery School District last year argued that students with learning disabilities and mental health issues, in particular, were being shuffled from school to school and inappropriately harshly disciplined. Many of the students at CLA have these kinds of diagnoses.
The range of serious problems some students come to school with are enormously challenging, says CLA's full-time social worker, Tarsha Davis. "Suicidal ideations. Sexual abuse. A lot of trauma. We have lots of kids who are hurting, they're not getting the services they need. Whether those barriers are family, their own barriers or simply not having the resources," she says.
A consent decree, the first step to a settlement, was announced in December. It requires that charter schools here be held accountable for serving students with disabilities, and that the RSD do a better job tracking young people and seeing that they find appropriate placements.
Neither the district nor the Southern Poverty Law Center, which brought the suit, nor school leaders named would comment on the ongoing litigation.
But Hawf, the former deputy superintendent, says the suit was "a blessing," because it "increased the level of urgency and focus" around serving underserved students. He cites another factor at work in an all-charter system: "Some of the past misbehavior was a result of psychological fear about finances."
And he has an unlikely solution: better budgeting. He says removing schools' fears that they will be stuck "holding the bag" for students who are inherently more expensive to serve can provide incentives for them to help those students.
During his tenure he helped change the district's funding formula and create a fund to ensure that schools would receive more resources to meet the needs of students with disabilities.
The Crescent Leadership Academy is one of just three schools set up to deal with problem kids, and before Dean arrived, it was widely known as a weak link. A local nonprofit that advocates for children alleged that the school was little more than a way station on the school-to-prison pipeline.
Dean's boss, the superintendent of this school, is Tracy Bennett-Joseph. She concedes the charter got off to a rocky start 2 1/2 years ago. Teacher turnover was huge. Learning often took a back seat to basic safety.
"Students that came to us had serious criminal backgrounds. Fights, gangs. This is our third year and I think 14 of our students have been killed," she says. That number, she says, shows "just what our students are dealing with outside of school."
But the critics now say they have seen improvements. They're giving Dean and Crescent Leadership Academy a second chance.
So are the second-chance students CLA serves.
The biggest change, students told us, is simply the school's culture. There is now a clear sense that the principal and teachers care about helping students achieve and reach concrete goals, especially graduating from high school.
Tahj Cruell, 16, ended up here for fighting. "It ain't no bad school. The principal, Mr. Dean, is a good man," he says. "He works with you. It's hard to get into trouble because the teachers here understand you. And if you get into trouble here, you're just ignorant."
Besides, he says, "I don't know what's after this and I don't wanna find out."
Tahj loves football. He's a talented cornerback. He plays on the school's makeshift and popular new football squad. He dreams of a career in the NFL. But he's a realist.
If he doesn't make it in the pros, he says, he'll get his contractor's license and a small-business loan — "I'll build my own construction crew, do some entrepreneurship," he says.
By all accounts, the school has made progress under principal Dean. The graduation rate is expected to jump to 73 percent this year, a big improvement.
Derricka Tucker, 18, has been at CLA since 2012. "Since Mr. Dean came, it's really improved," she says. "A lot. Now they really on it this year. They barely be having fights this year. They used to have a whole lot of fights last year."
Tucker, too, ended up here after being expelled for fighting. Her twin sister got into it with another girl. Then, she says, "we both got kicked out of the regular school. ... She can't fight without me having to jump in. That's my twin, that's my baby."
She'll soon have her own baby — a boy, due this summer. She attends school two days a week on an adjusted schedule and works as a supermarket cashier the other days. She lives with relatives. Tucker says she's still determined to graduate from CLA in May.
"I have no choice," she says. "I gotta step up. This is a new human being in me!"
"We don't always have a whole lot of success stories," says Davis, the CLA social worker. But Derricka Tucker "is one of those students that's gonna make it. She has a self-determination in her to keep moving. She's hanging in there."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We're going to go to New Orleans now. It's estimated that that city has more than 26,000 youth who are neither working nor in school. Before they drop out or are expelled, some end up at Crescent Leadership Academy. More than half of the students at that charter school have had run-ins with the justice system. A new principal is trying to improve this last-chance school. It's a work-in-progress, as Eric Westervelt from the NPR Ed. team reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Principal Nicholas Dean looks at the scarred and broken parts of his office door with pragmatic resignation. Time to get a better lock. Over the weekend, a person or persons smashed their way into his office and got away with the school van.
NICHOLAS DEAN: Whoever came in appears to know what they were going after. They came in and went straight to several administrators' offices, found a van key and took off.
WESTERVELT: They didn't take computers or cameras. They just wanted the big, lumbering van. Another day at New Orleans' biggest expulsion school, Crescent Leadership Academy, or CLA. The ages here range from 12 to 21, a mash-up of middle and high school. There's no school bell yet at CLA. It's on order. Principal Dean is the human ringer, using voice and a gym whistle to signal it's time to change classes.
DEAN: All you guys better be in classes in this direction.
WESTERVELT: The first-year principal admits he's often flying without a compass, but by all accounts, the 37-year-old wings it beautifully, fueled by a kinetic energy that seems to swing between efficient productivity and raw stress. The health app on his smart watch shows he averages more than five-and-a-half miles a day just roaming the halls and school grounds.
DEAN: To know what's going on - no surprises - know which teachers are strong, which teachers are struggling, why and how on both sides and to know who all the students are to create that sense of trust.
WESTERVELT: Last year, the students went to school in temporary trailers in the city's Lower Ninth Ward. Now they're in a spacious, if still slightly bedraggled, former Catholic school in the city's Algiers section on the West Bank of the Mississippi River.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUS)
WESTERVELT: Students are bused in from just about every part of New Orleans. More than half end up here after getting expelled from the city's charter schools for violence, fighting, weapons or what they term aggression-related offenses. At least half of the students are already in the city's juvenile or criminal justice system, and 15 percent meet the definition of homeless. They're living with friends, extended family or shelter housing.
DEAN: We have no choice but to be flexible. At any given time, 110 students are coming with 110 different issues. A-hundred-and-ten different things happened last night.
WESTERVELT: Before Principal Dean arrived, advocates for children here told me the school was an academically inept way station for at-risk youth barreling down the school-to-prison pipeline. They told me they were on the edge of suing the school for failing students academically, socially and emotionally. Dean is the principal. His boss, the superintendent of this school, is Tracy Bennett-Joseph. She concedes the charter got off to a rocky start when it took over the functions of the city's traditional expulsion school two-and-a-half years ago. Learning often took a backseat to basic safety.
TRACY BENNETT-JOSEPH: Students that came to us, they had some serious, you know, criminal backgrounds and just fights, gangs. We've been - what? - this is our third year. We've had - I think it's 14 of our students have been killed. That number is definitely - has a statement to it as far as what our students are dealing with outside of school.
WESTERVELT: But those very critics now say they have seen big improvements. They're giving Dean and Crescent Leadership Academy a second chance, so are the second-chance students CLA serves.
TAHJ CRUELL: I mean, it ain't no bad school. The principal, Mr. Dean, he's a good man.
WESTERVELT: Sixteen-year-old Tahj Cruell ended up at CLA for fighting.
TAHJ: He works with you. It's hard to get in trouble because the teachers here understand you. If you get in trouble, it's because you're just ignorant.
WESTERVELT: Tahj, if you screw up here, what's your next step? I mean, what's the step down from here?
TAHJ: I don't know what's after this, and I don't want to find out.
DEAN: You guys are sitting right across from each other. She's perceiving you two guys as the leaders of that conversation. Yeah, maybe other people were talking, but it's stemming because of you two talking.
WESTERVELT: Principal Dean is talking to a student who was just kicked out of class for being disruptive. Dean mixes discipline with concern, says 18-year-old student Derricka Tucker. She's attended CLA since 2012.
DERRICKA TUCKER: It's very improved. It's improved a lot-lot since Mr. Dean came. Like, it's really improved. Now they really own it this year. They barely be having fights this year. They used to have a whole lot of fights last year.
WESTERVELT: Tucker, too, ended up here after being expelled for fighting. My twin sister got into it with another girl, she says, and we both got kicked out of the regular school.
TUCKER: She can't fight with nobody in front of me, like, without, you know, me having to jump in because that's my twin. That's my baby.
WESTERVELT: The teenager will soon have her own baby. Her baby boy is due this summer. She attends school two days a week on an adjusted schedule and works at a super market the other days. Tucker says she's still determined to graduate from CLA in May.
TUCKER: I have no choice. I got to step up. This is a new human being in me.
WESTERVELT: What are you all doing?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Making shapes for geometry class.
WESTERVELT: By all accounts, the school has made progress under Principal Dean. Their graduation rate is expected to jump to 73 percent this year - a big improvement. But academic progress has been slow. Some of the curriculum seems frighteningly basic. In this high school geometry class, teenagers, some with learning challenges, are cutting out paper squares and triangles and gluing them to string.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Square, rectangle.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: And a circle.
WESTERVELT: Critics say charter schools in New Orleans are still too quick to expel. Onerous and absurdly strict disciplinary policies, they charge, result in far too many kids getting expelled, suspended, or counseled out of the school for what are, in the end, problematic but often typical adolescent behaviors. Aware of the expulsion and suspension problem, the city's charters came together to make some changes. They've now consolidated the expulsion hearing process, improved records tracking and added two other schools where expelled students can go. Former Recovery School District Deputy Superintendent Adam Hawf helped create the new single-expulsion review board.
ADAM HAWF: We brought this to the charter school community, and to my absolute surprise, everybody in the room agreed that there should be some sort of centralized process for ensuring that students have due process and that students aren't simply expelled to the street.
WESTERVELT: The result - expulsions in New Orleans' Recovery School District dropped by about a third last year. The rate is still high, but it's now lower than Louisiana as a whole. Josh Perry with the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights applauds the city's positive steps, but he says charters here are still too quick to pull kids out of class for far too broad a range of incidents.
JOSH PERRY: We can do better by our most vulnerable kids than assuming that there is a one-size-fits-all solution for the great majority of them.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING BASKETBALL)
WESTERVELT: Standing near the makeshift parking lot basketball court, Principal Dean is the first to concede that CLA and its students still have a long way to go.
DEAN: When they arrive here now, yes, they're on a road where they need to make a change for whatever the behavior was. And many students will blame others for their issue or minimize the issue - mislabel it. And our task and job is to be able to not tell them, not preach at them, not bark at them, not say you should do this, you should do this, but to ask questions in a way that allow them to have - aha - self-actualized moments.
WESTERVELT: Late in the afternoon, Principal Dean has his own minor aha-moment with the help of the New Orleans Police Department. They found that stolen school van. It was spared the chop shop. Joyriders abandoned it a few miles away with only minor damage. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.