Schwarz teachers were determined despite challenges
June 28, 2009

Armed with butcher paper, a minuscule periodic table of the elements and an overhead projector, Claire Reuter tried one sweltering afternoon to teach a chemistry lesson.

The tiny room, littered with broken pencils, provided more than enough space for the two students who showed up.

Wearing her car keys around her neck — a habit formed after a student stole her car — Reuter put a worksheet titled "periodic properties guided notes" on the overhead. The two students squinted to make out the small type. Unlike several Recovery School District schools in New Orleans, Schwarz Alternative School never received high-tech Promethean boards to replace the old school projectors.

Reuter introduced students to the "noble gases" by making crowns out of notebook paper to illustrate the concept of nobility. She had tried in January to conduct a real science lab, purchasing supplies like beakers and pickle juice. But after the students started using the red beans and black-eyed peas involved in the experiment as projectiles, she dropped the idea.

Overwhelmed but determined

Reuter, a 23-year-old member of Teach For America, the alternative teacher recruitment program that brings in top college graduates for two-year commitments, was a typical Schwarz teacher: young, inexperienced, yet dogged in the face of overwhelming odds.

More than three-quarters of Schwarz' teachers started the school year with less than two years of teaching experience; several were participants in Teach For America. Teachers say they received little, if any, training and support from the school in working with troubled children, some of whom had violent histories.

David Bell, the chief judge at Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, said that while the Schwarz security tactics "were too rough," many of the 20-something instructors were "more scared of the children than the children were of them."

Bell and others think Schwarz needs to find a middle ground: staff who can control the students without resorting to brutality.

"We definitely need some more experienced educators with a larger age gap between them and the students," he said.

Despite the enormous challenge, staff and students alike said the young teachers provided a sense of stability at Schwarz last year.

"I think a lot of the young teachers really made progress with some of these kids," said William Brown, Schwarz' physical education teacher. "Of course, a large part is trying to win their trust, and it might take half of the year to do that."

'Have you seen us?'

One March day at Schwarz, most of the teachers worked tirelessly without the benefit of many supplies, books or computers. Some students constantly disrupted classes, while others genuinely seemed to want to learn.

One teacher lectured on tragedy; another tried to explain the meaning of cause and effect; and a third defined words like "oligarchy" and "theocracy."

Students changed rooms one class at a time, with a behavior specialist closely monitoring all movement through the hallways. Even small sounds echoed loudly. Not-so-distant door-slams and shouts frequently punctuated lessons.

Although more than 300 students were on the Schwarz roster over the course of the year, dozens failed to show up on any given day, leaving many classrooms with fewer than five students.

A small poster in the main hallway asked "Have you seen us?" listing the names of more than 30 students who hadn't shown up in weeks. Next to only a few of the names, someone had scrawled "WB" for "welcome back."

Four Schwarz students interviewed in the Iberville public housing development one May morning said they attended sporadically — if at all. One, a 17-year-old who said a security guard slammed her into the floor, had stopped attending months ago. Two others said they might show up for the last day of school — if they felt like it. A fourth, one of Schwarz' best students, said staff told him not to bother coming for the rest of the year after he took the high-stakes LEAP test.

"I cannot imagine any of the RSD teachers saying that," responded Michael Haggen, the deputy superintendent at the RSD in charge of alternative schools. RSD officials said Schwarz' average attendance rate was close to 66 percent, which they said was relatively high for an alternative settings, in which truancy is an ever-present issue.

System of rewards

The Schwarz staff tried to use rewards — permission to wear jewelry or go to the restroom unescorted, for instance — to motivate students. One former staffer called them "bribes," but other teachers said they motivated some students.

A large bulletin board ranked students into different categories based on behavior. At the top came the names of one or two "Executives," closely followed by a handful of "Tigers." Most of the students were "Neutrals" and several had fallen into the "Concerns" category.

The tigers and executives could order out for food and move around the building much more freely. One executive spent much of her time in the front office assisting the secretary with the phones. One afternoon, she sat there, quietly munching on McDonald's food.

Camelot officials said that some of the students bought into the behavior modification plan immediately, but others cared little.

That became apparent at the end of one afternoon, when a Camelot leader known to the students as Da' Vanti Bryant tried to praise a group of students for their good behavior throughout the day.

"Team 1, stand up!" he called out.

The students didn't budge.

"Team 1, stand up. We are trying to reward you. You all don't want to stand up to be rewarded?"

The cry went one last time.

"Teeeam 1, staaaand up!!!"

Finally, a few students stood up. But by this point, it felt more like a punishment than a reward — their faces full of shame, not pride.

Copyright 2009, The Times-Picayune
Publishing Corporation

From: Sarah Carr, "Overtaxed teachers find resolve tested; Staff too often resorts to brutality, some say," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, June 28, 2009, National, p. 3.  See online as:, accessed 06/28/09.  Sarah Carr can be reached at  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.


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