JIM LEHRER: The "NewsHour"'s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has been tracking changes in the public schools of New Orleans and Washington, D.C., two cities that are being watched nationally.
We begin in New Orleans tonight. John looks at alternative schools for students with behavior and academic problems.
JOHN MERROW: When school superintendent Paul Vallas arrived in New Orleans three years ago, he faced a tough challenge: how to educate students who are way behind academically or who have gotten in trouble with the law.
This school, Booker T. Washington, was designed for teenagers who are performing at an elementary school level. Although three-fourths of students in Vallas' district are at least one grade level behind, here, the problem is extreme.
PAUL VALLAS, superintendent, Louisiana Recovery School District: I have got 16-year-old seventh-graders and 17-year-old eighth-graders and 18-year-old ninth-graders who are reading at the third- or fourth-grade reading level. Those are -- those are tremendous challenges.
JOHN MERROW: Students who have been expelled or run into trouble with the law attend Success at Schwarz Academy, with the goal of improving their behavior and returning to regular high school.
PAUL VALLAS: We have students who have violated the zero-tolerance policy, who -- who pose a physical danger to other students, kids who are too violent and too disruptive to be kept in the traditional school environment.
JOHN MERROW: From day one, discipline at both schools became the main concern.
Mera Bercy, who is assistant principal at Booker T. Washington:
MERA BERCY, Assistant Principal, Booker T. Washington: Our students, they are frustrated. They are emotionally frustrated. They are academically frustrated. They're not aware of how they're creating a domino effect or how it may affect the entire classroom.
JOHN MERROW: Halfway through his first year, Vallas turned to an approach he had used before, as superintendent in Philadelphia. He hired a private company, Camelot, to run Booker T. Washington and Schwarz.
PAUL VALLAS: One of the reasons that we brought Camelot in was, there was no infrastructure. When we came in, there were no alternative schools. We were not equipped yet to come in with a model of our own and to set up these programs and to run them effectively.
JOHN MERROW: Camelot established a rigid code of behavior.
MAN: Where are you supposed to be?
JOHN MERROW: Students had to walk through the halls with their hands behind their backs. Those who acted out were removed from class and placed in in-school suspension.
LUKE STRATTNER, teacher, Booker T. Washington School: For right now, you don't even need to copy this last sentence.
JOHN MERROW: According to math teacher Luke Strattner and others, the approach backfired.
LUKE STRATTNER: There was big fights going on every day. And, so, there was so much chaos that, the Camelot guys, you know, we were all trying to control the chaos, but it wasn't really working.
JOHN MERROW: Just over a year later, Vallas chose not to renew Camelot's contract at either school.
Did you fire Camelot?
PAUL VALLAS: No, no, no. We contracted them only for a single year. I mean, the game plan was to bring them in, to get programs set up, so that we wouldn't have these kids on the street, and then to -- and then to bring the programs in-house. So, that was always part of the plan.
JOHN MERROW: Bringing in Camelot was a mistake, or not?
PAUL VALLAS: No, it wasn't a mistake at all. Given the fact that nothing existed, I believe that they did an adequate job, in fact, maybe even a more-than-adequate job.
JOHN MERROW: This year, Paul Vallas took back control of his alternative schools. And he's moved fast, introducing a host of strategies designed to reach beyond the classroom and address the deeper roots of student problems.
KHALIL OSIRIS, founder, Circle of Courage Mentoring Program: Who here believes -- if you -- if you believe you would shoot somebody if you got in a fight with them, let me see your hand. Raise your hand.
MAN: I got jumped. It was the first time I ever got jumped. And I was just -- I was -- I was really -- I was -- excuse my language -- pissed off.
KHALIL OSIRIS: Right.
JOHN MERROW: This is Circle of Courage, a new course at Booker T. Washington, the school for overage students. It's a daily class designed to teach them to make better life decisions, a lesson leader Khalil Osiris and other instructors have learned the hard way.
KHALIL OSIRIS: Each of us has had challenges with the criminal justice system. We have made some very poor choices and, in some cases, horrible choices, in our lives, but have found a way to turn our lives around.
You have the potential to do it all, but it comes down to what kind of choices you're going to make. You feel me? All right.
STUDENT: They been there, they done that, and they understand. And then they give us a positive note, so we don't take the same route that they took.
KHALIL OSIRIS: I love that.
JOHN MERROW: Deputy superintendent Michael Haggen oversees Vallas' alternative schools.
MICHAEL HAGGEN, deputy superintendent, Louisiana Recovery School District: They're learning how to de-escalate on their own. They're learning how to do peer mediation. They're learning that there are opportunities where you are going to be on the outside world where you're going to have to make a choice: Do you want to do something that's a poor decision, or do you want to make the best decision?
JOHN MERROW: Principal Rosemary Martin hopes that lessons learned in Circle of Courage will lead to academic success.
ROSEMARY MARTIN, principal, Booker T. Washington School: A lot of them put up walls. And we have had to chisel away at those walls, so that we can get into their minds, so that they have a mind-set of wanting to be taught, wanting to achieve, wanting to learn, even though they may be three and four grades below or behind their age level.
JOHN MERROW: To earn the students' trust, principal Martin says the school has to take responsibility for past mistakes. Many students are victims of a system that promoted them year after year, in spite of their poor performance.
Suppose a kid says, "Hey, how come they didn't teach me to read?" What do you say?
ROSEMARY MARTIN: I tell the students who have that -- those issues that, yes, there are people who didn't teach you how to read. Somewhere along the road, someone dropped the ball.
JOHN MERROW: So, it's not their fault?
ROSEMARY MARTIN: It's not their fault. That's the first step, is acknowledgement.
JOHN MERROW: Last year, just 13 percent of eighth-graders passed the state test required to move on to high school. This year, with the help of after-school programs and Saturday classes, principal Martin hopes she will reach 60 percent.
ROSEMARY MARTIN: It's an all-out effort to have our kids achieve the mastery of -- that they need to achieve.
JOHN MERROW: At Schwarz Academy, the high school for students who have been expelled, discipline is still tight, but classes have changed. In this journalism class, students are encouraged to develop and present a point of view. Schwarz now has a monthly newspaper, a first for the school. Today's discussion concerns coverage of the earthquake in Haiti.
MAN: You guys write well, and people will tend to follow what you all say.
JOHN MERROW: Today's discussion concerns coverage of the earthquake in Haiti.
STUDENT: We should do a -- comparing to Katrina.
KENISHA SIMS, student, Success Academy at Schwarz: It's about the time that it took for them to give the people food and to save them and stuff like that to the time that it took for them to get to New Orleans and save us.
MICHAEL HAGGEN: I think, for the first time, they're recognizing that they have a voice. Somebody's asking them what do they believe, and they get to say it.
JOHN MERROW: In an effort to develop skills that can lead to jobs, some Schwarz students are now participating in a dual enrollment program at Louisiana Technical College. Courses include nursing and carpentry.
I like taking young people out of the traditional high school environment, and putting them in an environment where they are surrounded with individuals who have -- who are focused on their careers.
MAN: That's what we're going to do, young man, all right?
JOHN MERROW: Although both schools still struggle with behavior problems, Vallas believes his empowerment approach is making a difference.
PAUL VALLAS: It's like tough love, where, with Camelot, it was tough.
JOHN MERROW: Tough love vs. tough?
PAUL VALLAS: Vs. tough.
JOHN MERROW: State test results come back in May. Vallas will be watching for those scores and other indicators as well.
PAUL VALLAS: We will measure success by whether or not their behavior improves, by whether or not they become focused, by whether or not they begin to act responsibly. We will be able to tell whether or not they're having a positive impact.
JOHN MERROW: Already, some students are voting with their feet. At Schwarz, students are meant to transfer back to traditional high schools. Some are choosing to stay.
JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, to Washington, D.C., the other school system that John Merrow has been following.
Chancellor Michelle Rhee and the teachers union reached agreement on a contract yesterday. Rhee lost her push to get teachers to give up tenure in exchange for higher pay. But teachers will get performance-based bonuses if their students do better academically. And Rhee and the principals will have more latitude to choose which teachers to keep if schools are closed or budgets are cut.
She explained her support for the agreement at a joint news conference today.
MICHELLE RHEE, chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools: Everything is driven by performance for children. So, if you look at the way that teachers will be compensated now, that will largely be driven by whether or not you're performing and delivering results for children. So, we're moving away from a lockstep pay structure and to a new performance pay structure.
The second is that the -- the decisions about staffing in schools, who may be leaving a school because of an excess or who will be placed in a school will be driven by performance. Who is best suited to meet the needs of the children in this school? So, instead of being driven by seniority, we're driving those decisions by performance.
JIM LEHRER: Union leaders said they were pleased as well. They won a 21 percent salary increase over five years and professional development for teachers.
Randi Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which is the national parent organization of the Washington union. She spoke at the news conference as well.
RANDI WEINGARTEN, president, American Federation of Teachers: We may have had different views about how to change schools, but let there be no doubt, both sides wanted change.
The status quo wasn't working for anyone, not for teachers, not for administrators, especially not for kids. And, so, what the new agreement has done is to create an environment of high expectations for our kids and give teachers the tools they need to excel in the classroom.
JIM LEHRER: The local union membership and the city council must still ratify the deal.