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June 22, 2007
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NOW Transcript - Show 325
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Transcript - June 22, 2007

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.

Nothing in New Orleans is quite the same these days, particularly the schools. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, federal and state officials saw an unprecedented opportunity; a chance to remake much of the school system from the bottom up.

While there are still traditional public schools in the system, New Orleans has become a laboratory for the charter school movement. And how's the end of the year report card? It ain't straight A's.

Na Eng produced our report.

For thirteen-year old Domonick Foy, the first school year since Katrina held great promise. Like so many in this city, Katrina had wrecked the house he and his mother shared, and interrupted his schooling. When we first met Domonick in the fall, he was raring to get his education back on track at a new charter school called Lafayette Academy.

FOY: Before Katrina I finished the year off in sixth grade with a 3.0. And when we went to a different school, I was passing everything except math. So I'm trying to repeat the seventh grade so maybe next year they can put me in my right grade, so I can go to high school.

BRANCACCIO: This was a critical year as well for eleven-year-old Bethaney Charles. Because of Katrina, she had to change schools a few times. She's now going to a new charter school run by "Kipp Believe College Prep". It's part of a chain of 52 schools across the country using something called the "Knowledge is Power Program" or KIPP.

At first, she was a little nervous about what to expect.

CHARLES: On the first day we had a lot of homework. And we had long school hours. And I thought, ah, boy, it's gonna be a long day. And it's not gonna be interesting.

BRANCACCIO: Both of their schools—Kipp believe and Lafayette Academy—are part of a radical experiment to transform one of the worst school districts in the nation.

New Orleans is now the only city in the country where the majority of its schools—about two thirds—are charter schools. A charter school gets public tax dollars, but is independently managed.

We've been following Lafayette's progress since it prepared to kick off in September. Back then, everybody understood that rebuilding New Orleans' schools post-Katrina was an enormous task, but parents and teachers were also energized and hopeful. Many saw it as an historic opportunity to make things right for kids.

Eileen Williams is Lafayette's school principal. She oversaw the tireless work of the staff and volunteers to bring this school back to life.

WILLIAMS: This is a—truly an effort of blood, sweat, and tears, but it—I am convinced that this is all gonna—this is gonna be the—the—the basis for the rebuilding process in New Orleans.

BRANCACCIO: Local real estate developer Jim Huger led the effort to re-open Lafayette as a charter school. Right before the school doors opened—he thanked the staff for their perseverance...

HUGER: All things considering, this has been a fabulous opening! I want to thank you for their hard work...

BRANCACCIO: On its first day of school, Lafayette rolled out the red carpet.

ADMINISTRATOR: We all want you now.

WILLIAMS: Second grade, you're on this floor.... Pre-K, K, and one, first floor. Second, third, and fourth. Second floor.

STUDENT: Good morning, Mr. Meinig...

BRANCACCIO: Just down the street, at KIPP Believe College Prep, school director Adam Meinig greeted his students at the door... Unlike Lafayette, which has 768 K thru seven students—KIPP Believe is a small school of just ninety fifth-grade students.

The kids are in class from 7:30 AM until 5 PM. There are school activities every other Saturday too.

They had serious catching up to do. Most of them came in last fall two grade levels behind.
The incoming students at KIPP were much like their peers in the New Orleans public schools. Pre-Katrina, the school system was so ineffective that a majority of its fourth graders did not meet the minimum standards set by the state. And almost half of the distict's students did not end up graduating from high school.

Meinig, who once taught in the old New Orleans public schools, felt an urgency to reach these children.

MEINIG: There's no magic solution to education. It's a matter of rolling up the sleeves, and saying, "We are gonna do whatever it takes for our kids. To give them the social, and school skill set that they need to be successful anywhere."

BRANCACCIO: KIPP tries to create a supportive learning environment. And they use teaching techniques that are unusual—see for yourself...

Snapping ... to show support...

Finger-vibing... To give out positive energy...

Slogans Everywhere...

And responses in unison...

BRANCACCIO: I've heard this term, the term is you're "Kipp-notizing" your students. Is that what you're up to?

MEINIG: There's some Kipp-notizing going on absolutely. I think what Kipp-notizing really comes down to though is having everybody believing that working hard, being nice, we can achieve whatever it takes.

BRANCACCIO: It seems to work for Bethaney. She says this all makes learning fun.

CHARLES: What I like about KIPP is the way that—they teach us. And it makes you stay awake. I think that's what I like about it.

BRANCACCIO: Like most charter schools, KIPP Believe hires non-union teachers. KIPP's generally very young teachers work long, full days. And in the evenings, they remain on call by cell phone to help with homework.

And there's 2014, a year on many walls and everybody's tongue here. This is the year these kids should become college freshmen.

Who's going to college? Everybody's hand is up. Why do you want to go to college?

HAMMOND: Thank you Mr. B. I am going to college because I want to become a doctor, and I want to be the best Britney that I can be and show everyone that I can go to college.

BRANCACCIO: While the knowledge is power approach is new to New Orleans, the system ahs already seen big gains with other students from their long established schools in Houston and New York City. According to KIPP, an impressive 80% of those former students have gone on to college.

Adam Meinig says the flexibility of working in a charter school makes a difference.

MEINIG: I think the great thing about being a charter school in New Orleans right now, is that we have the autonomy and the—the power to create the school that we wanna create. So, whether that comes to the curriculum that we're using, or how to spend the resources that we have—what kind of a program to build. We're able to do that. And we're—we're free to make—to create the vision of the school that we want.

BRANCACCIO: Charter school advocates like to hold up KIPP as a model of how charter schools can practice innovation and get results. However, when you look at the quality of charter schools around the country, the record is inconsistent.

Over at Lafayette, which began with such enthusiasm, by late fall, the staff was struggling to teach in a school that seemed to be falling apart.

BENDTSEN: I think everybody's becoming so frustrated, every—adult, every kid, every parent. You know? It's very tough. we just kind of having school out here by ourselves as best we can with whatever we can get to work with.

BRANCACCIO: Busses didn't run; copy machines were broken; phones had not yet been installed; most students didn't even have their text books....

Domonick was one of the frustrated students.

FOY: How do they expect us to go to next grade when we can't even get textbooks for us?

BENDTSEN: Exactly, exactly.

BRANCACCIO: Holley Bendtsen is a veteran teacher and New Orleans Native.

BENDTSEN: End of this week makes a month that we have been here with—you know, some plastic and steel desks. And—now we have some pencils, couple a markers. But we don't have much in the way of curriculum.

BRANCACCIO: We found serious problems persisted throughout the school year. And as for Domonick, the stakes were running high. If he can keep up his grades—he can earn a scholarship to Tulane University, where his mom works. Back in their FEMA-issue trailer, he shared his concerns with her.

FOY: And the work they give us ain't really nothin'. Like the homework—like Mr. Finley said. Mr. Finley say, "This is honors, but this is not real honors."

KAREN FOY: Yes, you may be in an honors class. But if they're not challenging you mentally. And you're able to get through that work that quick. And then you go to another state—

FRIEND: Exactly.

KAREN FOY: and you can't cut that work. Then that means that academically they're—they're not meetin' the challenge or the needs of the students. And you're never going to be ready for those standardized tests.

BRANCACCIO: It turns out the hands-off approach of the new system cuts both ways. It also means that every school has to fend for itself, with little logistical support from the school district or the state. In the case of Lafayette... Listen to what happened...

WILLIAMS: We've had the challenge of not having a central office to take care of transportation, to take care of food service, to take care of maintenance, all those things that distract from the business of teaching and learning.

BRANCACCIO: We went back to Lafayette this month, right as the school year was wrapping up. There were improvements... The library got a fresh stock of books, and new lap tops wer being attached to the network.... The playground was filled with kids cheering on a student-versus-teachers basketball game...

But there's no way to get around the fact that despite the efforts of a lot of good people—the school's first year has been a terrible mess.

Principal Eileen Williams and teacher Holley Bendtsen are both leaving Lafayette.

BENDTSEN: Well, I found myself in the spring of this year ... at the end of my ... patience, rope, emotionally, physically ... and I don't think I'm the only person.

BRANCACCIO: She wasn't. This one charter school lost a devastating twenty-plus teachers this past school year.

Among education experts—the charter school movement is controversial.

SANDERS: The whole notion that when you put the adjective in the school name, and say charter, that all of a sudden it is so different, I don't buy that.

BRANCACCIO: Raynard Sanders has 30 years of education experience in New Orleans.

SANDERS: I don't believe that putting the education in New Orleans totally in the hands of the private sector is gonna solve our problems. Given the history of charter school. And, also, the success rate of charter schools.

BRANCACCIO: Charter citics point out that many studies from other school districts do not show that charter schools do any better at educating youngsters.

Many in New Orleans are also concerned about the rush to throw out everything from the old system. All the teachers, both good and bad, were initially fired to quickly usher in the new charter school agenda.

SANDERS: We took a position where we just said, "Look, anybody wants to do a charter, we farming this thing out. You come on in. You're gonna be better than the other guys," with no guidelines, and not take into account the needs and the services that were needed to this total school population.

BRANCACCIO: Jim Huger chairs the non-profit organization that founded Lafayette. His candor on the school's performance is breathtaking.

HUGER: I rate it a C to C minus.

BRANCACCIO: That's the grade you're giving this school after this year?

HUGER: Absolutely. I mean, you know, we—we did a terrible job for the kids in the school this year.

BRANCACCIO: He lays a major piece of the blame on a company called Mosaica Education, a national for-profit firm paid to manage the day to day operations at the school. Mosaica—which runs schools in eight states—has a history of problems with some of its schools.

We did a—search of newspapers just quickly before I came. And even before Katrina, Mosaica's name does show up in a bunch of cases, Michigan and Pennsylvania and Delaware, where there's some quite unhappy school districts that have fired these people.

Did you do enough research before you hired these guys at Mosaica?

HUGER: No.

BRANCACCIO: I mean we ran it—

HUGER: ...the blames lies with the board. I mean this is the board's fault. If you wanna blame anybody, blame me. We hired Mosaica. We're embarrassed by it. I'm embarrassed by it. But—you know—all I can tell you is—is that—we did the research we thought was necessary at the time.

BRANCACCIO: Huger's organization dropped Mosaica. They filed a law suit against the company to recover almost a million dollars in fees. Mosaica education sent us a statement that denied Huger's charges. The company wrote that it "Fulfilled its obligations under its agreement with the Lafayette board" and that "Students received a quality education".

But what about the families that chose this school this past year? I mean, choice has led to a bad outcome in this school for this year.

HUGER: That's a fair statement. But was it worse than what was here before? You know, did we deliver what we said we were gonna deliver? No. And I'll tell them that. And I'll apologize to them, each and every one of them if I have to.

I tell people we are self-correcting. That's the beauty of the system and we're doing it. And it's allowing us to self-correct. And we will get it right.

BRANCACCIO: If Lafayette doesn't self-correct after three years, the state of Louisiana can pull its license. Until recently, however, charter schools have rarely been shut down because of poor performance.

While supporters praise the way that charters spark competition and fives parents choices of schools, the biggest concern for critics of charter schools is fairness. They worry that a free-for-all patchwork of schools—some with their act together and big funging, some not—is not fair for the students who end up in the weaker schools.

Enter Paul Vallas—The man who's just been hired to address some of these problems in the New Orleans school system.

VALLAS: I'm certainly a big fan of charters, but I'm—I'm a big fan of charters with strong accountability.

BRANCACCIO: Vallas is a seasoned education reformer who previously led the vast school systems in Chicago and Philadelphia... He plans on sticking with charters while keeping traditional schools in the mix. And he plans to be a ferocious watchdog.

Is it fair to say that some work is needed in this area of accountability? I mean, they opened a bunch of charter schools.

VALLAS: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: A bunch of them—at least some of them don't seem to be working all that well.

VALLAS: Yeah. Well, you know, it's early in the process, too. You also have to understand the—the devastation that the hurricane in—inflicted on the district. I mean, you literally had students—large numbers of students returning to the city and enrolling in school month by month.

I think you can give schools broad autonomy in terms of—how they structure their day, how they structure their year. For that matter, what curriculum instructional models they choose.

But where you need centralized authority is on the accountability stuff, on the standards stuff.

BRANCACCIO: But while education reforms take time to perfect, kids continue to grow up. Domonick will be in the eighth grade at a new school in the fall. Despite the chaotic year at Lafayette, he pulled off a very respectable three A's and a B.

Meanwhile, at KIPP Believe, Bethaney looks forward to moving on to the new sixth grade. The school will add one new grade every year until it becomes a full middle school with grades five thru eight.

KIPP wants to have five schools running in New Orleans by 2008.

Bethaney's mother had previously been skeptical of charters. But after a year at KIPP, she has become more open to them. In the end, she simply wants to see better schools—charter or no charter.

CHARLES: To me, it's not the particular school system. It's the parents and the students, and the staff all together. We all make the school system. I don't have to have my child in a particular type of school. I just want it to be run by the right staff that's gonna teach her the things that she need to succeed in life.

BRANCACCIO: You can find out more on both the charter school movement and New Orleans' effort to rebuild over at out website. PBS.org is the place to start.

Let's turn now to a way to help poor people get the transportation they need. There's an interesting guy who saw too many low income people get ripped off buying a car. He's figured out a new way to help financially struggling folks get reliable, fuel efficient cars at a fair price.

Turning now to Enterprising Ideas—ways to do business where the bottom line is making the world a better place. Producer Dan Logan put together this profile.

Here in rural New England, folks live few and far between... and rely heavily on their cars.

People like the Blitsteins, who sometimes rack up six hundred miles a day between them in the one car they own: a big old 1998 Ford Explorer.

BLITSTEIN: We're putting $150, $200 a week in our tank. And it's just, we can't, we can't do it anymore.

BRANCACCIO: They thought they couldn't afford to buy a more fuel-efficient car... until they heard about an organization with the clunky name... Bonnie CLAC—Car Loans and Counseling.

BURNETT: Good morning...

BRANCACCIO: Five years ago, Tiffany got cancer... and the medical bills ruined her credit. When she tried to buy a car at a dealership, the best interest rate she could get on a loan was 22%.

But Bonnie Clac will cut that rate by two-thirds.

BLITSTEIN: It kills two birds with one stone, I mean she helps us get a car and it builds our credit at the same time.

BRANCACCIO: Bonnie CLAC is a non-profit that negotiates with car dealerships and banks to get a low interest rate and a low sticker price for low-income individuals... in part by guaranteeing the loan if they default.

Other organizations perform similar services...but Bonnie CLAC encourages people to buy newer, more fuel-efficient vehicles... so they pay less for gas and for repairs.

In all, some clients have saved over ten thousand dollars.

It's a business that started with Robert Chambers, a 62-year-old former software entrepreneur. Before retiring, he decided to try his hand at selling used cars at a local dealership.

But he didn't like what he saw.

CHAMBERS: Lower income individuals really got taken advantage of in—in the car buying process.

BRANCACCIO: In fact, car dealerships that cater to low-income individuals are on average more profitable than dealerships that sell to well-off customers... due in part to inflated interest rates that can run as high as 35%.

One day, according to Chambers, his dealership sold one of the worst cars on the lot to a single mother. He thought it was likely to break down before she paid it off.

CHAMBERS: The dealership made 5,000 dollars off that transaction. Here's a woman making ten dollars an hour, and was gonna have a car that she'll be saddled with debt. And I just couldn't stand it anymore. So I—I—decided to do something about it.

BRANCACCIO: His first challenge was to persuade banks to give people with iffy credit a discount on their financing... No easy task.

But by through a clever reading of a law encouraging lenders to provide loans to all parts of their community, Champers persuaded the banks to cut their rates.

CHAMBERS: What we did was go to them and say, "We want you to make money, we just want you to make a little bit of money instead of a lot of money off of these individuals."

BRANCACCIO: But the discounted interest rate and other savings Bonnie CLAC negotiates are no handout. Clients pay an $800 fee, which is rolled into their car payments, and must take financial management classes where they account for every penny they spend.

That's not so easy for some, according to Mary Burnett, executive director of the program.

BURNETT: What they look at is the bills that are right in front of them instead of understanding that their car payment is due in three weeks. So, changing that whole way of thinking is more of a challenge than we thought.

BRANCACCIO: But of the people who completed the program, the default rate is strikingly low: only 4%. That's about as the same as the average car buyer.

And for many Bonnie CLAC clients, having that reliable, more affordable set of wheels that uses less gas could be their ticket out of poverty.

BURNETT: Often they can get better jobs, higher pay rate, with better benefits. They can get their children to day care. So, it really changes people's lives.

BRANCACCIO: One of those people was Brandy Todd... a mother of three and stepmom to four more. A bitter divorce left her credit rating in shreds... so all she could afford were a series of clunkers.

TODD: I had figured it out over a year and a half period I was paying about $250 a month in car repairs alone.

BRANCACCIO: Bonnie CLAC negotiated a payment on a two-year-old minivan that was only a few dollars more than what she was paying for repairs.

The day she picked up the van, she decided to surprise her kids.

TODD: My youngest daughter, Kayce, just went, "Whoa, Mommy!" Her whole face just lit up. They have room to sit in their car seats and buckle themselves. And they're safe.

BRANCACCIO: Since launching in 2001, Bonnie CLAC has helped over 900 people into vehicles from its seven offices in New Hampshire. They've just received a grant to open more offices in New England... and eventually hope to go national.

Dependence on grants... which account for half the budget... is a hurdle as chambers looks at this enterprising idea's ability to expand.

Still, he's optimistic.

CHAMBERS: Sixty different people have contacted us from forty different states that want to replicate this. I've had people—call up and say, "I wanna go help people. And I—I see this issue of car being a critical issue in their lives."

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. From New Orleans, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you again next week.



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