With two weeks left before New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School students return to class, the faculty is now 100 percent staffed for the coming year — including a new principal.
Dr. Monique Cola — a Tulane University Ph.D. in neuroscience who was previously the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs/Executive Dean at Delgado Community College (read her full biography at the Sci High website) — was chosen by the school’s board as its next headmaster back in April, but did not start work until this summer. She told the Sci High governing board Thursday (July 23) that last week was her first week with children in the building as well — for a summer program — giving her a taste of the year to come.
Of the Sci High faculty, 28 are returning and 13 are new, for a retention rate of 68 percent. Michelle Brown, vice principal academic affairs, said that a downside of an improving national economy is that the private sector is becoming an increasingly attractive to strong teachers.
“The challenges of hiring and retention have become much more significant,” Brown said. “We’re actually pretty lucky relative to a lot of schools in the city, and, to some degree, our challenges with hiring have to do with us being picky.”
The hiring of a new principal also feels like a natural departure point for some staff members who might have been considering a change anyway, Brown noted. It does not necessarily reflect any concerns by them, Brown said, but more just “the right time” to go back to graduate school or try a new campus.
“Folks weren’t sure what the new leadership was going to look like, and decided to find something different,” Cola agreed.
With those vacancies filled, Cola and Brown expressed enthusiasm about the new faculty members. The math department now has six teachers, its largest size yet.
“I was really concerned about math department because had so many vacancies, but the stars have aligned so that we have really strong math teachers coming on,” Cola said.
One of the new hires has 12 years in experience, another is a veteran of the Travis Hill school, and another will be teaching both Alegbra 2 and leading the “maker space.”
“We have two faculty members who are straddling both math and CTE (career and technical education)” Brown said. “That will help kids in math see the applications of what they’re working on, as well as making sure folks in CTE have a better understanding of math.”
Cola and Brown have also been reviewing the last year’s scores on end-of-course exams. Even though the tests administered by the state were new last year, passage rates by Sci High students went up. Proficiency rates, however — those who score in the highest tiers on the tests — slipped, though Brown said this was a statewide trend.
“We’re close to statewide average, even though we serve more students in poverty and more students with needs that than the state does,” Brown said. “These new tests did not represent a huge hurdle for our kids.”
Sci High has implemented a new curriculum in Algebra I and Geometry that should help, Brown said. The new exams emphasize the practical applications of the subject matter, such as applying the abstract notion of the area of a circle to determining how many stones would be needed to pave a patio.
“I like the new tests, because ultimately what they represent is a shift to the sort of math and English we want our kids to be able to do,” Brown said. “Ultimately this is moving our kids toward the kind of problem solving we want our citizens to have.”
The actual test scores only represent a quarter of Sci High’s School Performance Score — alongside other metrics like graduation rates — and the scores Sci High has in hand are only half of that figure. The other scores, those measuring student growth in the subject matter, will not be released by the state until August, and the full School Performance Score will be announced later in the year.
“Everything in here is only a piece of the puzzle,” Brown said. “Those pieces of the puzzle are going to keep trickling in the next few months.”