Approaching the lectern to give her valedictory speech at John McDonogh Senior High, Rasheia Simms glanced at her mother sitting a few rows from the front. A tear slid down her mother’s cheek. Her mother wiped it away and snapped a photo. This was her moment. This was their moment.
Sheila Johnson, Ms. Simms’ mother, said: “I dropped out early in the sixth grade, so I didn’t want her to be like I was. I just pushed her because I wanted her to do it not only for her but for me.”
Ms. Simms was one of the top students in the four educational systems that overlay New Orleans. In a city of only about 400,000 people, there are a state-supervised district, independently run charters, traditional public schools and private Catholic schools. The stories of the top students from each system show the strengths and weaknesses of each system and highlight the importance of parental involvement in any environment.
Ms. Simms, 19, recently graduated from one of the lowest-performing public high schools in New Orleans, John McDonogh, a charter high school authorized by the state-supervised Recovery School District. The Louisiana Board of Education created the district to take over schools that were failing in the New Orleans public school system and as part of the Recovery District created 16 charter high schools.
“It was hard,” Ms. Simms said of her time at McDonogh. “I saw young mothers, I saw some people saying they couldn’t do it because school was too hard, and some people quit coming to school.”
Ms. Simms found a way to emerge at the top of her class. “I worked hard,” she said. “I came to school and I was determined. I had support from my family and teachers and the principal.”
In high school Ms. Simms struggled with depression and anxiety from coping with poverty and the death of her father when she was 6. Thirteen years later she still recalls how he died while holding her. “I had panic attacks,” she said. “A lot of times I wouldn’t attend school because it was so bad, but I always had support. My mom struggled a lot, but we still managed to overcome what we went through.”
“Poverty was one of the biggest obstacles we had to get over,” Ms. Simms said. “I grew up in the St. Bernard Housing Development before Katrina, and it was rough for us. I remember I couldn’t go on some field trips because my mom didn’t have the money.”
In Ms. Simms’ graduating class of 69 students, only 12 will attend a two- or four-year college this fall.
Struggling Recovery charter schools like John McDonogh must meet certain performance standards consecutively for three years to stay open. By the fourth year, if the school has not met those standards, it can be shut down.
The principal of the school, Dr. Marvin Thompson, announced on Saturday during the school’s commencement that Ms. Simms and her classmates could be the last class to walk the halls of John McDonogh.
After two years, John McDonogh received the lowest performance score in the state of Louisiana for 2013. Because of that, the school will be closing its doors with hopes of reopening in the fall of 2016.
Just a few blocks down Esplanade Avenue is another McDonogh — McDonogh 35 Senior High School, regarded as one of the most successful historically black high schools in New Orleans.
McDonogh 35 is a public non charter high school that remains under the Orleans Parish School Board, the original public school district in the city. Because it was always a high-performing school, it was not taken over by the Recovery District.
Tiara Jones, 18, is this year’s valedictorian at the school. She was recognized early as a gifted student.
“I don’t have to work as hard because I’m gifted,” she said, “but there are certain things I do have to go above and beyond for because there are certain things that my school doesn’t provide for me.”
But while Ms. Jones was handling her academic responsibilities, she and her mother had to struggle to find support from the public schools for her severely autistic twin sister.
“There were sacrifices that were made,” said Ms. Jones’s mother, Janell, “because there were times when Tiara had to do her work and her sister was having a tantrum for one reason or another. Our sacrifices are different from most people’s. Our sacrifices were time, sleep and trying to keep a child calm.”
Though the school is recognized as one of the best in New Orleans, it still has flaws, Ms. Jones said. For example, she said, “I know some schools use iPads and laptops for their lessons, and we are still using tarnished books with pages ripped out and everything. It just didn’t seem to prepare me. I look at other schools and all the resources they have and everything they had to help them achieve to the next level, to achieve success, we didn’t have that.”
But Ms. Jones said she had one advantage: “Because I was in all of the top classes, I had all the best teachers.”
Just a couple of miles away is Ben Franklin High School, the most successful public charter high school in the Orleans Parish District.
Franklin is another of the high-performing schools that remained under the Orleans Parish School Board. It has consistently ranked as one of the top public schools in New Orleans and is ranked as one of the best public schools in the country.
Sarah Wang, 18, graduated from Franklin as one of two students from Louisiana nationally recognized under the 2014 U.S. Presidential Scholars Program, which honors some of the nation’s most distinguished graduating seniors. Every student in Ms. Wang’s graduating class will attend college.
“I think Franklin is really special,” Ms. Wang said. “It’s really unique academically. It’s one of the best. It challenges you academically and through that we grow. We come to appreciate that once we graduate.”
Ms. Wang and her family moved to New Orleans from Baton Rouge in 2007 so that she could go to Franklin.
“My mom and I decided to stay in an apartment in New Orleans while she went to medical school at L.S.U.,” Ms. Wang said. “It was really tough being separated from my family. My family really sacrificed a lot for me to go to Franklin. My mom chose Franklin because she researched it and found out that it was one of the best public schools.”
Franklin requires students to take an admissions test. “I missed the testing deadlines,” Ms. Wang said. “My mom called the school and they looked at my LEAP scores and transcript and then a few hours later we got a call back saying that I got in. It was really a great blessing.”
Ms. Wang said academic competition at Franklin was steep. Ninety-four percent of the students take Advanced Placement courses.
“A lot of the people at Franklin are geniuses,” Ms. Wang said. “Some people don’t have to study at all. The best aspect is the motivation that we all are trying to do our best.”
In New Orleans, where the Roman Catholic Church remains strong, the archdiocese schools remain a good alternative for many parents.
Maria Gomez was the 2014 valedictorian of De La Salle High School, the only co-ed Catholic school in the city.
“I think as a whole, New Orleans education is lacking,” Ms. Gomez said. “That’s the only reason my parents and I chose to be a part of the Catholic school system, because it’s private and has a better education.”
Ms. Gomez and her family moved from Venezuela in 2008.
“I have a better life here, as opposed to if I stayed,” Ms. Gomez said. “Crime in general is really bad. There is a lot of political persecution there, so it isn’t easy. I think the biggest sacrifice is leaving behind your family and friends to move to a different country, a different language, a different culture.”
After her father transferred from Conocophillips in Venezuela to Phillips 66 in the United States, the family moved to the New Orleans area.
“You also have to take a placement test” to get into De La Salle, Ms. Gomez said, “and from there they decide whether or not you are accepted.”
“Once you go into the classes you can decide whether to be challenged more,” she said. “That’s something you can speak to your teacher about to see if you are being challenged too hard or need more of a challenge.”
Tuition at De La Salle is $8,100 a year, but there are scholarships, grants, financial aid options and work-study available for students.
“I got a scholarship,” Ms. Gomez said. “Once you take your initial placement test, they consider certain scores and if you’re in the 95 percentile and up, they offer you a scholarship. That helped pay for most of my tuition. It was a merit scholarship.”
Ms. Gomez said she was impressed by the resources at De La Salle. “They built classrooms of the future for us because we are trying to advance the way we teach,” she said. “We have a 3D printer and really cool computers and projectors.”
The school has three interactive rooms with roundtables and couches for students to conduct discussions and debates about politics and social issues.
The four students’ journeys in the school systems are different, with separate resources and different opportunities afforded to them, but one aspect of their education remains the same: Parental involvement and sacrifice were key to their success.
Douglass Harris, director of the Educational Research Alliance for New Orleans and economics professor at Tulane University, recognizes the importance of parental involvement in a student’s life.
“In general, parent involvement is really important in a child’s success,” he said. “It has a lot to do with the learning experience at home and the expectations of the parents.”