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Educating Everyone


In late August, during the second week of school, Z tapped me on the shoulder right after class and asked me if I’d talk to him outside. Z’s big for his age and probably a couple years older than his classmates in my sophomore English class. He’d been struggling to make it to class every day, holding a white hand towel soaked in menthol rub over his face and working a pack of tissue to keep his nose clean. The first day he arrived with his summer cold gear I thanked him for making the effort to be in school and reminded him to wash his hands a lot.

I’d seen Z in the halls the previous school year. He’s the sort of young man who didn’t always go to class. And his size and facial expression and body language might seem menacing to someone who sees him around school but doesn’t really know him. But I’ve been a student and teacher in the public schools in New Orleans for over 30 years, so even last year when I didn’t know him, I had no problem just hurrying Z along to where he was supposed to be or telling him to watch his language.

So when he asked to cut into our precious 30 minute lunch break for a conversation in the hall, I was glad to join him.

“Let me file these essays before I lose them, and then I’ll be right there.”

When I made it outside, he was leaning against the wall in the dimly lit hallway, clutching his rag and nodding at fellow band members as they rushed to the stairwell.

“Mr. Randels, I wanted to ask if you’d teach me how to read.”


Z’s request calls to mind four key issues about the educational circumstances and strategies under which Students at the Center has been working both before and after Katrina.

1) Our district high school had a population of approximately 20% special education students. This proportion was about the same for the twelve other neighborhood high schools in the New Orleans Public Schools. Before Katrina, our system also had six selective admissions public high schools. The only special education students at these schools were those who were academically gifted, talented in the arts, or had an exceptionality concerning their physical abilities.

2) We work in the conditions in which we find ourselves. Those of us who work in Students at the Center at Douglass (and other schools) have not spent our time complaining about these educational situations. Instead, we want the public and policy makers to understand the different types of schools we have in New Orleans. And more importantly we want to learn how to teach Z and his classmates as best we can. Only engaged in practice can we learn the solutions we need. In Z’s case, I believe his willingness to ask for assistance after less than two weeks of time in our class comes from the fact that we engaged him in oral processes. His thoughts and words had a space of respect in our classroom.

3) We understand students as a resource. I could not fulfill Z’s request to learn to read on a personal level. He needed daily one on one attention. We do, however, have veteran SAC students who have trained in our classes to be resources in literacy development to our students. Rodneka Shelbia, who would have been a senior at Douglass, has been part of SAC since her 9th grade year. She has trained in Reciprocal Teaching and other methods for helping to improve reading abilities. She and Z are also friends. Rodneka agreed to work with Z on his reading every day as part of her elective SAC course. Z was eager for this help. Then the storm came.

4) Young people such as Z are eager to learn, given the right conditions. We need to help create those conditions and find ways to assess and respect the whole student. Labeling schools such as Douglass as failures based primarily on their test scores is a disservice to the education of our students. Instead of one size fits all approaches, we need ways to measure what it means for me to teach Sophomore English in a class that includes about 20% of students who face educational challenges similar to Z’s. Instead of Z’s state test scores being the only way to measure his worth and success as a student, we also need ways to measure (and to compute into the formulas that allow states to hand over public schools to private entities) Z’s desire to read and the efforts that brought him to that point.

These questions are pressing as we return to a public school system in N. O. that will now be run by the state and by foundations and universities, designed by national experts and university presidents not by teachers and parents and students who have worked hard and with pockets of success to educate the young people not allowed admission into schools the state has labeled academically acceptable.


I am (was) a teacher in New Orleans also. I taught in a catholic high school that was flooded. I am now working with a company to help create a web page with free resources for teahers in using technology in the classroom. Pre-Katrina I gave a few workshops in the N.O. public schools. If you know of any way I can help in the rebuilding of N.O. schools, I will be glad to do so.

Thanks for the blog. You may want to keep Headsprout in mind the next time you encounter a student who cannot read. Headsprout is a web-based, online reading instruction curriculum that takes nonreaders through 80 online lessons and teaches the basic skills needed for reading. (www.headsprout.com)
Although it was developed with younger students in mind, the privacy afforded by online lessons gives older students the opportunity to move through the basics without the stigma of the garden-variety ducky and bunny type of reading material usually associated with beginning primers.
The program has been approved by the BESE for supplemental early reading material in Louisiana and is in use throughout a large number of parishes in the state.
I hope that as the New Orleans schools take a look at their restructure that they will consider how many struggling readers and special needs students could be supported through our program. It is very inexpensive relative to all the other electronic curricula available, and we have seen a lot of older students experience success and gain the sense of mastery that supports further educational efforts.
I'd be happy to speak to you or anyone interested in learning more about how Headsprout can help improve the quality of reading instruction. Thanks, Diana


I feel your concern, and it impresses me but also depresses me. My philosophy about teaching has always been, "one child at a time", a lot like the "starfish story". I would imagine the challenge of one child at a time in N.O. is overwhelming, but somehow, I think you will take on the challenge. I am a teacher in PA. May God richly bless your efforts. I feel helpless in PA as far as being able to assist you. Our school had a tremendous fundraiser, but other than that I am not sure what else we can do. I am here for moral support and ideas, if you would ever want to chat.

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Recent Comments

  • Sara: Jim: I feel your concern, and it impresses me but read more
  • Diana Motsinger: Jim, Thanks for the blog. You may want to keep read more
  • Gloria Peifer: Jim, I am (was) a teacher in New Orleans also. read more




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