New Orleans A+ Arkansas, initiated by the Thea Foundation and its director, Paul Leopoulos, may be proving that there are some real tools for improving public schools, the educational grasp and performance of students, regardless of race and income, and salvage the careers and idealism of teachers while doing so. How do they pull off this hat trick? It’s all in the methodology. Rather than giving up on the kids, blaming the teachers and the union, or claiming that it’s about school governance and bureaucracy, they actually have developed a radical methodology that makes children an active part of learning, rather than passive sponges, bored to distraction.
In a fascinating and important article in the Arkansas the reporter Leslie Newell Peacock describes the trick as putting “…the art in math, the drama in literature, the song in history…” which sounds like suddenly school might be a great place to go. Importantly, the Thea Foundation which is promoting the A+ method in Arkansas and other states is in serious discussions with the state education department to expand past the 12 Arkansas schools taking the plunge with them and expand their methodology to the other 46 failing and 109 “focus” schools in the state.
The model was initially developed in North Carolina and has been embraced by 70 schools in Oklahoma. The success stories in Arkansas are almost unbelievable in places like El Dorado in the southwestern part of the state and Helena in the Delta.
Besides the methodology, the big difference may be that instead of arguing for a revolution and a “throw the bums out” approach which is the default position of the blaming rightwing and charter movement, A+ is a “whole school reform initiative” in the words of the Walton (Walton = Walmart which = big stick in Arkansas!) Foundation, a general in the blaming, charter army. For A+ to work it “requires whole-school buy-in” with “summer and monthly training and more preparation.” There’s no free lunch, but compared to the charter mess, the price for the training package seems very reasonable with each school program’s price tag only “$60,000 for three years of training for up to 30 teachers….”
The Thea Foundation, unlike so many of the self-aggrandizing empire builders in the for profit and nonprofit charter operations, is not just a nonprofit, but a mission driven, life consuming, legacy building testament to Thea, the now deceased daughter of the founders. Paul and Linda Leopoulos had seen a dramatic turnaround for their daughter when her work with art gave her the confidence to learn in many subjects. They only want people to drink the magic potent that they have now worked into the fabric of their methodology.
A high point for me was seeing that the George Rodrigue Foundation had also stumbled onto the Thea Foundation’s A+ work and even in the Arkansas Times while reading the article I had immediately spotted one of Rodrigue’s blue dog pictures on the wall behind Paul Leopoulos. There is now a Louisiana A+ Network in the process of formation headed by Bethany France. Living here, I know their task is difficult in the face of the radical charter machinery that is bulldozing the state educational system as part of Louisiana’s Governor Jindal’s ill-advised 2016 Presidential pipedream, but just knowing they are here and in New Orleans, finally gives me hope.
Nothing about A+ is easy obviously, but the price is right, and the results are spectacular, so there ought to be long line in front of their door. I’m ready to join that line, and I am already wondering why more states and school districts have not already beaten me to the door?