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NEW ORLEANS — As the clock ticked past 8 a.m., the last car pulled up to the school’s gate where principal David LaViscount stood, digital thermometer in hand. When he opened the car’s back door, two little girls smiled, waved, then hiked up their face masks and climbed out.
“Good morning,” LaViscount said, pointing the thermometer at their foreheads and asking if anyone felt sick that day. “No,” said the girls, shaking their heads and skipping toward the school’s front door. LaViscount followed briskly; inside, a second-grader waited in his office for a daily mentoring session.
This is how days once moved for LaViscount, 36, who helped open Audubon Gentilly Charter three years ago. One task flowed directly into another.
Then, in mid-June, it was over. LaViscount, who resigned this spring, took one last walk around the empty school building. Leaving behind his Audubon laptop, work cellphone and office keys, he pulled his office door shut, jiggled the knob to make sure it was locked, set the school alarm and strolled out the front door.
“That’s it,” he thought, as the gate latched behind him.
In the end, the burden had been too great. He’d tolerated the long days and the never-ending tasks until the pandemic arrived, gobbling up every spare minute. But the job became unbearable when he realized his position demanded almost constant attention, even when his 10-year-old son visited from out of town.
Across New Orleans, public school officials are searching for replacements for roughly 25 percent of the district’s teachers and principals, a slight uptick from the already-high 22 percent attrition rate for principals in the city between the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, and higher than the state departure numbers of around 15 percent.
The pandemic left people feeling wrung out, said Alex Jarrell, a former principal now working to increase retention of charter-school leaders through the nonprofit New Schools for New Orleans. “Our school leaders have done so much over the past year and are certainly exhausted,” Jarrell said.
Nationally, nearly half — 45 percent — of principals said that the pandemic has prompted them to start thinking about leaving the profession or sped up their plans to do so, according to a poll released last year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
In 2018, LaViscount knew what he was signing up for when he agreed to be the founding principal for his Montessori and French-bilingual school. The model, which is challenging in itself, is particularly hard at Audubon Gentilly, an open-enrollment public charter school: children who speak not a word of French can arrive at his doorstep at any age. And though the Montessori method has an elitist reputation, almost 70 percent of Audubon students come from working-class families that qualify for free lunches.
The school was one of the city’s most sought-after from the moment it opened: 1,200 children applied for the school’s initial 171 seats. The competition for seats has continued, even as the school added additional grade levels each year. For the 2020-21 school year, enrollment was up to about 250 children, in pre-K-3 through fourth grade.
Beyond the curriculum, LaViscount was determined to create an equitable, welcoming school environment. The cornerstone: culturally responsive teaching that prioritizes anti-racism philosophies and the social-emotional wellbeing of students, more than two-thirds of whom are Black.
That mindset doesn’t jibe with the rigidly strict discipline frameworks often devised for majority-Black schools. “We pushed away from that,” he said. “Black boys and girls, they need hugs, they need to be shown affection and love.”
To cultivate that culture, LaViscount hired a dedicated crew for his classrooms, where teachers teach French along with art and core academics. He wanted to be visibly there for them. So, he would run to a classroom at a moment’s notice, to talk down a child in crisis or even bring a fresh roll of paper towels to wipe up a spill.
For Audubon Gentilly to succeed as the third school in a small charter network, LaViscount needed to pay close attention to every detail.
“It’s what we took on. I never thought twice about it,” he said.
Related: The job of a school principal was always difficult. The pandemic has made it impossible.
But after the pandemic hit, his work pressures intensified exponentially. Many of his cherished teachers experienced elevated levels of stress and anxiety. They scrambled to find childcare for their own children while trying to engage their online and in-person students in actual learning. Another stressor was the school schedule, which bounced back and forth between all-remote and hybrid instruction throughout the year.
The school community also struggled with grief after the coronavirus touched Audubon Gentilly directly: a student lost her father and a teacher lost her sister.
45 percent of principals in an August 2020 survey said that the pandemic prompted them to start thinking about leaving the profession or sped up their plans to do so.
The year took an enormous toll on local teachers and school staff. According to an unpublished survey shared by the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies in New Orleans, a quarter of responding teachers and staff showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Denese Shervington, the CEO of the institute, said that school leaders bore an exceptionally heavy burden.
“No one wants death on their hands. And they knew that we didn’t know as much as we said we know. But they still had to make decisions, difficult decisions,” she said.
When in-person classes became an option, in late September 2020, LaViscount realized that his teachers needed to talk with him more regularly. He kept his office door open, jettisoning his previous habit of carving out daily private meditation time. As his to-do list grew, he found that he needed to set an hourly alarm on his Amazon Echo to remind him to drink water.
On weekends, LaViscount would pick up boxes of hand sanitizer and other supplies and head to Audubon’s turn-of-the-century Craftsman-style building, located amid the leafy green blocks of the city’s Gentilly neighborhood.
Once there, LaViscount would take advantage of the rare quiet time to complete operational paperwork. Sometimes he would go into classrooms to move desks back to proper coronavirus-protocol distances. Along the floors of all the hallways, he placed green and purple lines of tape to show students where to walk.
It was just him, walking the silent hallways lined with children’s artwork. At those times, the isolation of his position was palpable. “Loneliness as a principal is huge,” he said.
Rashida Govan, the executive director of the New Orleans Youth Alliance, wonders whether the city’s charter environment places outsize operational burdens on its principals in a way that became unmanageable during the pandemic. “In a large traditional district, there are other people to do that work,” said Govan, who holds a doctoral degree and served on LaViscount’s dissertation committee.
“I am relatively young, and I didn’t mind just flying around the building when I had to,” he said. “But there were so many times when I was tied up with operational stuff, like whether there was A/C on the second floor, when I could have been spending a little more time engaging intellectually with teachers, helping them develop their craft a little more closely.”
During the week, there were constant little emergencies: a student exposed to the virus, or the internet failing for a child or a class. Nearly every day, LaViscount and his administrative team led classes or covered recess duty, as staff absences increased across town, triggering a shortage of substitute teachers. Since students could no longer eat lunch together in the cafeteria, LaViscount added lunch delivery to his duties, leaving his office at 11 a.m. to spend the next hour toting insulated bags to each classroom. His work days stretched to 12 hours.
“You get to the point where you burn out,” he said.
Related: Tears, sleepless nights and small victories: How first-year teachers are weathering the crisis
As the school year wound down this spring, LaViscount was still weighing his options for next year. His highest priority was to be closer to his son, who lives in Texas. He also wanted to continue his work in education, but differently. “I’m trying to go back to my purpose, to remember why I do this work,” he said.
Mentoring reminds him of his purpose. All year, LaViscount carved out time for daily one-on-one conversations with several boys who needed that personal attention.
His first mentee, Caleb, a second grader, walked into the principal’s office every day at 8:15 a.m. “Everybody knows he’s smart, but he was getting into trouble because he is so active,” LaViscount said.
During one chat, Caleb griped about the “disgusting” breakfast pancake sticks. “Does syrup make a difference?” asked LaViscount, who then shifted the conversation to Caleb’s behavior.
Caleb told him about a punishment he received for poking another student with a colored pencil. “But the pencil wasn’t even sharpened,” he said, wrinkling his nose.
LaViscount doesn’t make instant pronouncements when students or staff are upset. Instead, with Caleb, as with others, LaViscount sat attentively, listening.
For the last five minutes of their talk, the two watched a guided meditation on a laptop.
“It’s like a balloon in your stomach,” LaViscount said, putting his hand on his own stomach to show it rise and fall as he inhaled and exhaled. Caleb closed his eyes next to him and inhaled.
Outside the principal’s door, administrative assistant Donishia Dorsey tried to protect the pair’s time. Dorsey has served as LaViscount’s right hand since the pair opened Audubon Gentilly together in the fall of 2018.
“He’s inside his office doing belly breathing with Caleb,” Dorsey explained on the telephone, as the voice of an upset teacher came through her earpiece.
Without missing a beat, she hung up the phone and hit a button to buzz in a tardy student who had arrived at the front gate.
“Take your temperature, baby,” said Dorsey, pointing at the wall-mounted thermometer. By the time she had asked the third-grader about her health, taken her temperature and waved her on to class, Dorsey’s desk phone rang again. A situation upstairs was at a stand-off. A teacher whose students typically ate breakfast in the yard felt it was too chilly to eat outside. But a staff person had balked at allowing the group to eat inside, fearing it would violate social-distancing requirements.
Dorsey took a deep breath and peeked into LaViscount’s office, apologizing to Caleb for the interruption. “But Madame is concerned. She feels strongly that it’s too cold,” Dorsey explained.
“I’ll go deal with it,” said LaViscount, as he walked Caleb out of the office.
Related: How do you turn around a school amid a pandemic?
Early in the pandemic, the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies began their assessment of school staff, after a social worker described teachers walking into her school office and falling apart.
“We had been focused on the pandemic’s effect on students,” Shervington said. “But we realized that we couldn’t expect children to do well if the people responsible for them were not well.”
It cuts both ways. Because teachers and staff are motivated to be of service, the pandemic’s effects on children and their learning also affected their teachers, Shervington said.
Teachers and parents alike say that LaViscount has an almost-instinctive understanding of struggle. Because of his upbringing, he can relate, he says. He grew up in high-rise public housing in Spanish Harlem, a New York City neighborhood, with his mother and his grandmother, both teachers. His mom would drop her sons off at the bus stop in the early morning on her way to her full-time job at a daycare; she would not see them again until after night college classes. “It’s almost like she never slept,” he said.
As a teen, LaViscount enrolled at Cardinal Hayes High School for Boys, an oasis in the South Bronx. LaViscount was a quiet student who blossomed with the encouragement of a French-language teacher.
“He told me I was capable,” LaViscount recalled.
His father was also a powerful influence. “Son, read everything,” said David Phillip LaViscount. When the teenage LaViscount stumbled in high school biology, his father responded by picking up a study guide and working with his son every night after work.
It was the same sort of fatherly devotion that ultimately prompted LaViscount to step down from his job at Audubon Gentilly. As much as LaViscount wanted to help other children, he felt he was neglecting his own.
“We realized that we couldn’t expect children to do well if the people responsible for them were not well,”Dr. Denese Shervington, president, Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies in New Orleans
“It became clear that there are things in your life that you can’t sacrifice,” he said. When the pandemic first hit, his 10-year-old son, David Eli LaViscount, was visiting for spring break from Dallas, where he lives with his mother. Because David Eli could learn virtually, his parents extended his stay in New Orleans by a few months.
“It was then that I really saw how much time this job was taking from me,” LaViscount said. “Too often, I found myself saying, ‘Dad’s not finished.’ Or: ‘Dad has work to do.’” Before the virus hit, LaViscount visited Dallas often, and was able to spend a few hours each night on the phone with his son, doing homework and catching up. That became impossible.
Also, as the pandemic raged, and people around him lost loved ones, he felt it was time to distill his own life to its most important elements, he said. “I needed to be close to my son.”
LaViscount hasn’t nailed down what professional road lies ahead. His possible options include a return to classroom teaching or work as an education professor.
On his last day at Audubon Gentilly, he was alone in the building as night fell. He’d already toted piles of handmade goodbye cards to his car, including a handwritten one from Caleb that said “Thanks … for never giving up on me.”
Then LaViscount took one last walk around, looking at the student artwork on the walls. Outside the cavernous multipurpose room on the first floor, he stopped to remember a play that they’d mounted there in the spring of 2020, just before the pandemic descended on the city. In his mind, he saw the space as it had been then, transformed, with draped white Christmas lights and tall cardboard appliance boxes painted like trees.
The dank, ugly room had been so alive that day. Beyond the beautiful sets, families had packed the room, to see children perform in costumes and masks they’d made themselves.
“There was this sense that we had made something memorable together,” he said. “It was something out of nothing. And that in many ways is what we had done with Audubon Gentilly too. Something from nothing.”
On the next morning, a Saturday, LaViscount watched New Orleans fade in the rearview mirror of a U-Haul truck as he drove west, toward Texas. Then on Monday, Dorsey texted him, letting him know how summer camp was going.
“A part of me feels like I’m still there,” he said.
This story about principal burnout was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
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