Tuesday, July 21, 2015

New Orleans: From Recovery to Renaissance

As we approach the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I find myself bracing for a different kind of unwelcome deluge: commentators who reduce our complicated reality to lopsided praise or polemic. The truth is that New Orleans is neither a miracle nor a failure; it is a city where a group of committed leaders and educators have worked hard and made gradual progress over the course of more than a decade. It is a city where students and their families returned home despite immense trauma and show up to school every day in spite of many challenges. I am deeply proud of the progress our city and students have made and I know that we have much work ahead of us.

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In one sense, the things we have achieved are not very remarkable at all—they only seem remarkable because we have come from a very low place. If you were to wake up today in New Orleans with no memory of the past, you would be disappointed to find a city in which just over a third of students graduated high school in 2012 ready for college and just over half were enrolled in college a year after graduation. Viewed within the context of the last decade, however, these are significant gains: the college-ready rate was just 25 percent in 2005, the rate of students attending failing schools has declined from 62 percent before Hurricane Katrina to 7 percent today, New Orleans’ ranking in the state has increased from 67th out of 68 districts in 2005 to 41st out of 69 today, and in elementary and middle schools, 63 percent of students now perform at grade level, up from 35 percent before Hurricane Katrina.

That is not to say we haven’t achieved great things. We have expanded and protected parents’ right to choose their children’s schools through a citywide unified enrollment system. We have created a city in which independent charter schools and charter management organizations are enthusiastically and successfully serving a population much more at risk than that of the traditional school district. And while people in cities like New York and Washington, D.C. argue over whether charter schools should “backfill,” our charter schools are already serving all students, accepting them year-round, and creating innovative programs for students with significant disabilities.

So, what does this mean? And what does it mean for the next 10 years?

The essays of the past few weeks have brought some early answers to these questions from people deeply engaged in the work. Both New Schools for New Orleans and Jamar McKneely discuss important ways to prepare and develop teachers to improve student achievement. NSNO proposes sustaining a high-quality teaching force “by creating new pathways such as strong urban residency programs for new teachers to join the profession.” McKneely’s organization, InspireNOLA, is working to create professional development training for teachers to support the deep analytical skills that will enable them to plan rigorous lessons and develop their students’ high-order thinking. Kelsey Lambrecht of Collegiate Academies challenges teachers, school leaders, and all other stakeholders to embrace higher expectations for students with disabilities and to hold themselves accountable for these expectations and for the progress of their students.

Looking outside the classroom, Jay Altman at FirstLine Schools and Orleans Parish School Board member Sarah Usdin propose increased partnerships and engagement. Altman calls for programs to give high school students work experience while they are still in school. His goal is to help those students cultivate professional and life skills, and to expose them to opportunities that match potential career interests. Usdin argues that “public schools must become truly public:” that the entire community must be engaged in our schools, including those community members without children enrolled in the public school system. And Neerav Kingsland, former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, recalls the two major regulatory innovations that brought the school system to where it is today, and ponders what the next groundbreaking innovation might be to propel New Orleans forward.

These essays are only a first attempt at answering the critical question of what is next for New Orleans. As for my own perspective, I think that complacency and fatigue are our greatest risks. We must renew our commitment to making hard decisions for the benefit of our students by continuing to replace the management of schools that do not make sufficient academic progress, and redoubling our efforts to provide our schools with the support they need to thrive by developing a citywide differentiated funding formula. Furthermore, we must maintain our zealous focus on building a system that allows every family to choose an excellent school for their child by expanding unified enrollment to encompass all public schools in New Orleans. Above all, we must work to create more excellent schools—diverse schools that will prepare students for a dignified, rewarding life after high school, with real and reachable paths to the world of professional work in New Orleans or any other city in which they choose to live.

The next 10 years present us with the opportunity to create the great schools our city deserves and show the rest of the country what is possible—not because we were visited by tragedy, but because we pulled together and expected more for, and from, our community.

Adam Hawf is a practitioner in residence at CRPE and previously served as assistant superintendent of Portfolio at the Louisiana Department of Education, and deputy superintendent of Portfolio at the Louisiana Recovery School District.

This is the final blog in a series from education leaders in New Orleans—people in the trenches sharing their ideas about what’s next for the city's public schools. In case you missed it, you can read the entire blog series starting with Robin Lake’s intro here.

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