Success’s meticulously planned classes and sustained expectations for students’ work will come as a relief to many parents.
Ten Years After: What's Next for New Orleans?
Last week educators, researchers, and policymakers gathered in New Orleans to take stock of how the public school system there is faring 10 years after Hurricane Katrina. The school system, as most know, was radically restructured in the post-Katrina recovery. To avoid recreating a centralized system that was rife with corruption and patronage, and that held impossibly low expectations for students, New Orleans adopted a strategy that Paul Hill and others had been contemplating for years.
The new vision was about dismantling the old system structures that had prevented educators and school leaders from being successful. Rather than educators trying to do good things in spite of what almost everyone agreed was a broken governance model, the idea was to offer all schools and educators professional freedom of action, equitable financial support based on student needs, and freedom to innovate in search of improved student learning.
It’s worth noting that, despite certain design principles, the all-charter system of today was not a forgone conclusion in the early days. Just after Katrina, crises and necessity drove much of what happened, not a detailed master plan. Schools, both charter and those run by the Recovery School District (RSD), were opened pretty much as quickly as possible. There was a plan to keep the RSD small, focused on oversight and out of schools’ business. There was a plan to make sure schools lived or died according to performance (the National Association of Charter School Authorizers was in charge of reviewing proposals and the state created a no-nonsense grading and closure system). There was a plan to recruit excellent teachers and leaders nationally via New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO) and then ask them to partner with locals to create the schools that the community needed. But that was about it. No one had a roadmap. This kind of radical restructuring was unprecedented.
Ultimately, it was not charter schools or a smaller central office that led New Orleans to post the impressive progress it has to date. More than anything, it was the coordinated and focused commitment among New Orleans civic leaders to continually search for a better way and solve problems as they arise.
The RSD and NSNO have been on a constant hunt to do more of what works and less of what doesn’t: For many years, the RSD maintained control over the city’s “legacy” high schools, the schools that could not easily be closed or chartered because so many generations of families had attended and felt connected to them. What they tried instead under the Paul Vallas administration was a turnaround strategy (growing new schools within the old). I visited these schools in the midst of their so-called turnaround. They were…not good. To be sure, there were no longer fires being set in the hallways and there were fewer fights breaking out in classrooms. But classes were never more than half full and most of those who did attend were asleep or listening to music on headphones rather than learning. Students seemed to have little respect for themselves and none for adults. A colleague of mine who visited the school reported (only semi-jokingly) that he feared for his life. Expectations were abysmally low. Some students aspired to be cooks; many didn’t think they’d get a job at all. Most depressingly, the RSD officials who were overseeing the turnaround had no clue that these schools were not being fixed. They lauded the progress and excused the failures.
I’ve seen many failed turnarounds before. In most districts, the effort would continue for another five years until someone stepped in to try yet another intervention. What happened instead in the RSD over the course of the five years since I visited those high schools is remarkable. All of those schools have been closed and reopened by local charter school operators with a successful track record. All of the RSD personnel who oversaw the turnarounds have left the RSD. Are the schools perfect? No. But they are certainly much better and continuing to improve.
In the course of getting those and other dangerous schools under control, there have been allegations (and corresponding lawsuits) of overly aggressive discipline, and insufficient special education supports. The RSD, NSNO, and school leaders have stepped up on that front as well, innovating on new approaches to maintaining order while serving all students fairly and creating groundbreaking new policies to fund, regulate, and promote fair and effective discipline and special education practices. New Orleans has truly evolved in the best sense of the word. Problems are attacked, not excused. Innovators are valued and enabled. Evidence guides action. There are very few other school systems in the country with these attributes.
New Orleans public schools still have many, many problems. At the Tulane conference last week, there were many deeply aggrieved parent and civil rights advocates and many community leaders who feel the reforms were done to them, not with them. The lowest-performing schools have been replaced, but there are still very few, if any, New Orleans public schools that I would want to send my kids to.
These are the issues last week’s conference tried to address. The remaining challenges are real and important, but since not even the harshest critics want to go back to the pre-Katrina system, the only really meaningful question is, “What’s next?” What will it take to bring New Orleans schools to a much higher level of success? To answer this question, we asked several people to weigh in, people who have been in the trenches and bring a different and more interesting lens than any national pundits can. Over the course of the next few weeks, you will hear from these folks. Have some thoughts of your own? Send them our way and we will publish a compilation of responses.
This week has been a crucial period of preparation in states from Washington to Florida, where distance learning is expected to begin in earnest by the end of March.
Three much-admired school networks in Indianapolis didn’t skip a beat in going virtual.