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Published in Print: May 16, 2007, as Leadership Change Sparks Hope for Renewal

Leadership Change Sparks Hope for Renewal

New Orleans schools viewed as poised to emerge from crisis.

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Not long after the post-Katrina wreckage began to be cleared, advocates laid out their ideas for using this hurricane-ravaged city as a “green field” to construct a new kind of urban school district free of the institutional constraints that they saw as impeding progress elsewhere.

Now, with the arrival of new leadership behind the push to transform the city’s beleaguered public schools, hopes are rising that the system may finally be poised to emerge from crisis mode and attract the resources it needs to make real progress toward that ambitious vision.

That optimism was on full display last week as Paul G. Vallas, the outgoing Philadelphia schools chief who was tapped May 4 to head New Orleans’ state-run schools, courted those in town for a “national education summit” hosted by the NewSchools Venture Fund, a San Francisco philanthropy, and New Leaders for New Schools, a New York City-based principal-training organization.

To many of the national groups involved or interested in the city’s reform efforts, Mr. Vallas’ appointment was the latest in a series of signals suggesting that despite an array of short- and long-term challenges that all describe as monumental, the drive for educational renaissance in the city was finally turning a corner. Mr. Vallas rose to national prominence during his leadership of the mayorally controlled Chicago system from 1995 to 2001 and the Philadelphia system under a board appointed after a state takeover of the 179,000-student district.

“From our perspective, we feel the momentum is really building, and we see a lot of really great things being put into place,” said Ariela Rozman, the vice president of the teaching-fellows programs run by the New Teacher Project, a national group working to recruit new teachers to the city.

Mr. Vallas’ appointment to replace Robin G. Jarvis as the head of the Recovery School District—the state-run system created before the August 2005 storm and greatly expanded after it—came just a month after a prominent lawyer and former state school board member, Paul G. Pastorek, agreed to become Louisiana’s state schools superintendent following the death of Cecil J. Picard. The new leaders are already being referred to as “the two Pauls.”

Commitments Made

The hiring of Mr. Vallas also followed a number of developments that school improvement advocates view as lending much-needed impetus to the effort to revive the city’s schools.

Those include a philanthropy-funded effort announced last fall to expand the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, charter schools in town from two to five; the February announcement by New Leaders for New Schools that it would supply 40 principals over four years; the New Teacher Project’s pledge to supply from 125 to 165 new teachers for the city’s public schools by the fall; and Teach For America’s promise last month to bring in 100 new members to the New Orleans region for the 2007-08 school year.

After last week’s gathering, several funders signaled that the leadership changes would likely lead to more such commitments.

“Robin was thrown in to the breach and did an incredible job, and it’s a very big and messy job she had to do. But in terms of the higher-level vision and capacity that some funders were looking for, I don’t think they felt enough confidence,” said James A. Peyser, a partner at the NewSchools Venture Fund. “I think that the arrival of Paul Vallas will probably change that. I think he will serve as a magnet for the national funding community to look for more aggressive funding opportunities.”

Dan Katzir, the managing director of the Broad Foundation’s education division, said that was the case for his organization. The Los Angeles-based foundation already has been active in New Orleans in various ways, including the contribution of $2 million toward the KIPP expansion plans here.

“We will be looking for new opportunities in New Orleans,” he said last week. “There’s new hope in the city, and that’s reflected in both Pauls’ appointment.”

Mr. Peyser said he also saw the leadership changes as potentially helping federal lawmakers’ bid to secure more money from Congress for the city’s school reconstruction effort. Among those pushing for such funding is U.S. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat from New Orleans whom Mr. Vallas credited with recruiting him to the city.

“Clearly, it makes it easier to make the case for additional federal investment if there is confidence in local leadership,” Mr. Peyser said.

Yet while confidence in their abilities may be running high, neither Mr. Vallas nor Mr. Pastorek downplayed the obstacles they face as they outlined their ideas last week for coping with a serious shortage of educators and securing acceptable facilities.

‘No Bigger Job’

While more than 50 schools have started or reopened since the storm, a majority of them under state- and locally-issued charters, rosy visions for citywide academic gains have clashed with the reality of pockets of success amid a sea of disappointing performance and unmet needs.

“It’s key for all of us to remember both aspects,” Mr. Katzir of the Broad Foundation said. “There is new hope, it is a new day, but on the other hand, there’s no bigger job anywhere.”

Of the 58 public schools open in the city, 22 are directly operated by the Recovery School District, or RSD, which Mr. Vallas will head. Another 17 are run as charter schools that were authorized by the RSD, while two are charter schools that were authorized by the state before the recovery district was created. Twelve more charter schools are operating under charters granted by the local school board, which also runs five magnet schools directly.

“My job is to restructure the RSD schools into schools that are second to none, while holding the charters accountable,” Mr. Vallas said.

Altogether, an estimated 27,000 students are being served, with roughly 100 enrolling each week. State officials expect to need 20 new schools and 800 more teachers this coming fall to serve from 9,000 to 13,000 more students.

To meet short-term facilities needs, the state is working to erect temporary, modular schools, with the help of engineering experts from the Louisiana National Guard, among others. For the longer term, it is contracting with consultants to develop a master facilities plan for all public schools in the city, charter or otherwise.

To help bring order to the process of absorbing returning students, Mr. Pastorek said state officials were considering a “welcome school,” where youngsters would be screened for their academic and mental-health needs.

Mr. Vallas, who is slated to start July 1, said the problem of overage, undercredited high school students is especially acute in New Orleans, in part because of the disruption and learning gaps so many have experienced. To help close those gaps, he said he planned a greatly expanded summer school program.

Jon Schnur, the chief executive officer of New Leaders for New Schools, predicted Mr. Vallas’ decision to come to the city would help in what has been a tough task of attracting educators.

“He’s one of the nation’s greatest superintendents, who has made the decision to come to New Orleans,” Mr. Schnur said. “And that’s huge.”

PHOTO: Paul G. Vallas, shown with Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, is expected to bring strong managerial skills to the state-run Recovery School District.
—Bill Haber/AP
PHOTO: Paul G. Vallas, who will start running the Recovery School District in July, addresses the audience after his May 4 appointment at the Martin Luther King School in New Orleans.
—Bill Haber/AP

Vol. 26, Issue 37, Pages 5,15

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