Q & A With Paul G. Vallas
Paul G. Vallas, the new superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans, spoke to Education Week on July 18, seven weeks before the first day of the 2007-08 school year. Mr. Vallas talked about his agenda for the upcoming school year and how he plans to lead the district out of the crisis mode it has been in since Hurricane Katrina struck two years ago.
Q: What goals have you set for getting schools open on Sept. 4 and ensuring that the chaos of last year’s opening weeks, when there weren’t enough textbooks and teachers, is not repeated?
A: First of all, I am telling people that when schools open in September, they can really give us an immediate report card. First and foremost are the facilities. Of course, the facilities in the school system were horrendous before the hurricane. Really, some of these buildings should be used or sold to movie-production companies for their apocalyptic films that show what the end of the world looks like. Anyway, right now, we are focusing our attention on classroom modernization so that even though the kids might be in second-rate buildings for the time being, there is no reason why they can’t be in first-rate classrooms. Here’s the checklist: I want all the classrooms to be painted, to be air-conditioned, to be well-lighted and ventilated, to have modern textbooks, and to have teachers equipped with superior curriculum and instruction models that have benchmark testing and supports. I don’t want any classroom to have more than 20 kids in it. And at a minimum, the 5th through 12th grades should have access to technology with at least eight computers in every classroom. We are also going to strive to get a teacher’s aide in as many classrooms as we can. I want these classrooms to be superior learning environments.
Q: What specific academic reforms are you planning to have in place this school year?
A: Well, for one, we are hopefully going to have the funding we need to be able to start an extended school day, by one or two hours a day, by October and have it run through March when we do state testing. The idea would be to have the longer days for 3rd through 8th graders to get more instruction in the core subjects. For high school students, the extra period would be for credit recovery, for mentoring and tutoring. When the traditional school year ends, we are going to be holding an extended school year that will go through July for kids who failed the state test, who were chronically absent, and who were failing in their core subjects. Even though we are targeting a specific population for the extended school year, we think it’s going to constitute about half the student body who meet the criteria for it. We’ve got a lot of work to do.
Q: There was a great deal of concern about safety and security in the RSD schools last year, particularly in the high schools, where teachers complained that students were hostile and out of control, and students complained that the heavy security presence made the schools feel like prison. How are you going to address that this year?
A: I’ve put out a request for proposals to the city’s community-based and faith-based organizations to supplement school safety. We’ve been paying a fortune on school police, and we’ve got to get those expenditures under control and shift that money to these social-services groups that can provide services like truant officers, playground monitors, and do things for us like provide after-school programs, academic enrichment, and alternatives to suspensions. I think there are enough of these local, faith-based and social-service agencies to provide what we are going to need. I also want them to help us organize clubs and run Saturday schools as an alternative to suspension for those kids who need extra counseling and character education.
Q: One of the struggles in the RSD last year and for your predecessor, Robin Jarvis, was the turnover in central-office staff, as well as several key positions that were never filled. Have you been able to put together a complete leadership team?
A: We have made some very important hires. I’ve got one of the best high school principals in Louisiana who is going to oversee 7th through 12th grades, and she will have an equivalent person at the elementary level. I brought in Betty Jean Wolfe from Philadelphia to head up our human-resources department. That spot was never filled last year, and it’s critical for our recruitment and retention efforts. I’ve got a chief accountability officer in place, and I brought in Karen Burke who worked with me in Chicago to be the chief of operations. She’s been responsible for the construction of about 90 school buildings in the time she worked with me. I’ve hired a local educator, Kelvin Adams, who is well known, to be my chief of staff. I’ve got a director of school management, and we are going to have a well-known local law-enforcement official who has also worked in community organizing to head up safety and security for us. We’ve got a chief administrative and finance officer in place, too. That’s the core group. I want the central office to remain light because we don’t intend to micromanage schools. I want us to be a support, the hub of research and development and best practices, and the accountability office.
Q: There have been a lot of hard feelings about the mass firing of New Orleans teachers and the busting of the United Teachers of New Orleans after Katrina. That’s been exacerbated by the requirement that fired teachers reapply for their jobs and pass a skills assessment before they are hired. What has it been like for you to work in a district where there is no teachers’ union, and do you think there is an untapped pool of veteran teachers who either retired or went to work in other parishes after the storm that you’d like to bring back?
A: Look, at this point, I think we should be talking to the union about getting involved in some way in school reform here. We are going to work on creating a structure in the district where there are clear work rules that will protect our employees and give them due process and a means for grievances when something unfair happens. We want to have a teacher representative in all of the schools. We are also going to create an ombudsman’s office to assist teachers and resolve problems. We hope to have the grievance process, or elements of it, in place this school year. I think we have to recruit teachers from everywhere. We will be giving retention bonuses to those teachers who did come back to teach here. We are looking at financially rewarding those teachers who remained here and have made the sacrifices.
Q: Charter schools already enroll a majority of kids in New Orleans. Do you intend for that trend to continue, and if so, what will you do to ensure that quality operators come to New Orleans and that they are not perceived to be only for students whose families have more resources and savvy to get them in?
A: Yes, charters are going to continue to be a very important part of the landscape here. Ideally, all of the public schools in New Orleans, whether they are a charter or run by the RSD, are going to be charter-like in how they operate. [Louisiana schools Superintendent] Paul [Pastorek] and I really want to break down the distinction between the two. So, for one thing, we are going to be recruiting about 15 charter high school models for New Orleans. I want an International Baccalaureate program here. I want a high-tech high like what we got in Philadelphia, and I’ve been talking to Microsoft about that. Cristo Rey is interested in coming down and opening a school, and we would show them how to do it as a charter. Some of these schools we would open up brand new, and some of the models we would use to reconstitute our existing high schools.
Q: A lot of parents, especially those who are coming back to New Orleans to an entirely different schooling landscape, are confused about who is in charge of schools, and how even to get their child signed up for school. What are you doing to address the confusion about the unusual governance structure and the variety of schools?
A: That’s a very important issue that we have to address. What I have told the charters is that we have got to establish a system to let parents sign up for charter lotteries centrally. It’s not fair to do it school by school, because it leaves out too many people. The same goes for choosing an RSD school. By next year, we will have a one-stop-shop set up for parents to either register for a neighborhood school or for the lotteries in the magnet schools and charter schools. This will help us go a long way toward breaking down this myth that charters are only for the elite kids.
Q: Are you getting offers of financial support from the education philanthropy world, and if so, where are those coming from?
A: The answer is yes, there is a lot of interest in helping New Orleans schools. But I think we will see much of that is going to be coming through the sponsorship of charter schools from some of the big organizations like the [Bill & Melinda] Gates Foundation.
Q: What have you learned and what has surprised you so far in your few weeks at the helm in New Orleans?
A: Nothing really surprised me. I knew how bad the facilities were going to be here, although I’ll say that seeing them gave me a new appreciation for the buildings we had in Philadelphia. People here have been really warm and willing to work with me. I think the bottom line for me now is to have a strong opening to the school year and hit those benchmarks. If we can do those basic things, we will generate a lot of momentum.