As Year Ends, Questions Remain for New Orleans
In rebuilding public schooling in this city after Hurricane Katrina, education reformers have managed to hire energetic teachers, break ground on a few new school buildings, raise public confidence, and show progress on test scores.
But fundamental questions remain as the 2007-08 academic year draws to a close next week, including how the city’s still-evolving decentralized mix of regular public schools and charters will operate in the coming years.
Who will be responsible for providing costly services, such as building repairs? How much oversight will be best for the charters that dominate the post-Katrina education landscape here? Who or what will govern the city schools that, right now, are operated by the state? Whose job is it to inform parents about the range of school choices available for their children?
“The lack of coordination [among the school entities] is a real problem,” said Angela W. Daliet, the executive director of Save Our Schools New Orleans, a nonprofit organization that formed after Katrina. “A lot of money is being spent, and it’s not going to be sustainable. We all need to be working on some of these big challenges together. If we don’t, we run the risk of creating another situation where there are schools that have a lot and schools that don’t have enough.”
Nearly 60 percent of the city’s 33,000 public school children attend 40 charter schools now, the highest percentage in any district. The number is likely to rise as several more charters open in the fall. Paul G. Vallas, the superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District, talks of giving the 33 schools he manages “charter-like” independence, with principals who will choose their own faculty members and manage their own budgets, and school-based committees that will help select principals. Only five schools still answer directly to the elected Orleans Parish school board that ran the district before the storm struck in August 2005.
“What’s happening in New Orleans is tremendously important, because they are taking on, in high relief, the problems that so many other districts have,” said Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, at the University of Washington in Seattle. “They are tackling the big one, which is: How do you increase the quality of schools in a struggling community that is not awash in resources and talent?”
When the state took over the low-performing schools in New Orleans just after the hurricane, the takeover law dictated that, after five years, the RSD would dissolve and the schools would be returned to some form of local control. With just more than two years to go until the fall 2010 deadline, education leaders are just beginning to wrestle with the question of who or what will ultimately govern public schools in the city.
There is nothing close to a consensus on what the model should be, according to a survey of education leaders conducted by researchers at Tulane University earlier this year. Paul G. Pastorek, Louisiana’s state superintendent of education, has appointed a commission on school governance that will examine models at work in other cities, including mayoral control, elected school boards, and appointed boards.
“We will be working hard to ensure that this is not a big fight, and that the focus around this debate is on what is best for our students,” said Scott S. Cowen, the president of Tulane, who is chairing the commission.
“I think nearly everyone agrees that we will never have a single school system again,” he said, “but at the same time, we’ve got an important job in figuring out how to provide the oversight and support for such a large number of independent charter schools.”
Public perceptions of New Orleans’ altered education landscape have become an important measure, and so far, people here seem to be taking an optimistic view. State political leaders, however, including some Democratic lawmakers from New Orleans and Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican who took office in January, are pushing for a voucher program that would pay for 1,500 low- and middle-income New Orleans students to attend nonpublic schools.
Of the more than 1,800 parents, teachers, administrators, and community members who responded to the Tulane survey earlier this year, most said they think the public schools are better this year than last year, when delivering basics such as hot meals and ample teachers proved overwhelming in the Recovery School District, or RSD.
They also agreed the public schools are better now than before the storm, when the Orleans Parish board ran a district of more than 120 schools and 60,000 students.
“Every place that I go in the city and hear people talk about recovery, public education seems to be a source of pride, and the test scores this year help back that up,” said Mr. Cowen. “But we can’t declare victory yet. We have to first demonstrate that there’s reality behind that optimism, and that, over time, we continue to see improvements in test scores, attendance, and graduation rates.”
D’André Allen, whose two sons attend the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, agrees that the remade system of schools has much more to prove.
“I’m lucky because I know my kids are in a good school,” said Ms. Allen, who returned to New Orleans last summer from Lake Charles, La., to enroll her boys at King. “But I don’t think a lot of parents who’ve come back to New Orleans can say the same thing. There’s not a lot of consistency in quality across the schools.”
This spring, 4th and 8th graders in the RSD posted bigger gains in several categories of the exam than did their peers statewide—a first for the city’s students since Louisiana began its school accountability program in 1999. The number of 4th graders who passed the test—which they must do for promotion to 5th grade—jumped 12 percentage points compared with last year. For 8th graders, the increase was 4 percentage points.
That academic growth, particularly in 4th grade, presents the most promising sign yet that New Orleans’ system of independent charters and regular public schools will produce better-educated students than its pre-Katrina predecessor. But New Orleans remains in an academic crisis: Sixty percent of the high school students in the recovery district failed both the English and mathematics portions of the state exit exam, for example. Despite the progress in 4th and 8th grades, more than half the city’s children in those grades still did not pass the exam. And the city’s scores remain among the lowest in Louisiana.
The percentage of RSD seniors receiving diplomas is expected to improve compared with last year, when 37 percent graduated. Roughly 449 out of 690 seniors, about 65 percent, are estimated to be graduating this month, although the final number could increase or decrease, RSD officials said.
Mr. Pastorek, the state superintendent, has negotiated tirelessly with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get more money to pay for repairing and rebuilding flooded school buildings.
Still to come this summer is the release of a citywide plan for rebuilding schools. The plan has already stirred some unrest and dissent, most notably at the Upper Ninth Ward’s Frederick Douglass High School, which could be a candidate for permanent closure.
Last October, Mr. Pastorek announced that five new schools would be under construction right away, with completion expected in time for the 2009-10 school year. Mr. Vallas, determined to equip classrooms well even if building exteriors remained rundown, spent roughly $50 million on new technology. Interactive whiteboards were installed in most classrooms, and laptop computers were provided to the RSD’s high school students, though some of the technology got mixed reviews from teachers and students.
But there were some setbacks. In November, Mr. Vallas made the decision to relocate students and teachers at Joseph A. Craig Elementary School in the Treme neighborhood to a modular campus 14 miles away after mold was discovered in the building. Many parents were outraged. And large-scale challenges with facilities may take several years to address. The most daunting, said Mr. Pastorek, is the estimated $1.7 billion in repairs and replacements needed for schools citywide.
“And what we’ve got pledged to pay for that is $700 million from FEMA,” he told community members at a meeting in April. “That’s not even half.”
Academic reforms have been the priority for Mr. Vallas, the RSD superintendent and a high-profile former schools chief in Chicago and Philadelphia. He ordered small classes and dictated curriculum choices—tactics he said were key to spurring stronger achievement in schools where roughly 85 percent of the students are estimated to be at least two years behind in reading.
Though RSD schools offered an extra hour of instruction for several months leading up to the state exams in March, the program was voluntary, and Mr. Vallas said participation wasn’t nearly as robust as it needed to be. Next year, the school day will be extended permanently for all grades.
“More instruction and time on task is going to be huge for us,” Mr. Vallas said.
But without a reliable stable of energetic teachers, extra instruction won’t be enough. Schools in the RSD and the charters recruited more than enough teachers for the 2007-08 school year, tapping into pipelines provided by Teach For America, which brought in recent college graduates, and the locally established TeachNOLA program, which recruited certified teachers as well as professionals working in other careers.
But with the new talent also came inexperience. Sixty percent of teachers in the RSD—where students are farthest behind—have less than two years’ experience.
In their survey of teachers across the city earlier this year, researchers at Tulane reported that 39 percent of respondents said they had seriously considered leaving their schools; the number was even higher for teachers in the RSD. Supports for teachers and retention remain an enormous challenge. Recovery School District officials estimate that 15 percent of the teachers will not be back in the fall.
One of the most ambitious improvement initiatives this past year was Mr. Vallas’ plan for redesigning high schools. The changes—which involve assigning career themes to each high school, providing internships, and offering a richer menu of college-preparatory courses, including some Advanced Placement—have spurred debate about the community’s role in reshaping schools.
Under the Vallas plan, every campus will have a committee of teachers, students, and community members that is supposed to guide its redesign. Some high schools already have committees in place and have garnered significant community input. Others are farther behind.
Education Week’s 2007-08 project on the New Orleans schools includes many online-only features, including archives, video interviews, feature stories, photo galleries, Q&As, and more. Learn more about the series.
“That’s not been the reality at every high school,” Ms. Daliet of Save Our Schools New Orleans said about the level of community involvement. “When it comes to community engagement, there’s a lot more intentional work that needs to be done to overcome years of distrust and pessimism here.”
Ms. Daliet said people are also wary about such dramatic changes in high schools because of Mr. Vallas’ likely departure at the end of next school year, when the initiative will still be taking root. He’s been frank about his intention to return to Chicago, where his wife and sons live. Speculation has been rampant that he will run for Illinois governor in two years, which he has done little to dispel.
The Walton Family Foundation, best known for its support of school choice, agreed to help underwrite the high school redesign plans with a $6.37 million grant.
The RSD and many charter schools have tapped heavily into outside support organizations as a source of teachers and school leaders, a trend that is likely to continue. Next year, the city is poised to become home to the nation’s largest number of Teach For America recruits.
Education entrepreneurs also have attracted the first big money to the city’s reform efforts. Late last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund joined forces to invest $17.5 million in groups like TFA and New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit group formed after the storm to support the launching of charters and a major player in the city’s reform efforts. (The Gates and Broad foundations also provide funding for Education Week.)
“There is a great amount of energy there, and the talent that is being drawn in is impressive,” said Kevin Hall, the chief operating officer for the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation. “It’s not going to be an unrocky road, and there will certainly be setbacks. But I think a decade from now, we’ll be looking back at New Orleans and say it has been one of the most important places for transformation of K-12 in the U.S.”
To Mr. Cowen, the president of Tulane, the most promising signal so far is what people aren’t doing.
“What I’ve been closely watching for are signs that people want to drift back to the old ways of doing things,” he said. “Through my research and anecdotally, people are liking this transformation that is under way.”
Vol. 27, Issue 39, Pages 1,12-13