Education Opinion

Neerav Kingsland, Chief Strategy Officer, New Schools New Orleans

By Sara Mead — May 19, 2011 5 min read
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Neerav Kingsland is one of a crop of education reformers who moved to New Orleans to help rebuild and reshape the city’s schools after Hurricane Katrina. As a freshly-minted Yale Law grad, Kingsland helped launch New Schools New Orleans, which has been a key force in shaping the transformation of public schooling in New Orleans and in recruiting, supporting, and growing operators of effective schools to serve the city’s students. Today, as Chief Strategy Officer, Kingsland operates NSNO on a day-to-day basis, as it embarks on an aggressive effort to transform the lowest-performing quarter of New Orleans schools over the next 5 years.

Raised in Indiana, Kingsland, 31, first came to New Orleans as an undergraduate at Tulane. An avid reader and writer, Kingsland is currently working on his first novel. [Click for more.]So, what does a “Chief Strategy Officer” actually do?

Initially, I was tasked with developing our programmatic strategy, but today I run New Schools New Orleans on a day-to-day basis.

New Schools New Orleans does three main things.

First, we provide strategic leadership for education reform in New Orleans. We have pretty strong ideas about what education in New Orleans should look like: a decentralized system; government that regulates rather than operates; how you monitor charter schools and create conditions for great schools to expand and bad ones to close. We work with partners in government to make that happen. It’s not really traditional advocacy work because the government partners are largely aligned with one another and with this vision. We’re more like a think tank, helping them develop strategy, working closely with the Recovery School District and the state. We’re also trying to capture what we’ve learned over the past 5 years in New Orleans and to be more public about potential for other communities to do what we have done. We know we’re far from perfect--we’ve gone from an “F” to a “C” but we want to be an “A"--but we still think we have some lessons for Newark, Detroit, and similar districts.

Second, we are a school development accelerator, opening and closing schools. We provide start-up support to charter school management organizations and new charter schools. And we work with communities that have failing schools to connect them to higher-performing operators. That’s the bulk of our time and money. For us in New Orleans, charter authorization, opening, and closure drives the system.

Third, we serve as a market maker . In New Orleans the government is devolving a lot of duties that are traditionally provided by school district central offices--such as recruitment and professional development--to non-profit and for-profit providers. But for that to work you actually need to create a market for these services where it didn’t exist before, and we work on doing that.

How did you come to work in education reform? What motivated you to this field?

I went to Tulane for undergrad, and I tutored students in the New Orleans schools. It was my first exposure to the lack of education for kids who need it. The school I tutored in was a drop-pout factory, and it really pricked my conscience.

After college, I went to law school at Yale, and I split my time between focusing international human rights and education.

Hurricane Katrina happened while I was in law school. I started going to New Orleans and volunteering, and through that I met [New Schools New Orleans founder] Sarah Usdin. I did a lot of grunt legal work for New Schools New Orleans as a volunteer, helping set up the organization. And then eventually I joined the team.

What have been your victories/successes to date?

New Schools New Orleans is a city-based organization, and we measure our success in terms of impact on students in New Orleans. The data on the progress in the city over the past 5 years is pretty phenomenal. In 2005, before Katrina, 62 percent of New Orleans kids were in failing schools. By 2011 that number is down to 17 percent. We’ve cut in half the achievement gap between New Orleans students and their peers statewide in Louisiana.

We received a $33 million i3 award,* the largest investment ever into New Orleans education to transform bottom 25 percent of schools in 5 years. The idea is to take some of the lessons we’ve learned about using charters to transform schools and up the ante to turn around lowest performing 5 percent of schools every year. If we can create the permanent infrastructure to do that, we can be a pioneer city.

We think we have a model that can do aggressive change for kids who need it most, and do it effectively.

Getting a major federal grant saying we’re on the cutting edge of serving kids is good for the city.

What is most challenging?

We’ve shown that an aggressive focus on great teachers and leaders and chartering can really make change in the lowest performing schools. We’ve shown that if you do the right things there’s no reason for drop-out factories and failing schools to exist. But we still have a long way to go. We’ve improved but we still aren’t providing an education that prepares every kid in the city for success in college. Not even half of kids in New Orleans go to college prep schools now. That’s a longer haul--maybe 10 years.

What do you see as the most pressing challenges that the next generation of education reformers and entrepreneurs will really need to tackle? How has this changed from previous iterations of reform?

I see two major challenges.

Scaling up what’s working is going to be a generation’s worth of work. I’m somewhat worried people are going to skip over that. There’s a big emphasis right now on technology and hybrid learning. That’s all wonderful, but not a reason not to scale up the things we already know work now. Someone needs to do the hard work of going into cities, building pipelines and quality charter schools.

The second challenge is around innovation and figuring out new solutions to problems that haven’t been solved yet. A lot of that will come from technology, but I would caution against jumping there because there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in terms of what we can do better with human capital, people, etc.

Who are some individuals who you particularly admire (in or out of education) and whose examples influence your life and work?

The blogosphere has greatly influenced my work in really profound way. I feel really lucky to live in a tech age when the smartest people across country on issues like politics, economics and education are posting their most profound thoughts on regular basis. It’s like an informal network of peers--half of whom don’t even know I exist--that I draw a lot of ideas from.

*Disclosure: Bellwether Education Partners worked as a consultant on the New Schools New Orleans i3 grant.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.