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Education Opinion

New Orleans’ Big Education Export

By Guest Blogger — May 06, 2015 4 min read
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Note: Rick is taking a hiatus while he’s off talking about his new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher. Meanwhile, this week’s guest posts will be written by Jonas Chartock and Chong-Hao Fu. Chartock (@jonaschartock) is the CEO and Fu (@chonghaofu) is the Chief Program Officer of Leading Educators, a national non-profit organization that works with schools, districts, and states to advance teachers’ leadership skills and opportunities to ensure all students have the opportunity to succeed in school and life.

Over the course of the next few months, we’ll hear a lot about New Orleans as the city approaches the ten-year anniversary of the tragedy that was Katrina. Much of the focus will be on the approach to rebuilding the city’s public education system. There will be countless articles, radio segments, and at least two conferences where researchers, community members, activists, and politicians will weigh in on what has gone well and what hasn’t. People will argue if the model of an all-charter public system should be emulated and, if so, whether it is possible to implement elsewhere.

What we are guessing will get lost in the conversation is one relatively uncontroversial, yet essential, feature of New Orleans’ educational system: teacher leadership development. It’s arguably the most widespread of New Orleans’ educational exports, being adopted by some of the biggest traditional school systems and charter networks across the country via Leading Educators, including those in Kansas City, Memphis, DC, and New York.

In the aftermath of Katrina, the entire educational system was restarted and, in the process, 7,000 career teachers were fired. As a result of the rehiring process and a city-wide investment in Teach For America and Teach NOLA, New Orleans, like the rest of the country, saw its average teacher tenure drop considerably. In fact, one out of every five students in New Orleans is now taught by a Teach For America teacher or alumnus/a every day. The majority of New Orleans public charters have invested heavily in alternatively certified, relatively young classroom teachers.

With fewer mid-career teachers, many schools lacked mentors and team leaders. An entire middle management structure needed to be built as schools faced a massive need to onboard and train new teachers. Leading Educators was born out of that need, and so, too, was the opportunity for New Orleans teacher leaders to access training that would advance their efforts to help their colleagues grow in their work.

The idea was simple: by focusing on core management and leadership skills for teachers, we’d simultaneously retain great teachers via increased responsibility and efficacy, build a pipeline of new principals, provide training and support around cultural competence, and improve the instruction across teams of teachers. Since 2008, nearly one-fifth of the city’s teacher leaders have gone through the program, including more than 30 who are now principals or assistant principals in New Orleans schools.

One such New Orleans teacher leader, John Solet, is featured in Rick’s great new book The Cage-Busting Teacher. Rick writes about how John was able to solve specific problems through small actions. What Rick does not describe is the school where John works now and its commitment to whole school improvement via teacher leadership.

Christina Hull and the teacher leaders of Sci High are making a big impact on colleagues and students, providing a model for the rest of the country.

Since 2009, under the co-leadership of Leading Educators alumni Claire Jecklin and Chana Benenson, Sci High has moved from a D school to a B school. Jecklin, who started building the school’s literacy program while a teacher leader in the Leading Educators Fellowship, says, “Behind every transformative initiative at Sci High is a Leading Educator.” A review of the school’s results shows what she means:

  • Christina Hull, the behavior dean, lowered Sci High’s suspension rate from 31.3% to 25% through her Leader Impact Project—a culminating teacher leadership initiative completed as part of the Leading Educators Fellowship.
  • Ali Gaffey built upon that work during her Leader Impact Project and led freshmen students to an average of 3 years of growth in literacy while in the fellowship.
  • Current fellow Lauren Hardy is working to expand Gaffey’s work to impact literacy schoolwide.
  • Alumnus Eric Aufderhar worked to create and align a team of special education teachers, interventionists, and para-professionals to best serve all students at Sci High.
  • Uriel Rodriguez, a current fellow, is working to make sure that all students enrolled in Algebra I pass the end-of-course exam and that all freshmen receiving Tier II and Tier III interventions have the skills necessary to advance to the next course in math.

Sci High demonstrates how an investment in teacher leadership has cumulative impact with each teacher building on the work of others. Sci High is not alone in its investment in New Orleans teacher leaders; more than a third of the city’s schools have enrolled teacher leaders in formal training as part of a concerted effort to retain teachers over time. What’s more, we are proud of the diversity of fellows in the New Orleans cohort, nearly half of whom are teacher leaders of color, reflecting the students that we serve. These teacher leaders are models for their colleagues and students alike.

As mentioned above, this effort to build aligned teams is building momentum throughout the country in some of the biggest public districts. Tomorrow we’ll describe one of the most exciting efforts, the Teacher Leadership Innovation Schools in District of Columbia Public Schools.

--Jonas Chartock and Chong-Hao Fu

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.