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Straight-Up Conversation: Outgoing NSNO CEO Neerav Kingsland

By Rick Hess — April 14, 2014 9 min read
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Regular readers are familiar with Neerav Kingsland, who’s penned some of the more popular RHSU guest posts. Two years ago, I did a Straight Up conversation with Neerav when he took the reins from Sarah Usdin at New Schools for New Orleans. We’ve now come full circle, with Neerav recently announcing the he is stepping down at NSNO to aid other cities and districts seeking to pursue New Orleans-style education reform. It seemed an opportune time to catch up with Neerav, take stock of where things are in New Orleans, and hear his thoughts on what’s ahead.

Rick Hess: How long have you been at NSNO now?

Neerav Kingsland: For eight years. I was part of the founding team with Sarah Usdin who recruited me when I was in law school. I’d gone to undergrad at Tulane, so it was an opportunity to move back to the city to help rebuild the city’s educational system. In that time, I’ve had multiple roles. I started off on the legal side and then went to human capital and then went to launching charter schools and then from there ran the day-to-day of the organization for about a year and a half and then eventually came into CEO. So the positive with that is I really got to rotate through our key functional areas so that by the time I was leaving the organization I had first-hand experience in everything we do.

RH: What’s the biggest takeaway from your time at NSNO?

NK: One is the importance of strategic clarity for both an organization and the city, and I think it took a little while for NSNO to get that. Over time we really gravitated to the idea of handing power back to educators and the families and moving into a non-profit run system where the best schools expand and the schools that don’t serve kids well close and families get to choose amongst those schools. And once we hit that strategic clarity and had a firm idea of where we’re heading, we kind of fell from there.

RH: Can you explain what do you mean by “strategic clarity”?

NK: Especially in the non-profit world I think you can get pulled in a thousand different directions very easily because of politics, because of donors, because of different opinions from your board. It’s essential to as quickly and clearly as possible define what the organization does and why we do that. At NSNO, we ended up with three key pillars. First was thought leadership, helping the government build the system. The second was scaling charter schools. And the third was investing in human capital organizations.

RH: As you think back over your tenure, how much of the work was political, organizational, or educational?

NK: Great question. I think NSNO started out being much more programmatic, so a lot of our senior leadership’s time was spent on launching charter schools and making sure NSNO itself was coming along. I think over the past three to four years, we’ve become more of a strategic leader in the city and had a larger impact on the policy landscape. I think that’s been a positive. When I think of my own time, my time as CEO was devoted probably 40 percent to strategic leadership, 40 percent to making the organization run, and really only 20 percent to the program because we had people who had much more expertise than I did on the programmatic side, leading a lot of those efforts.

RH: What was the biggest success in your time at NSNO?

NK: I think the biggest success was getting the charter sector to scale and maintaining quality. I think there’re a lot of people, perhaps reformers included, who always felt that charters really can be 10 or 15 percent of the system, but they’re just never going to scale. And to get to a 90 percent-plus charter sector in New Orleans, which scores well when CREDO [Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University] does a very rigorous quasi-experimental study, that’s just huge. For the city to get to scale and maintain quality is probably the thing I’m most proud of.

I don’t think you can ever underestimate how dire the situation was before. New Orleans was the second lowest performing school district in Louisiana eight years ago and we’re now approaching the state average, I think we’re right at the 47th percentile. So that’s just a huge win that’s going to have an incredible impact on the city and the future of kids and families,

RH: Skeptics have contended that the New Orleans success is much less impressive than you just suggested. What’s your response?

NK: In my mind it is undeniable that New Orleans has improved dramatically. Basically every metric you look at, percentage of kids attending high-quality schools, high school graduation or SAT rates, and the CREDO data, every indicator shows dramatic gains, gains that we’ve rarely seen in urban centers across this country. At the same time, on an absolute level, we’re nowhere where we need to be. Our kids are not college and career ready on the whole. I do think that the critics are drawn to the latter, or the absolute level, and I think they’re right--we have a long way to go. But I think it’s a big mistake to dismiss the growth, and perhaps even a bigger mistake to dismiss that the growth will keep on continuing. I think it can if we keep on executing as we’ve executed over the past eight years.

RH: What would you say is the biggest misstep from your time at NSNO?

NK: I think a couple that come to mind, where I think we’ve made some bad investment decisions, and so we’ve tried to think very deeply about why some of the charter schools we invested in didn’t work and some of them failed. There has probably been no harder part of my job. There are no harder things for kids and families than the school closure process.

RH: For folks who were trying to emulate what NSNO has done, is there one big lesson that you would share?

NK: I’d say two things, both having to relate to talent. At the end of the day you’re really betting on an entrepreneur, and I think at times charter investors get enamored with strategic plans and business models. All those things are very important, but the ability to pick the right person--somebody who is relentless to get results, high levels of constant learning, can lead adults--that’s just really what it all boils down to. That’s one of the hardest jobs in the world, running a charter school especially in an urban system, it’s just incredibly challenging. The second thing is city-wide talent. The major story of New Orleans is the growth in charter school market share, but none of that was possible without a keen focus on human capital. Teach for America, The New Teacher Project, local universities, and creating a more talented educator workforce have been a massive focus of resources.

I think there have also been a lot of challenges on how do you manage the centralized school system, what is key engagement look like, what does enrolment look like, what does expulsions look like? We are the first school district in the country where the government has become the regulator, and those regulatory functions are very difficult to pull off.

RH: Let’s shift gears. What are you doing next?

NK: I am in the process of exploring how I can help other cities that are interested in adopting New Orleans strategies.

RH: What’s that involve?

NK: To the extent that there is a growing set of new school type entities across the country--there’s now a New Schools for Baton Rouge, New Schools for Phoenix--I want to help them develop and execute their strategies. And then on the political side if there’s the governor or a mayor or a superintendent who feels like adopting New Orleans reforms, I want to be a part of helping them execute on that.

RH: Is this just you, are you starting a new organization?

NK: I am starting by myself. I think I have a lot of learning to do. I don’t quite yet have the complete understanding of what those organizations need, what those cities and states need, and so I am planning to use the first six months on my own to get a better understanding of the landscape. And then after that time, we’ll probably make a formal decision of whether or not to launch a new organization.

RH: What prompted you to make this move?

NK: I think some of it is just timing. Eight years gave me an incredible opportunity to be a part of building an organization. That’s also a significant amount of time to devote to an enterprise. I also felt that we had internal leadership that was extremely exceptional. I often found myself wondering what my value add was over them, but at the same time I saw myself having a real value add in other cities that haven’t gone through [NSNO’s growth]. I felt like NSNO is going to be in very capable hands.

RH: Are there particular ways in which you’ll build on lessons you learned at NSNO?

NK: I think the strategy component of that will be a big one. I do think the levers we pulled around strategic leadership charters in human capital were, roughly speaking, the right levers and other cities haven’t always had the strategic clarity necessary. To the extent I can help people hone strategies that have a higher impact, I’d love to be able to do that. The second piece is on the regulatory side, and I think the folks at the Recovery School District have done some pioneering work on how they run enrolment systems, accountability systems, expulsion systems, special education systems to manage a decentralized system. I think other cities have the chance to put that in place at the beginning and to the extent they can help on those equity fronts at the onset I think that would be useful to the students in those systems.

RH: Now you’ve made “relinquishment” a popular term. What is the relinquishment, where’s it stand, and how does that feed into this effort?

NK: I would define relinquishment on three principles. The first is schools that are structurally separate from the government, so it’s a different corporate entity, often nonprofit charter schools. The second is parent choice, so the days of what street you were born on determining what school you go to are over. And third, government is there to regulate performance and equity, so if you’re not serving kids at a high level, if you’re not serving every kid, that you lose the privilege to run a school in the city.

The state of it: well, it’s very small. There is one city in the country that’s adopted these principles, and that’s New Orleans. I think there are other cities that are working towards them, but they’re in their infancy...I think there is probably decades of work to really empower educators and families across this country, so I view this as a 30 to 40-year project and not something that will happen overnight.

RH: As you look ahead, what are we learning about what it’s going to take to make relinquishment work over that 30 or 40 years?

NK: I think politics is probably the biggest area: political leadership, political vision. In some sense we haven’t made the case to the general public, so I don’t know that parents and families are fully on board right now. But if I look across the country and say, “What does it take for five to ten more cities to adopt this?,” it would absolutely start with political barriers. After that, I think the charter sector is still not at the scale we’ll need. If 20 cities said tomorrow, “Okay, we want to adopt New Orleans reforms,” it’s an open question whether the charter sector could do it. So we need to keep on building capacity ahead of demand.

RH: Final thoughts?

NK: I just want to emphasize how incredibly excited I am for the next phase of New Schools for New Orleans. The new CEOs, Maggie Runyan-Shefa and Michael Stone, are exceptional, they both had incredible education careers, and I think NSNO is in great hands.

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.