New Orleans Panel Rethinks School System

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Four months after Hurricane Katrina wiped out large sections of New Orleans, an early outline of a newly configured school system is beginning to emerge—and it looks unlike any other district.

The plan under consideration inverts the typical arrangement, in which schools make up the bottom of the organizational chart, with a broad middle-management layer above them, and the superintendent and school board on top.

Scheduled to be put in final form this week by an education committee of the mayor’s rebuilding commission, the plan envisions a district composed of clusters of schools, each run by a network manager who provides needed support and services. The clusters would be overseen by a chief executive officer and a school board whose job is to serve the schools.

Administration would be pared to a minimum. A “services group” would provide financial, transportation, and other key services. A “strategy group”—the CEO and a handful of other employees—would be in charge of academics, finances, accountability, and communications.

Principals would have the power to hire whom they chose, and would control 80 cents of every budgetary dollar. Schools would have to use the district for a few essential services, such as financial systems, but could choose the district or outside providers for the rest.

The arrangement is an attempt to create “a bottom-up focus on schools rather than dictating from the top down,” and a “focus on strategic management vs. comprehensive control,” says a draft of the plan being discussed by the education steering committee of Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

The steering committee expected to complete its report this week and to present it to the mayor’s full commission on Jan. 17.

Tulane University President Scott Cowen, who chairs the steering committee, said last week he was talking with Louisiana’s state schools superintendent, Cecil J. Picard, and with Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco’s Louisiana Recovery Authority, to align the various plans under development as the vision for New Orleans schools evolves.

Mr. Cowen said he also hoped to coordinate with the local school board, which has a vastly reduced zone of authority now that the state is in charge of most of the district’s schools. ("La. Lawmakers OK Plan to Give State Control of Most New Orleans Schools," Nov. 30, 2005.)

A Work in Progress

More than 5,000 children were enrolled in one regular school and nine charter schools in New Orleans as of last week, less than 10 percent of the district’s pre-Katrina enrollment, but climbing. Another seven schools were scheduled to open by the end of the month.

The image of what the city’s school system will look like is still far from clear. The steering committee’s plan, for instance, suggested abolishing New Orleans’ elected school board in favor of an all-appointed panel. But a later version of the plan prepared for presentation to state officials softened that approach, and included the possibility of a mixture of appointed and elected board members.

Schools Move to Head of the Class

A plan under consideration for New Orleans would emphasize networks of schools, not bureaucracy.

*Click image to enlarge.

The committee must remain open to various possibilities, Mr. Cowen said, to manage potential legal and logistical difficulties. On the school board’s makeup, for instance, state law would need to be changed to permit appointed members.

The steering committee believes strongly that “one single, aligned governing body” is crucial to the success of the New Orleans schools, said Mark R. Hoffman, a Boston Consulting Group vice president who is coordinating the committee’s efforts. Exactly how to ensure such governance in a district where most of the schools will answer to state-contracted groups, and a minority will answer to the local board, is unknown, Mr. Hoffman acknowledged.

Paul T. Hill, a University of Washington professor of public affairs who has studied district design, called the steering committee’s plan sensible and an idea that “could be a model for struggling urban districts elsewhere.” But he cautioned that personnel choices could buoy or sink the concept.

“Everything depends on who the people are and how they perform,” he wrote in an e-mail last week.

In building their plan, steering-committee members sought the views of more than 1,000 principals, teachers, students, and parents through town hall meetings, focus groups, surveys, and interviews, even traveling to Baton Rouge, La., and to Houston to seek out displaced residents. They reviewed research on best practices in urban education, and received advice from school leaders in Chicago; New York City; Norfolk, Va.; Oakland, Calif.; and Philadelphia.

But to some, the result doesn’t feel like a good fit for New Orleans.

Phyllis Landrieu, a New Orleans school board member who also serves on the steering committee, said she doesn’t think the plan takes into account factors about the city’s unique situation, such as its profound financial problems.

“It’s a great idea, but it doesn’t apply to us,” she said.

But Mr. Cowen of Tulane sees the plan as a good approach for the city, given the unprecedented scale of the rebuilding task for its school system.

“The network model is a vision for farther out, as well as closer up,” he said. “It’s flexible enough that we can start moving in that direction right now. We can organize the schools we have into networks” and build from there, he said.

Marla R. Ucelli, the director of district redesign at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform in Providence, R.I., said she was impressed that the New Orleans plan is “a real effort to bring best practice to a new district.”

But she was also skeptical that it would survive in its original form when implemented, because it fails to consider certain key challenges, such as collective bargaining agreements, attracting and compensating high-quality staff, and ensuring equitable distribution of resources for schools and options for children.

Vol. 25, Issue 18, Pages 5, 12

Published in Print: January 11, 2006, as New Orleans Panel Rethinks School System
Web Resources
  • The New Orleans Public Schools site has general information and news on the city's public schools. The site also provides further information on school openings in those areas affected by the hurricanes.
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