Vallas Charts New Path for New Orleans

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In his first wave of decisions as the head of the state-run school system in New Orleans, Paul G. Vallas plans to open 21 more schools this fall, recruit and train teachers to ensure the schools are fully staffed, and develop a standardized curriculum with intensive catch-up help in a bid to bring struggling students up to grade level.

Mr. Vallas, who took charge of most of the city’s schools this month, offered the first outline of his strategy in a June 20 presentation to the Louisiana board of education. His plans form the foundation of a nationally watched effort to supply good schools to replace the largely dysfunctional system that was nearly wiped out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“There is both excitement and a sense of relief,” state board member Leslie Jacobs said of Mr. Vallas’ presentation. “I’m encouraged and I’m optimistic … we are going to significantly improve student achievement in New Orleans over the next number of years.”

Of the 58 public schools in New Orleans, two are run by the state board of education, 17 are operated by the Orleans Parish school board, and 39 by the state-run Recovery School District, or RSD, of which Mr. Vallas is now the superintendent. By Sept. 4, when the new school year starts, Mr. Vallas hopes to add 21 more, about half of which will be charter schools, he said. That would boost enrollment capacity from 26,000 students to about 40,000, he said.

To answer parents’ complaints about too few school seats in some neighborhoods, he wants more charter schools to create “catchment areas,” reserving half their spots for children who live nearby, and leaving half for children from anywhere in the city, he said in a recent interview.

He also envisions two alternative schools and a “welcome school” for students in grades 6-12, staffed with social workers, academic-intervention specialists, and others who can help assess and meet the needs of newly enrolled children.

In Search of Teachers

As of late June, the district needed 536 teachers, and 260 job offers had already been made, Mr. Vallas said. The rest are being recruited through job fairs in Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Detroit, and Houston and outreach to local universities and alternative-certification groups, Mr. Vallas said.

The schools will also require at least 20 principals, and officials have received 160 applications, he said. But 11 or more of the vacancies will be in high schools, and only four applicants sought such posts. Mr. Vallas hopes to hire some principals from organizations such as New Leaders for New Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that trains principals, but is also recruiting nationally.

The district hopes to staff schools with teams that include assistant principals and literacy and mathematics coaches, Mr. Vallas said. He also envisions "climate managers" at all high schools and larger elementary schools.

Over two years, the RSD schools will phase in a common curriculum and use benchmark quizzes every six to 10 weeks to assess how students are doing, Mr. Vallas said. Standard curricula in 4th and 8th grade reading and math will be introduced in 2007-08 and be extended to all grades—prekindergarten through 12th grade—the following year, he said.

Teachers will receive training this summer in the new instructional models, with an emphasis on literacy and on using data to evaluate and adjust instruction, he said.

Elementary and middle schools will adopt two-hour reading and 90-minute math blocks, he said, and high schools will "double dose'' on those subjects "when appropriate."

Between October and March, when state tests are administered, the school day will be extended by one to two hours for students who have failed state exams, are failing a course, or are chronically absent.

"In some schools, we have 90 percent of kids two or more years below grade level,'' Mr. Vallas noted. "We've got to increase the amount of instructional time on task."

The RSD will offer a three-week summer school program in July, but intends to offer a larger-scale program in 2008 as an attempt to extend the school year.

Vol. 26, Issue 43

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