Louisiana Seeks Partners to Take Over Failing Schools

State seeks operators to help with turnarounds beyond New Orleans.

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Louisiana’s top education officials have launched a nationwide search for organizations to help them turn around academic achievement in 11 chronically failing schools in districts around the state.

In doing so, education leaders must also decide whether to transfer the schools to the state-run Recovery School District, which took over most of the public schools in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. The prospect seems unlikely for both political and practical reasons.

The schools—all deemed “academically unacceptable” under Louisiana’s accountability system for at least five years—are the first wave of what will likely be as many as 48 schools that could be at risk of takeover by the end of the year, said state schools Superintendent Paul G. Pastorek.

To address low performance in such a large number of schools, Mr. Pastorek said, the state needs to seek experts in local school districts, national charter school groups, universities, for-profit education management organizations, and community organizations. Earlier this month, he sent out a formal request to dozens of such organizations to solicit their interest.

“With that many schools that will need intervention on the horizon, and they are spread out across the state, we need to think about the possibility of other operators,” Mr. Pastorek said in an interview. “My view is that the state, as an operator, should be a choice of last resort.”

In seeking outside operators to overhaul the most troubled schools, Louisiana is “ahead of the game,” said William Guenther, the president and founder of the Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, a Boston-based research and advocacy group that has developed a model for how states and school districts should do such “turnaround” work. Mr. Guenther said that within a few years, thousands of low-performing schools across the country must make dramatic improvements to academic achievement or face the most severe consequences under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“Most states have not looked at this issue of creating the right kind of conditions for turnaround, and Louisiana is clearly doing that here,” Mr. Guenther said.

“The real challenge for them is that the field of education has not yet recognized turnaround as a special discipline, which means there has been no funding for it,” he said. “So no one has really grown the capacity in organizations that could do this work, and no one has provided a home for people in schools who would be good at it.”

A Different Tack

Under Louisiana law, schools that are rated academically unacceptable for four years are eligible for state takeover and transfer to the Recovery School District, or RSD, a decision that is made at the discretion of the state school board. But in districts where more than 50 percent of the schools have been in that category for four or more years, state law requires that the entire school district be swept into the RSD.

Two rural parishes, St. Helena and Madison, could be transferred into the recovery district by next fall.

But it’s unlikely that Mr. Pastorek would recommend, or the state board would approve, shifting direct management of failing schools outside of New Orleans to the RSD, which is run by Superintendent Paul G. Vallas. The RSD now consists only of New Orleans schools—35 are directly run by the district, and 26 are charters.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to combine them per se with the New Orleans schools,” Mr. Pastorek said. “If we do place these schools in the RSD, there may be some shared services, but the leadership would have to be different.”

Before the state board makes a decision on how to intervene in the 11 schools, each will have undergone a “quality review” that outlines the history of the school, the population it serves, and the programs it offers. Because five of the schools are alternative schools, Mr. Pastorek said the board will have to decide if using the state’s accountability standards at those schools is fair.

Four of the 11 schools are in the 43,000-student East Baton Rouge Parish district, while most of the rest are scattered among smaller parishes. All of them are high-poverty schools.

“The local school systems have had their opportunities to do this, so now we really do have to consider trying something very different to reach these students, who we know can learn,” said Walter C. Lee, a member of the state board and the superintendent of schools in DeSoto Parish in northwest Louisiana. “What it’s going to take is a low student-to-teacher ratio and a deep analysis of the deficiencies of every child in those schools that we can then use to develop something like an [individualized education program] for each of them.”

While national charter school operators may be the most likely organizations to offer their help, at least one state board member said she wants university partners to be given serious consideration.

“I don’t want to only have charters to choose from for this,” said Linda Johnson, the president of the board. “We do have many leaders in our state now that are very pro-charter, but the data on charters are still not all that explicit to say that they succeed.”

Mr. Guenther of Mass Insight said Louisiana will need to cultivate its own organizations for school turnaround work because of a shortage of national players.

“You can’t just import partners from outside the state,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to use partners that are going to have credibility locally.”

Vol. 27, Issue 22, Page 11

Published in Print: February 6, 2008, as Louisiana Seeks Partners to Take Over Failing Schools
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