Nine months after Hurricane Katrina crippled the New Orleans school district, two distinct systems of public schools are slowly emerging in the city. The highly unusual arrangement is fraught with questions, from the small—What should we call it?—to the large—Will it work?
Where there once was a traditionally governed district, there now is a duality: The local school board oversees some schools, but the state of Louisiana is in charge of most.
The vast majority of the schools in New Orleans are charter schools. This month, the state must outline for the Louisiana board of education how it will run its share of the city’s schools.
With state and local systems running side by side—and so many charters wielding their signature autonomy—those rebuilding schooling in New Orleans question whether the term “school system” still makes sense. Whatever people call it, many see the new landscape as both a chance for improvement and an experiment that risks failing just when New Orleans schoolchildren need success the most.
“Any work in education in New Orleans is going to be more difficult and potentially more dramatically impactful than work in education elsewhere. It is full of pain, [but also] opportunity for a dramatically better education,” said Jon Schnur, the chief executive officer of New Leaders for New Schools. The New York City-based nonprofit group is talking with state and local officials about recruiting and training principals for New Orleans schools.
With hope and fear as a backdrop, New Orleans educators are neck-deep in the here-and-now work of repopulating their classrooms. State and local leaders have been grappling with building estimates and population projections for this coming fall, even as they solicit expert advice to shape a long-term vision of first-rate schooling, a challenge one educator compared to “trying to run and pull up your pants at the same time.”
Sorting Out Roles
So far, about a fifth of New Orleans’ pre-Katrina public school students—11,700 out of 56,000—have returned, and 25 of its 128 schools have reopened. Of those 25, 11 are overseen by the school district; four of them are regular schools, and the rest operate under charters granted by the local board.
The other 14 schools are under state authority. Two are charter schools whose operators answer to the state. The rest are being operated by the state’s Recovery School District, which is empowered to run academically struggling schools.
By this coming fall, New Orleans will need 58 schools to serve a projected 34,000 students, the state predicts. Because the legislature dramatically expanded the recovery district—it is now in charge of 87 percent of New Orleans’ campuses—after Katrina, nearly all the future reopenings will be of state-run charter schools.
The state is using the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a Chicago-based support organization for the quasi-independent schools, to review the applications of groups applying to run those schools.
An education committee of the New Orleans mayor’s office had advocated establishing one governmental body to oversee all of the locally run and state-run schools, but state Superintendent of Education Cecil J. Picard rejected the idea. So the state and local boards each will oversee their own. (“New Orleans Panel Rethinks School System,” Jan. 11, 2006.)
How much the two systems will coordinate is not yet clear, and remains a source of tension between those who favor more centralization in decisionmaking and those who favor less. By definition, charter schools have more freedom to choose their curricula, staff members, and services. State and local officials hope to team up to create similar school calendars and to share services such as professional development and school maintenance.
Scott Cowen, the president of Tulane University, who led the mayoral education committee, worries that two separate lines of oversight and a system of largely independent charter schools could produce uneven results.
“I’m personally leery about our ability to achieve the transformation that’s required, given the bifurcated governance model,” he said.
Phyllis Landrieu, the president of the Orleans Parish school board, said it is easy to see how the complexity of two systems, each with its own personnel and lines of authority, could present difficulties.
“If anyone wanted to establish a very complicated system, this would be the one to do,” she said.
Schooling in New Orleans is being managed by two entities: the Orleans Parish school board and the Louisiana board of education.
Louisiana State Board of Education
•Schools granted charters by state board of education: 2
•Recovery School District (academically troubled schools): 12
Orleans Parish School Board
•Regular schools operated by the district: 4
•Schools granted charters by local board of education: 7
SOURCE: Louisiana Department of Education
One of the big worries is potential confusion for parents trying to navigate the newfangled school arrangements. The state department of education is disseminating information through a Web site and informational meetings around New Orleans. At those gatherings last month, parents expressed frustration at the lack of a central place to go to get information on all the city’s schools, regardless of who operates them. The state is working to open such clearinghouses.
Torin Sanders, an Orleans Parish school board member, said parents will find the school system confusing in many ways. He cited the lack of traditional feeder patterns for schools.
“Some schools are [grades] 4 to 8,” he said. “Some are pre-K to 5. Some are 7-12. It’s all over the place.”
It is in the area of instruction, however, that questions about state vs. local governance, and between charter and regular schools, are causing the most concern.
Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group for disadvantaged students, said she is frustrated that the state has declined to take a centralized approach to mathematics and literacy across its New Orleans schools. Such an approach is particularly important now, she argued, because it will be tough to find enough skilled leaders for all the reopening schools, and because New Orleans children have already had their schooling disrupted.
She and some other experts argued that point at a recent “think tank” convened by the state to get expert advice on a new vision for the city’s schools.
“If you are going to have a bunch of schools serving really poor kids, you cannot afford to make mistakes on the curriculum and instruction side,” Ms. Haycock said. “They need to be in a curriculum with proven utility.”
Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group of large urban districts that has been advising the New Orleans school board on its recovery, said his group’s studies of such districts show that they need a clear, unifying vision for education.
“That doesn’t mean everyone has to be doing the same thing Tuesday at 10 a.m.,” he said. “But if everyone is pulling in a different direction with different philosophies, over time you have an instructional system of varied quality.”
But Paul T. Hill, a professor of public affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle who has advised the New Orleans education-rebuilding effort, cautioned against recycling the concept of a centralized, coordinated system.
“There are two ways to look at this,” he said of the school situation in the city. “One is that it’s obviously very uncoordinated. The other, which may very well be more correct, is that the state, local, and private people doing this are ‘overlapping circles.’ It’s messy, but I’m quite impressed with it.”
A draft plan for the schools run directly by the state’s Recovery School District includes expanded counseling programs, prekindergarten, before- and after-school programs, and low pupil-teacher ratios. It says the state will develop “highly effective instructional models,” but it provides few details other than saying it would use Louisiana’s curriculum and elements of its literacy plan.
“Clearly, this fall will not be our end product,” said Robin Jarvis, the recovery district’s acting superintendent.
Ms. Jarvis said the state’s charter schools have freedom in what and how to teach because their applications made clear that their programs were academically solid. But the state will monitor them closely and step in with a more prescriptive approach if necessary, she said: “We can’t allow failure.”
Jonathan C. Williams, the principal of Medard H. Nelson-UNO Charter School, part of the recovery district, said he has gotten the right mix of help and support from the state and from the University of New Orleans, which operates his school.
Nelson is using the state curriculum as a base, but Mr. Williams is allowed to choose complementary instructional programs and to hire his own staff. The university provided effective professional development, he said. And when he had difficulty arranging bus transportation for families, he said, the state helped solve that problem.
The New Orleans school district and most of its charters are using the state curriculum, Mr. Sanders said. Its charters “had too quick of a start-up to have time for innovation,” he said. District-run schools are using some instructional programs found to be effective before Katrina, but the district is still designing its instructional approach.
Christine Mitchell, the principal of Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, a regular New Orleans school serving prekindergarten through 6th grade, said the district has “picked up where we left off” since the hurricane, using the state curriculum and many of the same programs. The main difference she sees is that since the district schools are now such a small group, she gets more professional development and support from the district and community partners than she ever got before.
Katrina struck at the end of August, soon after the start of the 2005-06 school year, forcing all schools in the district to close. The first public schools reopened in November.
How the work of putting education back together in New Orleans will survive the challenges still ahead is an open question.
The Recovery School District plan acknowledges daunting issues, including hiring enough staff members when affordable housing is scarce, and getting enough schools repaired and open when sufficient labor, supplies, and upfront cash might not be readily available. Another danger: “weather-related disruptions” now that the 2006 hurricane season has begun.
Juggling the immediate demands of bus rides and math lessons with the need to fill in the outlines of a longer-range education plan will undoubtedly cause additional frustration, city and state leaders know.
“We’re still repairing and cleaning out buildings. We’re still negotiating with insurance and [the Federal Emergency Management Agency],” said Paul Pastorek, who chairs the recovery district’s advisory committee. “We must recognize we’re not going to put a system in from day one that’s going to be the best we could possibly muster. It’s going to take time to build.”
Ms. Landrieu, the president of the Orleans Parish school board, put it this way: “We’re just a few steps up a very tall ladder.”
Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2006 edition of Education Week as Dual Orleans Systems Grow in Storm’s Wake