School & District Management

New Orleans Chief Calls For ‘Renaissance’ Of Low-Performing Schools

By John Gehring — April 07, 2004 4 min read
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Public school leaders in New Orleans are pushing an aggressive plan to shake up the city’s worst schools, even as a recent audit revealed that the district continues to be plagued by financial mismanagement.

Superintendent Anthony S. Amato was scheduled last week to present the Orleans Parish school board with his plan to create a “renaissance district,” made up of failing schools that must show improvement or face state intervention.

The centerpiece of the plan—which the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education must approve—includes phasing out many of the worst-performing middle schools by forming K-8 schools.

Mr. Amato, who was not available for an interview, prepared a PowerPoint presentation to give the board on April 1 that was peppered with research showing that students in K-8 schools often perform better academically and socially than students in middle schools, which typically include grades 6-8.

The plan for “renaissance” schools also calls for an extended instructional day, “double doses” of literacy and mathematics, and a requirement that all teachers in the special district be highly qualified. A superintendent would be hired to oversee the district and would be required, according to the presentation, to have a “demonstrated record of improving academic achievement of urban students.”

As Mr. Amato moved ahead with his plan, the Louisiana education department had identified 14 New Orleans schools that could be the target of state intervention if they failed to show improvement. Under a law passed by the state legislature last year, schools that are failing under accountability programs spelled out by both the district and the state are eligible for takeover. (“States Train Sights on School Districts for Interventions,” Jan. 28, 2004.)

Two Reform Efforts

The law calls for the schools to be placed under the control of a special state school district, called a “recovery district,” overseen by the state department of education and the state school board. Nonprofit groups are eligible to help run recovery schools. So far, 13 nonprofit organizations have expressed interest in doing so, according to Leslie Jacobs, a member of the state board.

“There are two reform efforts converging on New Orleans,” Ms. Jacobs said.

If the state board approves Mr. Amato’s renaissance plan and the targeted schools show improvement, she explained, they would not face a state takeover. But if the plan is rejected and the district can’t present another successful reconstitution plan, failing schools in New Orleans would be eligible for intervention and placed in the recovery district.

Ms. Jacobs expressed initial support for Mr. Amato’s plan to establish K-8 schools.

“It’s a good idea,” she said. “There is some national and state data that shows students’ performance does go backwards during middle school.”

Meanwhile, a recent legislative audit of the 80,000-student district revealed that long-running finance-related problems continue to plague the system.

The March 24 audit found, among other concerns, that between 2001 and 2003 the district paid out some $3 million to former employees who continued to receive payroll checks even after they left the system.

“The Orleans Parish school board did not have adequate management, nor did it establish policy to safeguard public funds and prevent the payments to terminated employees,” the audit report says.

Cheryl Mills, the president of the district school board, did not return calls requesting comment.

‘Totally Inept’

The board has adopted resolutions pushing Mr. Amato to ferret out individuals or companies that have received illegal payments from the district. The school system is also facing an ongoing investigation by the New Orleans district attorney’s office into allegations of fraud and other financial abuses. (“New Orleans Schools Focus of Fraud Probe,” Oct. 22, 2003.) State Sen. Tom Schedler, who is the vice chairman of the legislature’s audit advisory council, said the district must come up with a plan to institute a functional finance department.

“This has just been a totally inept process, with people who don’t know what they are doing,” he charged, referring to district finances in New Orleans. “If you can’t keep your books straight, how are you going to educate the children?”

Mr. Amato, who was tapped for the top school post in New Orleans in February of last year, has a reputation for turning around troubled districts. A former superintendent in Hartford, Conn., and in New York City’s Community School District 6, Mr. Amato helped improve the academic performance of those districts in quick fashion.

But James Meza, the dean of the college of education and human development at the University of New Orleans, said the superintendent has been forced to focus on cleaning up the district’s financial house.

“He’s had to shift his energies from academics to finances,” Mr. Meza said. “It’s a dysfunctional system operationally.

“Amato has to transform a system that has been under ineffective leadership for eight to 10 years,” he said.

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