School Climate & Safety

New Orleans Eyed as Clean Educational Slate

September 16, 2005 7 min read
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New Orleans will probably never be the same after Hurricane Katrina. But when it comes to schools, many educators and analysts say that might not be all bad.

Both in Louisiana and beyond, the wreckage in the Big Easy has sparked thinking about how the city might reinvent its beleaguered school system, in difficult straits long before the storm was but a gentle sea breeze.

“We need some bold, out-of-the-box thinking right now,” said Stephanie Desselle, the senior vice president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, a Baton Rouge-based advocacy group. “We absolutely ought to not return . . . to the school system that they had before.”

Clearly, New Orleans has many urgent needs, with so much of the city still drying out from flooding brought on by the hurricane. But as those priorities were being attended to last week, education thinkers were contemplating a different future for a district that the state already considered in both academic and financial crisis.

Among those offering ideas from outside the state is Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle. The situation, he argues, presents a “green field” opportunity to fashion a diverse new collection of public schools that families could choose for their children.

Another is Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington. “It’s one thing to re-create Galatoire’s,” said Mr. Finn, referring to an acclaimed restaurant on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street. “But to re-create a failed school system would be really stupid and wouldn’t do the kids any good.”

‘Start Anew’

Within Louisiana, education leaders also were starting to voice hopes last week that some good might emerge from the destruction.

“Katrina in its devastation really gives the opportunity for a rebirth of a school district,” said Leslie R. Jacobs, a New Orleans native on the state board of education, “to think it through and start anew.”

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Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat, echoed that sentiment in a Sept. 14 address to the state legislature.

“We’re not going to simply re-create the schools of New Orleans the way they were,” she said, calling on “all Louisianans and all Americans to join an historic effort to build a world-class, quality system of public education in New Orleans.”

There are plenty of unknowns about the future of New Orleans that make plans to rebuild its schools a tricky proposition.

No one knows how many residents will return to the city, and where they will settle. Money is also a big question mark. Ms. Jacobs noted that the city has been getting some 40 percent of its funding from local sources.

“New Orleans just lost its tax base,” she said.

The school district had enough money to pay employees for work done before the storm hit the city on Aug. 29. After paying employees, however, the district is bankrupt and will not be able to reopen without an infusion of state and federal funding, said Sajan P. George, the district’s interim chief operating officer and a managing director of Alvarez & Marsal, the New York City-based crisis-management firm brought in by the state this summer to handle the district’s finances.

Mountain of Troubles

The 60,000-student district, which serves mostly African-American children from low-income families, has faced a mountain of difficulties. For starters, the district has been unable to keep a schools chief for long, with heavy turnover in recent years.

Looking Ahead

After Hurricane Katrina, educators and analysts are putting forward ideas for the future of public education in New Orleans.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Paul T. Hill, Director, Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington:
“The core idea is that there is a gigantic uncertainty about when students are going to come back, where they will live. ... In that situation, the last thing you want to do is try to rebuild a centralized system.”

BRIC ARCHIVE

Leslie R. Jacobs, Member, Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education:
“Katrina in its devastation really gives the opportunity for a rebirth of a school district, ... to think it through and start anew.”

BRIC ARCHIVE

Florida L. Woods, Principal, Paul L. Dunbar Elementary School in New Orleans:
“The people who were there should be the ones given the opportunity to rebuild. ... [W]e know the history, we know the culture of the city, the district, and the people.”

SOURCE: Education Week

Under Louisiana’s accountability system, New Orleans was ranked as the state’s lowest-performing district in the most recent ratings.

The district’s chronic academic problems led the state last year to declare the school system in “academic crisis.” This school year, several schools were taken over by outside entities, including the University of New Orleans and the nonprofit Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP.

Alvarez & Marsal assumed control of the district’s fiscal operations in July under an agreement pushed by the state education department, following a federal audit that questioned the district’s spending of some $70 million in Title I aid.

State auditors had long complained that the district’s poor accounting practices made it impossible to get a clear picture of its finances. Scores of current and former district employees have been indicted on fraud charges within the past year.

With the flooding caused by breaches in the city’s levees after Katrina struck, the bulk of New Orleans’ 126 public schools were severely damaged, with more than half needing to be replaced, the state has estimated.

In assessing the system’s prospects, Florida L. Woods, who was the principal of New Orleans’ Paul L. Dunbar Elementary School before being displaced by the storm, cited the “deplorable” condition of the district’s school buildings as a key concern.

“We need to make sure that before we put any child into a building, that all of the buildings are first-class structures befitting of them,” she said in an interview from Georgia, where she is staying with family members.

Brigitte P. Nieland, the director of education for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said the district’s future “needs to be approached from a student-focused, rather than a bureaucracy-focused,” perspective.

“Everything should be built around that, rather than contracts and employee demands and all the things that serve adults,” she said.

Mr. Finn’s notion, similar to others put forward, is to create a “system of schools, rather than a school system.” The idea would be to have “multiple operators of diverse schools all subscribing to the same basic standards,” even while offering “fundamentally diverse schools,” said Mr. Finn, an assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Reagan.

Mr. Hill of the University of Washington, who discusses his ideas for New Orleans in an opinion essay in this issue of Education Week, said in an interview that “the idea is to create a very flexible system.”

“The core idea is that there is gigantic uncertainty about when students are going to come back, where they will live,” he said. “In that situation, the last thing you want to do is try to rebuild a centralized system.”

Seizing the Moment

Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group for disadvantaged students, said she sees some advantages to a broad-based charter school approach, but also offered some cautions.

“The question is, how you tap the best of the movement you’re talking about,” she said, “without tapping the worst of it?”

Ms. Haycock added that in a place like New Orleans, with many low-income families who tend to move often, some uniformity across schools is a good idea, in reading instruction, for example.

Overall, Ms. Haycock suggested that Hurricane Katrina could provide a unique opportunity, because the scale of the disaster and its human impact have attracted so much attention and goodwill nationwide. She said large philanthropies, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, might be recruited to help underwrite innovative efforts.

Ms. Haycock said she hopes that Gov. Blanco can tap into the national sympathy for the city’s plight to benefit its schools.

“It clearly is a moment,” said Ms. Haycock, who is among those Gov. Blanco has consulted about recovering from the hurricane. “If I was the governor, I would use the moment.”

Christopher Whittle, the president and chief executive officer of Edison Schools Inc., a for-profit education management company based in New York City, said that officials in New Orleans and the state might leverage help from the federal government in rethinking the school system.

They could “ask the federal government for new design dollars for New Orleans,” he said. The idea would be to “reach out to all sorts of different entities across the U.S. and solicit proposals for multiple new school designs.”

Ms. Woods, the New Orleans principal, who is also the president of the New Orleans chapter of the American Federation of School Administrators, said that “this is an opportunity for purging of a lot of things.” But she wants to be sure that New Orleanians remain in control of the city’s educational future.

“The people who were there … should be the ones given the opportunity to rebuild,” she said. “Because we know the history, we know the culture of the city, the district, and the people.”

Jimmy Fahrenholtz, an Orleans Parish school board member, said he saw the disaster as a chance to “pare down to our fighting weight,” in terms of personnel.

He also said the district should “outsource pretty much everything,” referring to such operations as food services, payroll, and purchasing. “We should be thinking about nothing but academics.”

All in all, Mr. Fahrenholtz said he’s hopeful about the future of his city’s schools. “Anybody that tries anything untoward right now will be run out on a rail,” he said, referring to corruption. “Everybody’s watching now.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2005 edition of Education Week as New Orleans Eyed as Clean Educational Slate

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