New Orleans Public Schools: Recovery & Reform

To conclude Education Week's special series, New Orleans Public Schools: Recovery & Reform, Paul G. Pastorek and Paul G. Vallas addressed questions about progress in the Recovery School District and ongoing challenges in the city.

June 3, 2008

New Orleans Public Schools: Recovery & Reform

  • Paul Vallas, the superintendent of New Orleans’ Recovery School District, and
  • Paul Pastorek, Louisiana’s state superintendent.

Coverage of public education in New Orleans is underwritten by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

Lesli Maxwell (Moderator):

Good afternoon and welcome everyone to our discussion about the ongoing rebuilding and education reform efforts in New Orleans with Paul Vallas, the superintendent of New Orleans’ Recovery School District, and Paul Pastorek, Louisiana’s state superintendent. We’ve got lots of good questions to address here so let’s start.

Question from Roslyn J. Smith, Board President, Treme Charter School Association:

The current educational landscape of New Orleans has been described as “a system of schools,” rather than “a school system.” However, most viable communities boast of having a “great school system.” Surrounding communities in St. Tammany Parish and St. Charles Parish have strong, successful school systems. The purpose of Act 35 was to take over the schools temporarily (5 years), put them on track, and return them to the governance of our elected school board. Are you trying to fulfill this legislation’s objective or will we continue with the “charter school experiment indefinitely?”

Paul Pastorek:

Calling it a system of schools or a school system is semantics. Either way, we are looking for the development of high quality schools, whether they are traditional, charter, contract, university led, private provider (all of which we have). As for Act 35, we continue to have the philosophy of fixing the schools and returning them to local control as soon as possible. However, I am very concerned that we not fix them and return them to the same institution that broke the schools in the first place. I predict that there will be a broad community conversation on this subject in the future.

Question from Michael Sell, Accessible Test Editor, American Printing House for the Blind:

Mr. Pastorek, two questions: 1) What is the timeline for rebuilding schools so that trailers and makeshift buildings don’t have to be used? 2) What is your stance on vouchers?

Paul Pastorek:

The timeline for rebuilding: We have repaired over 70 school buildings and require the additional 10 modular campuses to satisfy the existing population. We are beginning to break ground over the next 3 months on 5 new schools (2 of which will use the facade of the existing buildings, but will otherwise be substantially gutted. While very hard to predict with exactitude, I expect that if we are able to move at the present pace and given the present enrollment projections we may be able to eliminate the temporary modular campuses in 5-7 years. Many of the modular campuses are better than a number of the schools that children go to today in New Orleans. Vouchers - I have long held the view the rights of children trump the rights of institutions. That should hold true for public schools. If a child is in a failing public school and cannot find a nearby quality school, the child should be given the opportunity to go to a school outside of the public school system, if that is their choice. Our constitution gaurantees a right to a free public education, not a free public school education. That said, I believe that on the whole, traditional and charter public schools can and will be the backbone of our schools that will serve children.

Question from Dr. Jo Campbell, Consultant with Gallup:

How is your district assuring that all teaching and administrative candidates are screened for excellence in a time of rebuilding?

Paul Vallas:

We have site selection, which means that school principals are able to select their assistant principal, teachers and support staff. When it comes to decisions on hiring and promotions, there is no seniority or tenure, so principals are able to make staffing decisions based on merit and performance. The district is instituting a district-wide TAP program that will provide additional compensation for exceptional performance and will allow performance to be the determining factor in promotions. All these things help ensure staff excellence.

Question from Folwell Dunbar, Academic Advisor to Charter Schools, Louisiana Department of Education:

Zein El-Amine, one of the contributors to the book, Keeping the Promise: The Debate Over Charter Schools, alleges that “charter schools are swiftly starving the beast - diverting community and monetary resources from public education, creating a situation where public schools will inevitably fail.” I like to think that charter schools do just the opposite, they “feed the beast” by acting as incubators for innovative ideas – ideas that will ideally spread. How would you respond to this charge?

Paul Vallas:

Let’s remember that charter schools are public schools – public schools that are free from the burdens of tenure, and seniority, free from the burdens of contract restrictions on the length of the school day and length of the school year or the amount of time you can mandate for professional development. They are free from the burdens of the Byzantine labyrinth that makes it almost impossible to remove ineffective staff. That makes charter schools very attractive to parents and increasingly attractive to superintendents. Charters are really in many ways liberating public schools from the burden of restrictive contract covenants. I think public charter schools can be incubators for innovative ideas, but so can traditional public schools. In New Orleans, over the next few years, you are going to see a blurring of the distinction between traditional and charter schools as the district moves to convert traditional public schools into charters or charter-like schools.

Question from Dee Boling, New Orleans public school parent and communications professional:

While there is tentative enthusiasm about the potential for New Orleans schools overall, can anything be done to improve parental involvement at the lowest performing schools and also to re-integrate schools and encourage more New Orleanians at all income levels to send their kids to school? New Orleans public education suffered when white parents pulled their kids out of public education during desegregation and nothing has improved the situation since then, with the exception of several high-performing schools. Also - how do you think the “grant program” proposed by Gov. Jindal will affect public education in both the short term and long term? This program is clearly a veiled attempt at voucher programs and will only serve to further segregate our public school system. Many thanks to both of you for your efforts.

Paul Pastorek:

We are making special efforts at bringing the level of parental participation up in our schools. Paul Vallas has numerous strategies to engage parents: only a couple include employing parents to serve as truant officers and hall monitors; also, engaging non governmental organizations and faith based organizations. The most straightforward and effective way to encourage others (non poor) to attend NOLA schools is to increase the quality of the schools. If schools are not desirable, people who can afford to leave will do so, white or black. I believe that the Scholarship Bill is a good thing. The rights of children for a good education should always trump the rights of institutions or adults. This is an effort to give children a good educaiton compared to the failed schools that still exist in NOLA. It is a small investment which creates a real alternative for children. My hope is that in time we will have such good schools in NOLA that people won’t have to leave for the private sector.

Question from Dedra Johnson, parent:

Mr. Vallas’s experience in other school systems is often pointed to. What experience in education or with turning around troubled systems, businesses, etc. does Superintendent Pastorek bring to the schools situation in New Orleans?

Paul Pastorek:

My experience is not in turning around troubled schools. The closest I have come to turning around businesses is that for many years I have served as a bankruptcy trial lawyer and handled many bankruptcy receiverships and liquidations, though not as a manager. I would not say that it qualifies me for a turnaround specialist. However, I have served on the State Board of Education for 8 years prior to assuming this role (1996-2004). I have worked with public education in urban schools for 25 years. But, as for the turning around piece, that is Paul Vallas’ job, not mine.

Question from Milvia Concas-School Psychologist-Educational Leadership-Graduate Student-New Haven-Ct.:

I’m sure that the psychological wounds of Katrina continue to have an impact in teaching and student learning. How have the educational leaders addressed these ongoing concerns? Have behavioral referrals increased in the district? If so, have resources been available for teachers and students?

Paul Vallas:

We’re very cognizant of the fact that many of our children have were deeply traumatized by loss and displacement, and may still be feeling the affects of Katrina three years after the disaster. We work with a cadre of community-based agencies who offer services to our students in such areas as crisis intervention, conflict resolution, psychosocial counseling and grief counseling. We also collaborated with the LSU Health Science Center’s Department of Psychiatry to develop a screening instrument for post-traumatic stress disorder. Our schools all have social workers, counselors and nurses who provide referrals to behavioral health and social service agencies.

Question from Dr. Arnold Dodge, Chair, Department of Educational Leadership and Administration, Long Island University/C.W. Post Campus:

I am wondering if there is interest in aspiring educators (both teachers and administrators)from my region working in the New Orleans schools. We have more folks than jobs available in this region (Long Island, NY) and I thought some of our graduates from both teaching and administrative certification programs might be interested. I have been in discussions with New Schools for New Orleans folks already about this idea.

Paul Pastorek:

There are many opportunities for high quality educators in the New Orleans schools and in the Department of Education in Baton Rouge. We have many new schools in LA, particularly in Southeast LA and central LA which are going to be a part of the Recovery School District (the state run schools in New Orleans are going to expanded to Baton Rouge - effective July 1 - and elsewhere as time goes on. These schools are largely, but completely, charter schools where the school will have greater autonomy to do what they believe are the right things to do.

Question from Marsha Flannery, Counselor, Oakwood City Schools:

In order to attract young people to teaching in New Orleans are there any incentives being offered such as hiring bonuses or student loan waivers/ “forgiveness”?

Paul Vallas:

A: We did offer financial incentives last year for new hires, but I believe they sent the wrong message. We want to attract people who are here for challenge, not just the money While we will not be offering hiring incentives this year, we’re attracting more than enough teachers to fill our vacancies. We believe that the challenge of coming here and building a new educational system that can help revitalize one of America’s great cities, along with competitive salaries and benefits, will be incentive enough. Hiring individuals based on merit and rewarding them based on performance is very attractive to many teacher candidates. Providing individuals with additional compensation for exemplary performance under the TAP model is also attractive to many. We’ve further enhanced our district’s appeal by keeping our class sizes small, by modernizing our classrooms with the latest technology, including Promethean boards and laptop computers for teachers and laptops for high school students, by providing our teachers with superior curriculum and instructional models and by providing more than adequate staff support in the form of special education teachers, classroom aids and counselors, etc. Our efforts to ensure that we have more than enough talented teachers have been aided by alternative certification programs such as Teach For America. We’ve had a healthy retention rate overall, and we expect to have a large number of our Teach For America Teachers will elect to stay beyond the time obligated by their contracts.

Question from Leigh C, part-time art teacher:

Is there a completely detailed plan, including contractual obligations for rebuilding and concrete architectural designs for schools to be rebuilt, for the rehabilitation and rebuilding of the forty-seven schools that are on the demolition list covered by New Orleans CityBusiness weekly? I have been unable to find one. Please direct me to where it is.

Paul Pastorek:

No, we are going to design the schools as we go. It would be too difficult to do that for several reasons. We will be releasing a Master Plan indicating which schools will be rebuilt and approximately when.

Question from Ken Silver, Principal:

How do you effect real academic and social improvement, as opposed to token gains, in an urban environment.

Paul Vallas:

How do you define real academic and social improvement? I define it by long-term academic growth as measured by growth in test scores, improvement in the graduation rate, declines in the dropout rates, and the percent of students successfully entering and completing post secondary education. I also measure it by improvements in school climate. This means safer schools and calmer schools in safer and calmer communities, where there is not only an absence of violence, but also a lack of bullying and intimidation. And it also means schools where not only are the students respectful to school staff, but also to each other.

Question from Dave Inman, Program Director, Summerbridge New Orleans, A Breakthrough Collaborative Program:

What role do you see educational programs not formally connected to any charter schools or the RSD playing in the successful rebuilding of the school system in New Orleans?

Paul Vallas:

First of all, I support school choice and any program, be it for profit or no-for-profit that works and that is cost effective.

Lesli Maxwell (Moderator):

Sorry, folks. We had a momentary glitch with but it looks like we’re back in business.

Question from Susan Patrick, CEO, North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL):

Are online learning programs, such as cyber charter schools, virtual academies and the state’s own Louisiana Virtual School, expanding available courses and providing more academic options to students in New Orleans?

Paul Pastorek:

Yes. We expect to expand these offerings over the next year and each year thereafter. It could become a significant part of delivery of education.

Question from Donna Johnson, teacher, Recovery School District:

Why are class sizes being increased from 20 to 1 to 24 to 1 for the upcoming school year? As a 4th grade teacher I saw the difference that smaller class sizes made this year and am afraid that 24 to 1 really mean we will end up with 25 or more kids our classes next year.

Paul Vallas:

Because of financial constraints, in the coming school year, we are staffing schools at 1 teacher for every 24 students and 1 additional teacher for every 12 special education students. This does not include curriculum coordinators and other supplemental teachig staff that varies from school to school. It also doesn’t include university interns or paraprofessionals who are providing support to classroom teachers. Let me point out that the 1-24 model is the model that KIPP uses and our K-8 reforms are based in part on the KIPP model. In order to stabilize our schools, we will, for the first time, cap enrollment in all but a handful of our traditional public schools. Schools won’t, however, have to make staffing adjustments unless enrollment decreases significantly. The net effect will be that schools will have smaller classes than the 1-24 ratio.

Question from Y Marshall, Teacher, EBRPSS:

If the results are not what you expect them to be, how do you consider making other schools a part of the RSD when progress is not being seen in the RSD already in place?

Paul Pastorek:

We are making progress in the RSD.

Question from Peter McCloskey, President, National Science and Technology Education Partnership:

We would like to offer 100 of your students who have internet access free tutoring during the next academic year in our Study Buddy Program that connects honor students in Math with struggling underserved youths with advanced screen sharing technolgy. The students should be eligible to particpate in The National Free Lunch Program. Check our website, for further details. Who should we talk to?

Paul Vallas:

Wonderful. I’ll have someone on my staff reach out to you.

Question from Martell Teasley, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Florida State University College of Social Work:

Given the proposed collaboration between charter schools and public schools within New Orleans, how well (if at all) will this agreement include the utilization by charter schools of related services personnel( workers, couselors, school nurses etc.)from public schools? What role does the faith-based community play in school reform for New Orleans public schools? Are there faith-based chapter schools within New Orleans? If so, how many?

Paul Vallas:

Charter schools can elect to utilize relative services provided by the Recovery School District. It’s their choice. To date, more and more charters are electing to use services such as special education appraisal services, speech and hearing services and consultations. Charter schools are also availing themselves to our alternative school services. It’s important to note that the RSD does provide charter schools with their facilities and maintenance of their facilities. The faith based community is playing a growing role. Our goal is not one church-one school but two faith based institutions per school. To date, the majority of our schools have at least one faith-based partner. Our faith-based partners are providing everything from tutoring, mentoring and rites of passage to crisis intervention. This week, a large number of our graduations are being held in faith-based facilities, including the sanctuaries themselves.

Question from Stephan Babcock, Associate Editor, School Transportation News:

What is the current state of your district’s school bus system and how has it improved over the last year?

Paul Vallas:

Improvement has been slow. One of the problems is that one company has the monopoly and we’re stuck with an inherited, five-year contract. We’ve begun to introduce some competition into the system and we’ve been penalizing the provider for letdowns in service. This has improved our bus service, but we still have a long way to go.

Question from Steve, local citizen:

How do you measure success?

Paul Vallas:

Rising test scores, rising graduation rates, declining dropout rates, safe schools with respectful student bodies and strong parent and community involvement in schools.

Question from Frank J. Hagen, Adjunct Faculty - Wilmington University, Retired Principal - Maryland & Delaware:

What is the role and responsibility of building principals in meeting the challenges regarding the recovery and reform of New Orleans schools?

Paul Vallas:

Principals are the CEOs of their schools. Not only are they their school’s educational leader, but they are also the school manager. While they can designate an assistant principal to have primary responsibility for doing either, they have ultimate responsibility. RSD school principals have similar freedoms enjoyed by RSD charter principals. This means they can pick and promote their own administrators, teachers and support staff based on merit and performance. They are responsible for managing their school’s finances and we are providing them with greater discretionary authority when it comes to spending. They can also select their community partners and associations. While we expect them to implement our core reforms, they do have the latitude to go beyond our reforms when it enhances the educational process.

Question from Betty Peterson, parent, special needs daughter:

How are children with moderate to severe special needs being served in the charter school system, including pre-K and post school (18-21 year old) settings?

Paul Pastorek:

Many special needs children are getting what they need. However,we do have evidence that charter schools and traditional schools are having some challenges. This is due largely to the continued effects of the hurricanes.

Question from David Wakelyn, National Governors Association:

Paul and Paul: Is there value in other states replicating the recovery school district model as a remedy for academic failure? What are the pros and cons of such a move?

Paul Pastorek:

There could be a value, however, I would suggest that it is too early to tell. The early indications are favorable. One pro would be that district management is much more flexible in the RSD. The con is the leadership must be strong or the effort could fail.

Question from Jim Kohlmoos, Knowledge Alliance:

Have you been able to put into place a knowledge management system for collecting, sharing, and studying innovative ideas that have worked and haven’t worked? As a laboratory for innovation, there would seem to be many valuable lessons that teachers and administrators from within and outside of the district could learn from the NOLA experience.

Paul Pastorek:

We haven’t been able to put a knowledge management system in place. Frankly, just getting a student information system in place has been difficult due to the continuing effects of the hurricane. That being said, knowledge management is a high priority in the near term.

Question from Jim Shields, Teacher, South Burlington High School, South Burlington Vermont:

I know there are many Teach for America volunteers in NOLA schools. Does the energy and optimism of the Teach for America volunteer outweigh the high turnover rate and relative lack of experience these volunteers have?

Paul Vallas:

Jim, They’re anything but volunteers, at least in terms of time spent in the classroom, compensation and benefits. Not only their optimism, but their energy, their work ethic, their creativity and innovative spirit far outweigh the turnover rate. Let’s remember that Teach For America teachers are recruited from among the top of our college graduates, so we are getting the best and the brightest. When these individuals, who have content area mastery and amazing energy and work ethic that is exceeded by few, are provided with superior curriculum and instructional models and are trained on those models, they are outstanding teachers from Day One. Superior curriculum and instructional models more than compensate for lack of experience. In terms of turnover rate, we’re finding an ever increasing number of our TFA teachers are electing to stay beyond their contractural obligations and a number of those are electing to make education a career.

Question from Joyce Duncan, grandparent:

How are transfer students (mid year)accomodated so that they have the opportunity to attend a school that has a good record of students passing the LEAP test, and reputation of academic sucess?

Paul Vallas:

Probably the most difficult challenge we have in the post Katrina New Orleans environment dealing with transfer students during the mid-year. Because of limited space, transfer students do not enjoy as much flexibility and placement as you would find in a traditional school system. As hurricane effects are dimiished, we expect this to diminish.

Question from Jenny Hutchinson, Associate Director - Council for Opportunity in Education:

I believe that given the current situation, NO has a tremendous opportunity to rebuild a public school system that is very progressive with a foundation that is built on educational innovations of the 22nd century. However in an era where many individuals believe that schools should be problem-solving havens for all of a students ills, how will school officials navigate the need for a forward-looking, globalized type of education for NO students with parents'/communities’ views that schools function as social reform institutions?

Paul Pastorek:

We need to engage all parts of the community in a deeper way to understand their role in the education process. Police, social services, recreation - all must be engaged at a much higher level. It is certainly a challenge, but it is one that we must attempt to accomplish.

Question from Hope Griffin O’Neil, Secondary Literacy Reform Program Manager, The Fund for Educational Excellence:

How is the community responding to your plan to implement more charter schools? What models do you have in place? (ex: more K-8, 6-12 or traditional elementary, middle and high schools)

Paul Pastorek:

Community support was initially skeptical. However, support has steadily improved as better academic achievement results have occurred. Presently, we are saturation on high schools and we are looking for more charter schools in the k-8 configuration.

Question from Dennis L. White, Research & Policy Analyst, George Washington University:

Many people have suffered as a result of Katrina, but given the trauma that school-age children and youth experienced from then to the present, what new encouragement and incentives have you presented to those children and youth to continue their education? For instance, have you considered awarding college credits to those children and youth who finish high school in or around NOLA and enter post secondary programs? Through their experiences, they have learned more than a school can teach.

Paul Vallas:

One of the most significant efforts that we have made is to create a student internship program and we have been able to make this program applicable to all juniors and seniors in high school.

Lesli Maxwell (Moderator):

Thanks everyone for joining us today and posing your questions about public schools in New Orleans. And thanks to our guests for taking time to provide answers. That concludes our chat for today. A transcript will be available at shortly after we conclude.

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