Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated the New Orleans I knew and loved. My New Orleans, the one where I grew up in the heart of the 7th Ward, was so culturally diverse that, as I recently discovered, a neighborhood game we often played called “cool cans” was really an urban version of cricket. My two best friends and I regularly played this game together, but attended very different high schools in New Orleans.
In the early 1980s, the educational choices available to us were limited: parochial, magnet, and neighborhood schools coexisted, but offered vastly varying degrees of access and quality. It was a landscape of haves and have-nots, and, by the pre-Katrina era, New Orleans’ public school system had become one of the lowest-performing in the country.
In the wake of Katrina, our city has had to rebuild the school system from scratch—a gut-wrenching experience, but also an opportunity to do things completely differently. After the storm, the Louisiana legislature transferred 107 of the lowest-performing schools to the Recovery School District, or RSD, a body first created in 2003, before Katrina, to transform chronically underperforming public schools.
Today, more than 90 percent of public school students in New Orleans attend a charter school, and the recovery district oversees public charter schools educating 70 percent of the city’s students. After a decade at the Louisiana Department of Education, I became head of the RSD in 2012.
Although we still have a long way to go, I am proud of what we’ve achieved in the past decade. Since 2005, the proportion of students in New Orleans attending failing schools has fallen from 63 percent to 7 percent. High school graduation rates have risen from 54 percent in 2004 to 73 percent in 2014, and African-American male students in New Orleans graduate from high school at a higher rate than both the state of Louisiana and the national average.
What got us to where we are? I see four key elements underlying our success thus far.
The first and most fundamental is high-quality charter school authorizing. In New Orleans, we don’t just let any charter school open. From the beginning, the RSD and our state board of education put in place rigorous standards for which charter schools are afforded the privilege of opening in the city, and we hold these schools to these standards.
The public school system we have in New Orleans is far from perfect, but it is a world away from the one that was destroyed by Katrina 10 years ago.”
Our second basic principle is to give our schools autonomy while requiring accountability. Each charter school gives school leaders autonomy to make their own school-level decisions—everything from personnel and budget to curriculum. In exchange, schools must demonstrate that their choices are paying off for students.
Making it all happen is our third key to effective schools: the strong pool of teaching and leadership talent in New Orleans. A majority of these school leaders—55 percent—lived in New Orleans before Katrina and are committed to seeing our students succeed. And while many educators have not returned, we are still a very diverse school district; a majority of our school leaders and educators are African-American.
The final element is a nimble public school system that can adapt. If the traditional district model is a cruise ship, the Recovery School District is a speedboat. Our system lets us adjust and change course quickly when needed. Because our schools are empowered to manage their day-to-day operations, the RSD can focus on issues relating to school performance and equal access. Our steady focus is on what’s best for children and the system as a whole.
Since I became the head of the recovery district, a number of issues have arisen that have prompted us to rethink and revise our approach in response to parent and community concerns.
When I became the RSD superintendent, I learned that some schools allegedly “counseled out” students, like those with special needs, by telling families that the school wasn’t set up to serve them. Families also found the school registration process confusing, and transfer policies were inconsistent from school to school. We needed a centralized enrollment system, with consistent policies, safeguards against manipulation, and an online setup that was easy for families to use.
Our OneApp system allows families to rank schools and assigns them one of their top choices. As of this year, all but a small handful of New Orleans schools are in the OneApp system, making the enrollment process easier to navigate and harder to game. Last year, 86 percent of parents got one of their top three choices. We’ve updated the system to address community concerns like sibling priority and neighborhood preference. We also now require all schools to backfill or enroll new students to fill empty seats.
In 2012, we created a centralized expulsion process to ensure that we were asking students to leave only in the most serious cases. Our central expulsions-hearing office and a fair appeals process give families the opportunity to have their voices heard. We’ve also worked with the community to find ways to keep more kids in school. With the help and encouragement of New Orleans parents, we’re implementing a “restorative justice” approach to discipline, and, as a result, we’ve seen expulsion rates drop by a dramatic 26 percent. The city’s expulsion rate is now below the state average.
Finally, we have created an effective process for community input in selecting charter operators for new school facilities. One of the rightful criticisms we received was that when a charter operator left or was shut down, we would wait to hold community meetings until after we’d already chosen a new operator for the school. People felt we were doing things to them, rather than with them. So we overhauled our process, asking charter operators to submit applications and taking them to the community for input.
Where do we go from here? Our agenda for the next 10 years will be driven by what our communities want and need. So far, our priorities—based on feedback from operators, stakeholders, and families—include:
• Increasing the diversity of our programs, including more offerings for career and technical education;
• Getting all schools in New Orleans into the OneApp system, so that families have all their options available;
• Expanding early-childhood education, so we can get kids on the path to success earlier;
• Creating a sustainability plan for the maintenance of the $1.8 billion reconstruction of Katrina-damaged buildings and building new and renovated ones for all students by 2018; and
• Working with local institutions to recruit and train more teachers of color.
The public school system we have in New Orleans is far from perfect, but it is a world away from the one that was destroyed by Katrina 10 years ago. As we mourn for what we lost, my fellow educators and I are also recognizing how far we’ve come—and how far we still have to go. We know that our schools must keep growing and adapting, just as our city must. I firmly believe that the best is yet to come.
A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2015 edition of Education Week as New Orleans’ Recovery District Chief: ‘A Steady Focus on What’s Best for Children’