Leaders of the Recovery School District in New Orleans are crafting an overhaul of high schools that would offer career-oriented magnet programs at each campus, along with a districtwide college-preparatory curriculum of honors and Advanced Placement courses.
The ambitious plan in some ways signals the progress made by the state-run district since last year, when school leaders struggled to provide the most basic services—enough teachers, orderly classrooms, clean restrooms, and hot lunches—in the storm-ravaged city.
The high school redesign initiative targets the district’s eight existing high schools and two more that are expected to open within the next two years. The initiative also includes plans to open a series of “transition” schools for the large number of New Orleans students who are over the normal age for their grades and behind in credits.
The plan calls for school-based advisory committees to help shape programs and to function, in part, like a charter school board, with authority over matters such as principal selection. Eventually, those committees could opt to seek full charter status for the high schools.
Already, district administrators have lined up nearly two dozen local and national business and nonprofit partners to work closely with the schools in designing curricula, training teachers, and providing work opportunities for students.
Each high school would also offer dual enrollment to students through agreements with several colleges and universities in New Orleans.
“We want all of our kids to get core college-prep curriculum, as well as a magnet program that gets them ready for jobs and careers,” said Paul G. Vallas, the superintendent of the Recovery School District, which took over most of the city’s public schools after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, closing schools and displacing thousands of students.
“We have all of this latitude and flexibility,” he said, “to create high schools for our kids that meet the range of needs and interests in this city.”
Still, the district faces daunting challenges as it forges ahead with its high school plans.
At least half of its 12,344 students missed 40 or more days of school during the 2006-07 school year. Of the 860 seniors enrolled in the district last spring, only 338 graduated. And this year, the district has roughly 600 7th and 8th graders who are at least two years over age.
Debbie Schum, the deputy superintendent for academics, said the initiative’s first step is “really an intensive preparation of the freshman class.”
Freshmen will have block schedules to allow for “double doses” of English and mathematics instruction every day, she said, and a special seminar course to teach high school survival techniques, such as how to do research for writing papers.
“Then after that critical freshman year,” she said, “students would get to start their specific course-focus areas.”
The career-focus areas have been selected very deliberately, Ms. Schum said, guided in part by an economic study by the University of New Orleans that showed which jobs and skills would be most in demand in the region over the next five to 10 years.
“We want to mesh with that,” she said.
For example, Sarah T. Reed High School in eastern New Orleans is slated to become a campus with a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics focus. Several partners, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Lockheed Martin Corp., the Boeing Co., and the National Academy Foundation, a New York City-based nonprofit group that supports small career academies in high schools across the nation, have been enlisted.
The National Academy Foundation is helping to create an information technology academy within Reed High, said Steve T. Brown, the foundation’s director for greater New Orleans. With four fully equipped computer labs, and an educational technology specialist and information technology teacher on staff, Reed was a good fit for the program, he said.
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“Reed has already shown a readiness for this,” Mr. Brown said.
The NAF is also helping to develop an engineering academy at Reed High that could open by the fall of 2009, he said.
Reed High must still go through NAF’s formal approval process before it is selected as a site for the proposed academy programs.
At Walter L. Cohen High School in the city’s Uptown section, health sciences will likely be the theme, with two local health-care systems and an ambulance service lined up as potential partners.
It’s unclear how much support from the larger community and from parents Mr. Vallas will receive for the high school makeover.
While some of the high schools have active parents and community members who participated in the selection of career-focus areas, he said, a few of them did not. And details of the initiative so far have not been widely disseminated. “I think it’s encouraging that our high schools will have these business relationships,” said Karran Harper Royal, an education advocate who is involved in the development of one of the city’s new high schools, slated to open by fall 2009 in her Gentilly community. “My concern is whether all of those school communities got to express what their interests are for each of their schools.”
Tracie L. Washington, a local civil rights lawyer who is also an education advocate, said an organized group of alumni of Cohen High is talking with the recovery district about helping with the reforms at that school.
The group applied last year to make Cohen a charter school, but it was turned down. After that application failed, Mr. Vallas reached out to the group to work on the redesign of Cohen, Ms. Washington said.
“These are people who are really committed to seeing Cohen return to what it was, which was one of the best high schools in New Orleans, particularly for African-Americans,” she said. “But the devil is in the details. Many of the ideas sound good, but this group is not looking to become a babysitter for a failing school.”
Mr. Vallas, who oversaw similar high school improvement efforts as the chief executive officer of the Philadelphia schools, said paying for the redesign will likely require both public and private dollars.
“We are seeking foundation funding for this, and we are also seeking state financial support for this, because the state of Louisiana is making a high school reform a priority,” he said.
Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2008 edition of Education Week as Vallas Intends to Refashion High Schools in New Orleans