School & District Management

With an Unusually Hands-On Role, State Feels Its Way in New Orleans

August 25, 2006 8 min read
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A year after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans, the state of Louisiana finds itself in the highly unusual position of essentially starting from scratch—and directly operating—a batch of public schools in the city.

While much attention has focused on the many charter schools serving New Orleans students, the state itself is expected to run at least 17 schools this fall, far more than originally envisioned. Through the so-called Recovery School District, the state is selecting a curriculum and textbooks, hiring principals and teachers, ordering furniture and computers, and even setting up a dress code, just as any school system would.

Mariah Lyons, 10, waits to be registered at Clark High School, one of many public schools in New Orleans that are being run directly by the state of Louisiana under an unconventional arrangement taking place in the city.

Although other states have taken over local school systems and individual schools, experts say that, like many other aspects of the rebirth of New Orleans, Louisiana’s role in basically creating and running a whole set of schools appears to be unique.

Along the way, the state is wrestling with a host of pressing demands. For one, it’s struggling to find enough teachers, especially for slots in the sciences, foreign languages, and special education. It’s also faced nasty facilities surprises, from overlooked damage to the theft of copper wiring from one campus.

Just last week, as state officials were still trying to pinpoint how many students to expect on opening day, they announced that two schools the state had planned to open Sept. 7 wouldn’t be ready for the fall semester, while two schools that were to be charters will now be run by the state.

“You’re talking about creating a medium-sized school district that’s going to have all the demands of a school district, plus it’s in a crisis situation that’s itself unprecedented,” said Bryan C. Hassell, an education policy consultant based in Chapel Hill, N.C. “Few states are in a position to operate that kind of ground-level operation.”

Defying Expectations

The state’s recovery district is not new, but its role has been transformed and greatly expanded since Hurricane Katrina hit in late August 2005.

The district was first established as part of a 2003 state-takeover law. Louisiana had already stripped the New Orleans system of control of five schools before Katrina struck. Those schools became part of the recovery district and were turned over to outside groups to be run as charter schools.

After the storm, the state lowered the academic threshold for takeovers, and the vast majority of New Orleans schools, more than 100, were placed in the recovery district. But with most of the city’s population displaced and many schools devastated by flooding and other storm damage, the state is really taking over empty shells.

Although the state has handed the reins of many schools to charter operators over the past year, it opened three state-run schools last academic year after the storm, and will have more than a dozen new ones in September. Orleans Parish, the local school district, is directly operating five schools, and has approved more than a dozen of its own charter schools. (“56 New Orleans Schools to Accept Students for New Year,” July 12, 2006.)

New Orleans parent Lola Freeman, at left, speaks with Keshuna Jones, an employee of the Louisiana Department of Education, during student registration at the state-run Clark High School.

In all, the state will operate about one-third of the 53 New Orleans public schools that as of last week were expected to be open in September. Those schools will serve about one-third of an estimated 22,000 public school students. The state expects to open more schools later in the fall. The district’s pre-Katrina enrollment was about 65,000.

“We are operating more schools than anybody thought we would,” Robin G. Jarvis, the superintendent of the recovery district and a former assistant superintendent in the Louisiana Department of Education, said in an Aug. 18 interview.

One reason, state officials say, is that more students have returned to New Orleans than experts initially expected. Also, they say, the state has used a rigorous application process for charter operators, turning down many applicants.

The recovery district itself is operating with a skeletal central-office staff, with about 15 employees as of mid-August, according to Ms. Jarvis.

“We’re still working on what the organizational chart needs to look like,” she said.

At the same time, the district is getting plenty of help from the state department of education and outside contractors. Those contractors are handling an array of responsibilities, from transportation and special-education support services to building renovations and repairs.

Ms. Jarvis predicted the central-office staff would expand, but not dramatically. State law does not envision state control lasting indefinitely, she noted. “You don’t want to staff a huge central office if you’re then going to have to unstaff them,” she said.

But Paul G. Pastorek, a New Orleans lawyer who heads the state-appointed recovery district advisory committee, said he worries that the central office may be too small. “One of the concerns that was expressed by the advisory committee was that the department not try to do this too lean, that it should ramp up with necessary support,” said Mr. Pastorek, a former chairman of Louisiana’s board of elementary and secondary education.

A top state priority this summer has been hiring teachers and principals. As of last week, it had hired nearly all the principals it needed, but was still well short of the number of teachers, especially in some high-need subjects.

Snags Over Hiring

Recovery district spokeswoman Siona Lafrance said last week that the state anticipated needing 350 to 400 teachers, and as of Aug. 15 had hired about 275 ahead of the Sept. 7 start date for schools.

The state faced criticism when it scrapped earlier plans to bring in national experts to help with a rigorous screening process for teachers. State officials said they did so reluctantly because of the time crunch.

Nonetheless, the state is requiring teacher applicants to take a test of basic knowledge and skills and a writing sample. Applicants, who must be licensed, also go through interviews with teams of administrators and teachers, Ms. Jarvis said.

Applicants who receive positive recommendations by the teams are placed in a pool from which principals choose their teachers.

“My chief academic officer and I are former principals, and we think it’s pretty critical that the principals have a say and a role in the selection of their teachers,” Ms. Jarvis said.

Brenda Mitchell, the president of the United Teachers of New Orleans, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, criticized what she called the “lateness in hiring staff.” She also said the state had faltered in ensuring that the school buildings were ready in time for opening day.

“If I had to judge the state’s capacity to operate schools based on the current status,” she said, “I would say they’re not up to it.”

But Brigitte T. Nieland, the education director at the Louisiana Association for Business and Industry, defended the state. On the hiring of teachers, she said, “Honestly, I think they started as soon as they possibly could, considering the limited information we’ve been able to get on projected enrollment, as well as the higher standards for teacher hiring.”

She added, “The recovery school district is not responsible for the housing crisis, and I admire the fact that they’re not going to back down on the standards they put in place just to have a warm body in the classroom.”

In many ways, the state is trying to reinvent the New Orleans schools it operates. Beyond the teacher testing, the schools are expected to have greater autonomy.

“There’s going to be more autonomy than what we saw in New Orleans public schools,” said Mr. Pastorek, “but less than what you see in the charter schools.”

Ms. Jarvis highlighted the principals’ hiring authority as a prime example of the autonomy.

Olga J. Walters, who is the new principal of one state-run elementary school, welcomes that responsibility. In a mid-August interview, she said her building was almost fully staffed.

“That’s a major thing, to be able to select who is on campus,” she said. “I want the best of the best.”

Daniel J. Hudson, who came to New Orleans from Washington to become a principal this summer, said he’s picked a few teachers who worked at his school before, but turned away others he believed would not be a good match.

“They were upset with me,” said Mr. Hudson, who has been living in a dormitory at Tulane University. He said he’s trying to recruit teachers on his own, and had plans to visit Mississippi and elsewhere to find them.

State officials have also said they intend to devise a pay-for-performance system for a select number of the state-run schools, under which teachers who met certain targets for growth in student achievement would receive bonuses. And the officials note a strong emphasis on intensive professional development, which got under way this summer.

Several observers said the absence of a collective bargaining agreement for the recovery district has given the state far greater latitude.

“I’m not anti-union, but that collective bargaining agreement that we had was horrible and was not student-friendly,” Mr. Pastorek of the recovery district advisory committee said.

Union Critical

Ms. Mitchell of the local teachers’ union criticized the state’s stance toward teachers, calling the test an insult. “We’re the only [district] in the state that’s doing that,” she said.

Two separate lawsuits, one filed by the United Teachers of New Orleans and another by a group of other former district employees, have been filed in state court challenging the constitutionality of the state-takeover law passed last November.

James Stafford, a member of the state school board from northeastern Louisiana, recently wrote a letter to state officials expressing his own concerns about the state’s aggressive role in New Orleans.

“We now find ourselves taking over a massive number of schools in the New Orleans area with a limited staff, requiring an excessive amount of time and energy both from the [state education department] staff and the state board of education,” he wrote Aug. 12.

But Leslie R. Jacobs, another state board member, argues that the state is on the right track.

“There’s not really a road map for our model,” she said. “But I am highly confident that this year we will have better schools than we would have had. … And each year, they’re going to get better.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2006 edition of Education Week as With an Unusually Hands-On Role, State Feels Its Way in New Orleans


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