School & District Management

Worry Mounting Over New Orleans Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — November 01, 2005 4 min read

As many people and organizations jostle to play roles in the rebirth of the New Orleans public schools, worry is mounting that the process lacks a strong, central force to forge a coherent vision.

Some advocates and educators are concerned that the uncertainty could allow the deeply troubled district that existed even before Hurricane Katrina to re-establish itself. Others worry that the fresh ideas being offered might not get traction, or that a piecemeal approach could produce a system of uneven quality.

The short-term effort to reopen enough schools to serve the 3,700 or so children projected to return soon to the flood-damaged city is itself fractured. The district school board is divided over whether the first schools to open should be regular schools or charter schools, and the effort to create charter schools was temporarily blocked by a local judge. (“Judge Rules New Orleans Board Must Revote on Charters,” this issue).

But disconnects in the effort to lay longer-term plans are fueling anxiety that what many see as an unprecedented opportunity—to gather the nation’s top minds around a table to design an urban district almost from scratch—might be compromised.

“If ever there was a moment to move aggressively, this is it,” said Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group. “All the forces that conspired to keep that district at the rock bottom are gone.”

Ora L. Watson, the district’s acting superintendent, recently lamented proposals by New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and some school board members to open schools as charters, without any overall plan for how the district should be rebuilt.

Fragmenting?

“Everybody has their own agenda. They’re picking the city apart,” Ms. Watson said on Oct. 21 at an Atlanta meeting of the Council of the Great City Schools, which has been advising the district. “Try as we can to get our arms around it, we grab and another piece is gone.”

Ms. Watson said she hopes a “brain trust” of all stakeholders could forge such a vision. Just what that vision should entail, and who should convene and participate in the brain trust, are unresolved and politically delicate questions.

But even those activists and educators who might disagree on how the rebuilt district should look agreed in interviews last week that it needs strong coordination.

“There is a real danger in the possibility of a whole bunch of different folks coming in to stake out pieces of the territory,” said Marla R. Ucelli, the director of district redesign at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, based at Brown University in Providence, R.I. “This is not a free-for-all. I truly don’t think you can do the pieces without the larger vision. Who can now hold that larger vision?”

One senior official of a foundation that has been talking with Louisiana and New Orleans officials about the rebuilding effort said, “It’s great that lots of people have interest and ideas, but until you get an organized table where people can sit down and work together, versus in parallel, it’s going to be a challenge to get things going.”

Another of the many who are frustrated with the lack of centralization in the planning effort is Brian Riedlinger. He has been tapped to give education advice to Mayor Nagin’s rebuilding commission.

Talks about the district are also going on in the offices of Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, state Superintendent of Education Cecil J. Picard, and state lawmakers, as well as in two factions of the local school board.

“It’s really frustrating,” said Mr. Riedlinger, a former principal in the city who is now the chief executive officer of the School Leadership Center of Greater New Orleans. “I feel like I ought to put everybody in a room and say you’re not coming out until you agree on something.”

A special session of the Louisiana legislature, scheduled for Nov. 6, could address some of the questions. Clarifying and strengthening the state’s role in leading the rebuilding of the city’s schools is said to be among the items to be debated. (“La. Legislature Readies for Special Session”, this issue.)

Mr. Picard could offer few details, but said in an e-mail last week, “We’d be remiss if we didn’t explore all of the options available to us.”

Even a closely coordinated group of experts, however, would have much to resolve before a district design could emerge.

Ideas Forming

Many educators agree that some form of central control is necessary in a new system, but what it should look like is a matter of debate. They also vary in their opinions on what roles public and private entities should play. Some are wary that pleas to avoid fragmenting the district are just attempts to retain the old system, which enrolled some 56,000 students before Hurricane Katrina displaced most of the city’s population in late August.

“The question on the table shouldn’t be how we preserve Orleans Parish schools, it should be how do we educate kids,” said Donald R. McAdams, the executive director of the Center for Reform of School Systems, located in Houston.

Paul T. Hill, a professor of public affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle, said outsiders will have to play a significant role in building a new school system. “It has to come from the outside,” he said. “The [New Orleans] district is only capable of putting back the old arrangement.”

Richard F. Elmore, a professor of educational leadership at Harvard University, cautioned against too strong a role for charter schools and private groups. A strong public-sector role, paired with a clear locus of accountability for results, is the only way to ensure equity and equal access for schoolchildren, he said.

Jacqueline Smethurst, an independent education consultant in New Orleans, said even the tense, fractured debate has value in making people think in new ways.

“We’re in a dynamic environment,” she said. “It’s going to be messy. People are anxious, but that might not be all bad.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Worry Mounting Over New Orleans Schools

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