Brian Riedlinger's Epiphany

THERESA CASSAGNE PHOTOGRAPH

In the fall of 1970, Brian Riedlinger was a college kid who needed a car; in the winter of 1971 he was a man with a mission.

It happened on the Mississippi River ferry. Somewhere between the east bank and the Westbank, he had an epiphany: He didn’t want to be a magazine publisher after all. He wanted to be a teacher.

The day before he had this insight, he still planned to finish his bachelor’s degree in journalism at Louisiana State University and pursue his goal of publishing magazines. Even though he only needed a few credits to graduate, he had taken a year off from school to work and buy a car. But the job he took – teaching fifth graders at Holy Name of Mary in Algiers – had created feelings of excitement that he hadn’t expected. He realized this fact on his way to that $4,000 teaching job after a school break. His decision to change majors cost him more years in college, but he never looked back.

He went on to obtain three education degrees and a reputation for turning around troubled schools. In 1999, he was recognized as the state’s middle school principal of the year for his work at Francis W. Gregory Junior High School, a Gentilly campus that recaptured the loyalty of district parents in only five years under his leadership. That success lead to being tapped as Chief Executive Officer of the School Leadership Center of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit organization formed to develop additional training programs for educators.

After Hurricane Katrina he also became the founding chief executive officer of the Algiers Charter Schools Association, a group of nine charters administered under one umbrella. Under his direction, the majority of the schools have proven that open admission schools in Orleans Parish can deliver a good product. They have been recognized as achieving significant gains in student performance, making Riedlinger one of the most influential figures in post-Katrina education.

“I loved it,” Riedlinger says. “We all have bad days, but I’ve loved what I have done from the beginning.”

One of those “bad days” happened last year. Giving little attention to the outrage of teachers and principals, the Algiers Charter Schools Association’s board of trustees ousted Riedlinger in a 4-3 vote. Board members who wanted him out cited communication problems and discontent over his continued administrative role at the SLC.

Some board members felt that Riedlinger wasn’t giving his full attention to the association, a charge that he denied. He eventually agreed to give up his executive title at SLC, but when he wanted to continue his association with the organization in some form, the axe fell.

The action stunned just about everybody. Riedlinger had designed an educational model that transformed some struggling district schools of pre-Katrina years to some of the rising stars of the charter movement. The move was like firing a battle-winning general in the middle of an undecided war.

What little he will say about his contract not being renewed is done so without bitterness about the past. But when he talks about the schools he shaped, he still speaks in the present tense, a slip for which he makes no apology. “They will always be my schools,” he says.

If anyone needed confirmation that association schools had prospered under Riedlinger’s leadership, they didn’t have to wait long. Within a few days of his Jan. 22 departure, six of the association’s nine schools were recognized by the state for outstanding student performance progress.
William J. Fischer Accelerated Academy, a troubled school once connected to the former Fischer housing development, was one of them.

In a Feb. 2 ceremony, about 200 Algiers charter schoolteachers, many hired by Riedlinger’s hand-picked principals, received bonuses of $400,000 (in total) for their success in significantly increasing their students’ scores on standardized tests. Five of the association’s nine schools achieved the highest scores possible for student performance growth compared to other students across the state.

These achievements were accomplished in only three years and based on two years of performance data.

Riedlinger was given an ideal opportunity to build a small association of charter schools from the ground up in December 2005. Even though teachers, principals and students were scattered all over the country, Algiers schools themselves were mostly salvageable, unlike the flooded schools on the east bank. After the state took over the management of the majority of Orleans Parish schools, teachers and principals were fired. Even though many were eventually rehired, the time lapse allowed Riedlinger to cherry-pick the best applicants. He says he screened 600, selected 200 to interview, hired principals and let them hire their own teachers.

When the dust settled, he’d hired a local instructional staff. He is now most proud of the fact that the schools’ turnaround was done with Orleans Parish teachers and principals, dispelling any lingering suspicions that New Orleans educators couldn’t get the job done.

“We were very personal. It was rare that a staff member or principal who walked into my office couldn’t see me,” he says. “I think people felt like it was a team.”

Because he didn’t want to create any unconscious walls between himself and the instructional staff, he and assistants didn’t dress in suits and ties. Riedlinger says that the more casual attire was intended to let teachers and principals know that the administrative staff was there to aid them, not control them.

Now Riedlinger is back to giving his full attention to the SLC, which is under negotiations with the Recovery School District to work with struggling Recovery schools that haven’t yet shown much progress in achieving better student performance scores.

As a man with a self-described “spiritual bent,” he professes to have spiritual guidance in choosing life directions.

If so, maybe his unfortunate removal from running Algiers charter schools is really a blessing in disguise for students elsewhere who really need him.

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