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Amazing Recovery

Incredibly, a model school system

JOSEPH DANIEL FIEDLER ILLUSTRATION

The Recovery School District, a national trendsetter, met its goal to turn over all its New Orleans schools to charter operators with remarkable speed – a year earlier than planned, in fact.

When the state took control of more than 100 mostly destroyed and academically failing schools in 2005, nobody would have predicted that within nine years the New Orleans district would become the nation’s first all-charter school district and the talk of the nation’s educational establishment.

“It’s a revolutionary model and we can be proud of our ability to do something different,” says John Ayers, executive director of Tulane University’s Cohen Institute for Public Education Initiatives. “We aren’t going to hit the mark every time, but we have something to be excited about.”

Even more noteworthy, from a historical and political perspective, is how willing the Louisiana Department of Education and the RSD’s four superintendents have been to relinquish operational power. Government agencies typically mushroom in size, not downsize.

The RSD closed five schools in New Orleans at the end of the last school year: Benjamin Banneker Elementary, AP Tureaud Elementary, George Washington Carver High School, Sarah T. Reed High School and Walter L. Cohen High School. In the process, its staff of 600 was reduced to 90, says Zoey Reed, RSD communications director.

The Orleans Parish School Board still manages a handful of direct-run schools, but for the most part the centralized system model of the past that produced so many substandard schools is finished in New Orleans. Area charter operators have been so successful that the charter model is spreading quickly to other parishes. The Algiers Charter Schools Association, for example, has been approved to operate schools in Shreveport and Baton Rouge, RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard says.

RSD officials originally set a 10-year goal for becoming an all-charter district, but the goal was reached ahead of time when the district closed Cohen one year early. Dobard says that he originally intended for Cohen High School to remain open through this school year so that 2014-’15 seniors could graduate at their home school, but he decided to move them to other high schools for their graduating year so that they wouldn’t miss out on so many of the extra-curricular activities that seniors usually get to enjoy. Such decisions in the past have met with strong protests from parents and students, but Dobard met with the involved seniors and most of them agreed with the decision, he says.

The RSD’s decision to close Cohen a year early means that the 2014-’15 school year will the first time that all of the district’s 33,0000 students will attend schools where day-to-day academic and budget decisions are made by school-based leaders, not absent administrators making one-size-fits-all decisions in offices miles away.

The district has been slowly turning over daily operations to semi-autonomous charter operators since its inception, and the result has been improved student performance and higher graduation rates. State Department of Education 2013 figures show that the percentage of New Orleans students attending “failing’ schools has dropped from 65 percent to 5.7 percent.

Skeptics say the data don’t reflect a true picture of the district’s deficiencies, but test scores reveal a clear improvement over New Orleans schools’ prior dismal performance.

Only 23 percent of students in the Orleans Parish system made proficient scores on state standardized tests when the RSD took control of most of them, Dobard says. In 2013-’14, 57 percent of RSD direct-run and charter school students scored proficient, but Dobard is the first to admit that the schools “have a long way to go.”

“We want that number to get higher at a higher standard,” Dobard says. “We know it’s going to take a lot of work.”

The RSD will continue to monitor the academic and financial performance of its 50 charter schools. The district plans to fine-tune the One App system for enrollment to provide more equity in access to top-performing schools, monitor school expulsion policies, provide more special education services and specialty schools and supervise the nearly $2 billion master plan for school construction and renovation that has been underway for four years.

“By 2016,” Dobard says, “One hundred percent of our students will be in new, fully furnished buildings.”

The journey to this milestone hasn’t been easy, even for a city often affectionately called the Big Easy. Even with mold spreading in waterlogged schools, the New Orleans School Board fought against former state Superintendent Cecil Picard’s plans to take control of its “failing” schools. Even with most of the New Orleans legislative delegation against a state take over, the Legislature overwhelmingly approved the plan and former Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco signed the measure into law.

When some state controlled schools finally opened to those students still left to occupy them, complaints of bad food, substandard facilities and insufficient teachers led state officials in a mad search for an administrator capable of taming the chaos. The end result of that search brought former Superintendent Paul Vallas into the fray. His appointment marked the inevitable end to centralized planning for New Orleans schools.

Leslie Jacobs, a former member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, says that Vallas’ “gift” to New Orleans was his willingness to adapt to the reform agenda that she and others in state government had envisioned for the city’s schools.

“He stayed with the model, and it was a pivotal moment,” Jacobs says. “He could have chosen to run a centralized district, but he didn’t.”

Ayers gives Jacobs credit for being the “architect and general contractor” for the turnaround of the schools, but he says that Picard’s state superintendent successors Paul Pastorek and John White should also get credit for staying the course.

In the past nine years, the academic performance of New Orleans’ schools has climbed from the bottom to the middle of the pack among state students, Ayers says. That improvement is a “miracle” in its own right, he says, but “we could be very happy in five years.”

With test scores improving rapidly now, Ayers says that New Orleans has the opportunity to be “one of the premier urban systems in the country.”
 

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