Head of the Class
Why Schools Are Improving
Joseph Daniel Fiedler illustration
This month, as New Orleans celebrates 10 years of vigorous recovery from the nation’s worst hurricane in history, its education reformers deserve applause on a grand scale. Virtually every aspect of public schooling is better off today than in 2005. Students are scoring higher on standardized tests, more are graduating on time and they’re attending technologically up-to-date schools.
The educational landscape looks dramatically different than it did a decade ago, thanks to visionary state leaders who turned a major disaster into an opportunity to transfer a failing school system into a national leader in urban education. A decade ago the Orleans Parish school system was an ineffective, disorganized and basically bankrupt centralized system of 120 traditional neighborhood schools.
Now it’s divided into two systems: 18 charter and traditional schools managed by the Orleans Parish School Board and 63 charter schools overseen by the state’s Recovery School District, the nation’s first all-charter system. OPSB kept about 20 high performing schools after the storm, and the state took over about 100 of its failing schools. The RSD slowly turned school management over to independent charter operators who are held accountable for sub-par student performance. The OPSB continues to operate six traditional schools, but the school board and its new superintendent’s current mindset is to focus on the charter model in the future, says OPSB Chairman Seth Bloom.
Much more needs to be done to ensure that students move from basic performance to mastery in English, math and science, but a firm foundation has been laid for more student achievement gains in the future. A 2015 report compiled by Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Education Initiative outlines just how far public schools have advanced under state stewardship.
“The academic performance of New Orleans schools has improved remarkably over the past 10 years,” the report says. “In 2005, based on academic performance, only one other parish was worse than Orleans Parish.
It is now outperforming 25 p arishes.”
At the time of the storm, the report says that 62 percent of public school students in New Orleans attended a failing school, but today only seven percent are in schools categorized as “failing” based on state standards.
Test scores rose steadily throughout the decade, primarily in RSD charter schools. The report shows that the number of RSD students in grades three through eight who scored “basic” and above on standardized tests of core subjects increased 20 percent in the six years prior to 2014. The report also says that the rate of RSD high school students scoring “good” or “excellent” on end of course exams has increased 34 percent.
As a consequence, more students are graduating. “Prior to the storm,” the report says, “only 56 percent of students graduated within their four-year cohort group compared to 73 percent today.”
A $2 billion facilities master plan, funded mostly by FEMA, is also nearly completed. Prior to the storm, the report says that the majority of the city’s school buildings were between 40 and 163 years old. Many suffered from delayed maintenance, making them even more susceptible to storm damage.
The school master plan calls for 35 new schools, 18 renovations and 28 refurbishments, 90 percent of which have been completed, according to the report.
Such developments are gaining notice nationally, and more importantly at home, where parents are showing more trust in public schools. The institute conducted a poll earlier this year that found that one in two parents were more likely to send a child to public school than before Katrina.
The primary question mark is which governmental agency will be responsible for all Orleans Parish schools in the future. OPSB wants successful RSD schools returned to its control, but current law allows them to stay under the state umbrella if they wish. Only one has returned to the OPSB. Most charter operators are leery of returning to a management board with a history of fiscal mismanagement and academic ineffectiveness. Some school leaders also have said privately that some board members and most of the board’s central staff are hostile to the charter model.
Some RSD charter operators have said they wouldn’t return voluntarily to the OPSB unless the board’s structure is modified in a way that safeguards school autonomy. Such modifications have not as yet gained any traction in the Louisiana Legislature, however.
OPSB Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., appointed earlier this year after a long, contentious search process, plans to reorganize the board’s central staff of more than 100 employees so that it’s more capable of running a large charter network, Bloom says. At the moment, he says it is still geared toward a traditional school system, which doesn’t exist any longer.
Once the board has a staff in place that’s more appropriate for today’s realities, Bloom says board members likely will back state legislation requiring successful RSD schools to return to Orleans Parish control. Next year, he says, the board may be able to “say now is the time.”
In the meantime, some schools and buildings are being returned to parish control by other means, says Kathleen Padian, deputy superintendent for OPSB charter schools. Two failing schools that the RSD sought new charter operators to manage were eventually awarded to OPSB charter operators, and other OPSB schools have taken over buildings once occupied by RSD schools.
Padian says that kind of cooperation between the two school systems “is a step in the right direction.”