Lessons from behind the scenes
Craig Mulcahy PHOTOGRAPH
Behind every school board member, superintendent, principal and teacher are scores of staff ranging from cafeteria workers to dollar-makers who are rarely recognized by the public.
One of them is Rose Drill-Peterson, who recently retired for the second time.
She has spent most of her adult life working behind-the-scenes coordinating, planning and making the dollars flow for New Orleans schools. With 46 years of educational experience, she’s still an upbeat, floral-wearing, yoga practicing, education wonk who delights in talking schools.
Basically, she’s seen it all.
“There have been hills and valleys, and the valleys are the same,” Drill-Peterson says of nearly five decades of New Orleans school history.
Even though the past decade has been marked by upward momentum in student achievement and graduation rates, Drill-Peterson says that the challenges remain entrenched.
Poverty remains the toughest challenge, she says, which leads to student absenteeism, resistance to learning and mental health issues.
She has been battling such issues for most of her adult life. And it all started with Carnival.
After graduating from Syracuse University in 1967, she taught social studies in Boston for a year. Fed up with freezing temperatures and a junk car with no heater, she decided to see Mardi Gras. Within the year, she was teaching in New Orleans. A few years later, she’d obtained a master’s degree from Tulane University and began developing curriculum in alternative schools that trained high school students in career development.
In 1976, she shifted from the classroom to the behind-the-scenes work of political lobbying, grant writing, public relations and various administrative positions, including a stint as acting area superintendent.
Formative moments occurred when she was tagging along with the Orleans Parish School Board’s governmental liaison in Baton Rouge, intent upon learning the craft of lobbying the legislature in favor of New Orleans schools.
A peak moment occurred in 1980; the school board was trying to win voter support for an upcoming sales tax election, and Drill-Peterson suggested that she ask then Gov. Dave Treen to endorse the tax.
“Right, you go do that,” Drill-Peterson remembers the Orleans Parish School Board’s then-information director answering.
Not recognizing the cynical tone of the approval, Drill-Peterson says she approached the governor and asked him to publicly endorse the tax. To her utter surprise the governor said, “Sure.”
“I was so dumbfounded and realized I did not know what to say next,” she says. ”I told him thanks and I would get back to him.”
The information director later admits that she thought asking Treen for an endorsement was a “preposterous idea,” because he would certainly refuse. As it turned out, Drill-Peterson says that Gov. Treen endorsed tax proposal in an address to a teacher’s conference a few days later. The tax passed and she learned a valuable lesson.
“It taught me that even if you think something is absurd or an outlier, it is worth trying because sometimes it works,” she says.
During former Gov. Edwin Edwards’ administration, she learned the dangers of speaking too freely with politicians. Edwards, ever congenial, asked her thoughts on the Minimum Foundation Formula that the state uses to fund schools. After she said it was unfair to urban schools, Drill-Peterson says that he held up the state school budget for three days. She never figured out his scheme.
In that period, she also married Frank Peterson, now a retired Benjamin Franklin High School teacher. After raising three children, she obtained a Ph.D. from the University of New Orleans in educational leadership.
She pressed forward during motherhood to continue working against the steady decline of New Orleans’ public schools. During the time she worked for the OPSB, the system became known as one of the worst public school districts in the nation.
At one point, the federal government investigated the financial records. A valedictorian couldn’t pass the state’s exit exam to get a high school degree. Shortly before his death in 2013, former Superintendent Anthony Amato said in an interview for this column that at least one teacher asked a student to make payment for a good grade. A school board member went to prison for corruption.
Drill-Peterson describes the former school boards that she worked under as “dysfunctional,” but she says there were many hard-working educators whose efforts were hampered by restrictive teacher’s union agreements and chronic lack of funding. She says that schools today are supported by a much-improved tax base and generous philanthropic gifts.
She retired the first time just weeks before Hurricane Katrina, but she rejoined the fray soon after the mud was scraped from her Esplanade Ridge home and electricity was restored.
She spent the final eight years of her career directing the Eastbank Collaborative of Charter Schools, a network of semi-autonomous charter schools that share support services such as finance, legal and public relations. Charter schools became the norm after Katrina and are roundly praised for saving public schooling in New Orleans.
Drill-Peterson says she saw many improvements in the delivery of education in the eight years she worked with charter organizations. Test scores have improved and more students are eligible for the state’s TOPS scholarships for college. Even school-related violence has decreased, she says, because students are not gathering at RTA bus stops. Nowadays, with most students attending charters, they get to school on school-supervised buses.
“There are men and women who created their schools, in some cases, from almost nothing to quality schools,” Drill-Peterson says. “I am so proud of them. I am so happy to be part of their growth.”