It took over 100 years for one-room school houses to morph into the massive centralized school systems that dominate large cities today, but it has only taken about six years for New Orleans’ notoriously failing behemoth to develop into a hybrid model that is becoming the new norm.

Charter Management Organizations, such as the Knowledge is Power Program and FirstLine schools, now supervise clusters of schools under the oversight of the Orleans Parish School Board or the state’s Recovery School District. They operate like mini-school systems within the larger districts that granted them their charters. Because of their proven records in student achievement, their numbers are growing in New Orleans and across the nation.

The majority of New Orleans public school students attend charters now, and if current trends continue, within a few years virtually all of them will be enrolled in charter schools, many under CMO management.

This governance change began immediately after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. State legislation broke apart the Orleans Parish system of about 120 schools and placed more than 100 “failing” schools in the RSD. A handful of successful schools were left in the hands of the Orleans Parish School Board. Many schools immediately splintered off into charters.

As the city recovered from its devastation, the public education system consisted of the large RSD district, a small Orleans Parish-operated district and the growing group of charter schools. Some already established names such as Ben Franklin and Lusher chartered quickly, while others won state charters to begin new schools a grade at a time.

The Algiers Charter Schools Association, serving eight undamaged schools on the West Bank, started the CMO trend in New Orleans almost immediately after the storm. Now several successful charter operators have developed into CMOs, supervising as many as nine schools.

In a centralized system one superintendent and an elected school board makes decisions for scores of schools without much regard for differences in location, population and the skill levels of students. Before Katrina struck, the New Orleans School Board dictated the education of about 65,000 students through layers upon layers of bureaucracy. Test scores showed, however, that only 23 percent were reading, writing and computing at grade level. The widespread destruction of the parish’s schools gave the state the impetus to take charge. Miraculously, within six years of state takeover the percentage had increased to 48 percent, with the greatest achievements found in charter schools.

As the city recovered from its devastation, the public education system consisted of the large RSD district, a small Orleans Parish operated district and the growing group of charters schools. For a time, it seemed inevitable that RSD schools that recovered academically would eventually return to the management of the Orleans Parish School Board, a return to the past. If current trends continue, however, there won’t be many non-chartered schools for the OPSB to manage.

With standardized test scores indicating that charters are doing a better job of educating low-income children, the RSD is moving more of its direct-run schools to proven charter operators. The most successful charter operators are developing into charter management groups that operate several schools. These mini-systems of schools make use of the advantages of centralization without suffering from the disadvantages of bloating.

These clusters of schools are large enough to negotiate better deals for food services and bus transportation, but they’re small enough to remain responsive to the changing needs of their students.

 “It’s like driving a speed boat instead of an ocean liner,” says Brian Riedlinger, executive director of the School Leadership Center. “A speed boat is just easier to maneuver.”

CMOs are operated by an executive director much like a modern-day superintendent, but the school leaders of each school have far more authority over individual school operations than the average centralized principal. School leaders hire and fire teachers and make decisions about how to spend the school’s budget based on local needs. Even more important, they have a direct line of communication to the CMO office. Before Katrina struck, the Orleans Parish School Board’s superintendents were far removed from the day-to-day operations of individual schools.

“Tony Amato, Al Davis, Morris Holmes – I don’t know if they ever went to all the schools,” Riedlinger says. “You would mention the Lower 9th Ward and he’d say, ‘Now where is that again?’”

Under the former system, dozens of assistant superintendents and other administrators kept track of schools, but under the typical CMO, there are only a handful of administrators. For example, FirstLine, which started with a single charter school and now operates five, employs only 17 administrators, including school leaders and their assistants.

The small size is the key to their success, Riedlinger says. “The superintendent knows the teachers and the principals. He knows the problems personally.”

Charters and CMOs are expanding rapidly because of the advantages of staying lean and focused. KIPP plans to expand from nine campuses to 12 by 2014, and some CMOs are crossing parish lines. In December, the Jefferson Parish School Board approved charter applications for two chartered schools operated by Orleans Parish-based charter groups. The International School of Louisiana, which operates two foreign language immersion schools in New Orleans, and the Choice Foundation, which also operates two Orleans Parish charters, are scheduled to open schools in Jefferson Parish by August.

Charter Management Organizations and number of schools they oversee:

Knowledge is Power Program, 9
Algiers Charter Schools Association, 8
FirstLine Schools, 5
ReNEW, 4 on 5 campuses
Capital One – New Beginnings, 4
International School of Louisiana, 2
Choice Foundation, 2