Good News: Schooling is Improving

While much of the rest of the country braces for more bad economic news in 2009, New Orleans has reason to celebrate: Its schools are on the rise.

It is too early to pop the expensive bubbly, but there are plenty of indications that the past three years of effort to improve schools is paying off. The improvements are the result of strong new leadership combined with federal and private sector funding, volunteerism, non-profit alternative programs for teacher and principal training and a strong will to succeed.

While it’s true that a huge number of students are still failing the standardized tests that officials use to determine if they are learning basic skills, test scores have shown some dramatic increases in some schools and a steady incremental upward climb in many others, especially in elementary schools. The greatest gains are among children attending charter schools, but state operated Recovery District schools are also showing slow signs of improvement.

“I’d say that our school system is very much better in general than it was before the storm,” says former Orleans Parish School Board President Phyllis Landrieu. “It has a great future at the rate we are going. I’d give it a ‘C+’ for going in the right direction.”

The initial groundwork included the state’s takeover of “failing” New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina, the gradual addition of charter schools, the hiring of a nationally recognized school superintendent and the development of a master plan for school facilities. Much remains to be done, but the final days of 2008 brought a number of positive indicators that the momentum is full speed ahead, especially in key areas of state and local leadership.

Recovery District Superintendent Paul Vallas’ decision to stay another year means that the state-operated schools – the most problematic – will have stable leadership through 2009-’10. Vallas oversees 34 traditional public schools and 33 semi-autonomous charter schools in New Orleans. Test scores have increased somewhat in many of these schools in his two-year tenure but the extent of their upward mobility remains to be seen.

Not all of Vallas’ decisions have met applause, educators say, but he gets good marks for overall performance. “I think he has opened windows and let in some fresh air,” says Barbara MacPhee, who recently retired as principal of New Orleans Charter of Science and Mathematics. “In schools where the principals were weak, he has gotten rid of them.”

Another positive development was the election of a fresh-faced Orleans Parish School Board, which could take over the state-run schools before the new members’ terms end in 2012. When the state took over most of Orleans Parish’s schools, it left the best performing ones for the school board to run. However, state law calls for the return of the Recovery District schools to local control in ’10 or when the schools are no longer deemed “academically unacceptable,” Landrieu says.

Most of the schools have not improved that much since the state took them over. Only two of the Recovery District’s “failing” schools in New Orleans have climbed to “passing” in three years, so questions about the schools’ future governance remained unanswered. But Landrieu, who didn’t run for re-election, says the incoming school board may just be the team to take back the schools.
“I think they are bright, educated and energetic and their hearts are in the right place about educating children,” she says.

More importantly, incoming board members seem compatible, Landrieu says, and open for advice. The five new members and two re-elected members have shown a desire to work together and learn from the successes and failures of their predecessors, she says.

Even if the state does relinquish control of the schools at some point in the future, most principals may be shielded from the school board’s daily control anyway. The movement toward more independent schools in the form of public charters is likely to continue to include the great majority, if not all, of the parish’s public schools.
About 60 percent of the city’s school children are now educated in charter schools, the highest percentage in the country. State officials have discussed expanding the charter concept by turning over parts of lagging traditional schools to successful charter operators to help them improve. Vallas also has said that the top-performing Recovery District schools will be given the option of applying for charters in the next two years.

The end result of this steady movement toward charters could be a system of independently run charters, loosely organized under various non-profit organizations and monitored for quality by local and state education officials every few years. At present, the charters are up for charter renewal every five years and discussions are underway to develop a more comprehensive oversight system that includes policies about how to turn over unsuccessful chartered programs to new administrators.

This projection into the future is based on current realities. Some charter schools have proved that creative school leaders can work miracles with disadvantaged students when freed of the kind of red tape, internal bickering and inertia that characterized New Orleans’ former centralized system.     

Some charters have not received “passing scores” by the state, and some are too new to judge, but the good ones top the state’s school performance list.

Charter success stories include Knowledge is Power Program charter schools, operated by a national charter organization known for successfully educating at-risk students. Both of the program’s open admission charter schools in New Orleans scored in the mid to high 90s on the state’s performance list, meaning that nearly 100 percent of their students are passing standardized tests.

Other open enrollment stars include Martin Behrman Elementary, a charter located in Algiers, which scored 92.6; and Robert Russa Moton Charter, located in Gentilly, which scored 90.8. Martin Luther King Charter Science and Technology scored 89.2.
Sophie B. Wright Institute of Academic Excellence, once one of the city’s worst performing schools, scored 74.6. In 2007 – after only one year of charter management  –  80 percent of its students achieved basic or better in math and 71 percent achieved basic or better in language arts on the state’s LEAP tests.  
A student who achieves “basic” is “a student who can go to college,” says Leslie Jacobs, a former Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member who championed the state accountability program that went into effect in the mid-1990s. “We are changing the educational future of thousands of children. It’s very exciting.”

Many of the charters at the very top of the performance scale such as Benjamin Franklin High School have competitive admission standards, but many of today’s charters are successfully educating the same at-risk population that the pre-storm traditional schools failed. Educators are still analyzing current trends, but one factor that stands out in charter success is parental involvement, says MacPhee, who’s currently involved in a Xavier University math faculty development program.

Some parents have the wherewithal to navigate the process and get children to schools that may not be close to home, but the poorest of the poor don’t have those advantages. “Parents who barely have their heads above water, they just get the leftovers, which are the RSD schools,” MacPhee says. “But we can work on that. I think we can find a new way to deal with each concern.”

Jacobs agrees. She envisions a completely transformed system by 2012, one that many struggling urban school districts will want to emulate. Not everyone is that optimistic, but there are plenty of reasons to feel confident that New Orleans’ schools of the future will be significantly better than the schools of the past.

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