After three years of intense work to rebuild the storm-damaged and beleaguered Recovery School District, Superintendent Paul Vallas racks up kudos for delivering on his promises to increase the performance of hundreds of New Orleans school children who had been failed by some of the worst schools in the country.

This fall, Vallas enters his fourth school year as the guiding force propelling the majority of New Orleans’ schools out of a bog of past failures and the disarray left by Hurricane Katrina. Most of those serving in the front lines of the city’s recovery dealt only with flood-damaged buildings, but Vallas’ charge was doubly challenging: He took on the daunting task of delivering a quality education to the bulk of the city’s school children amidst a shortage of good teachers, principals and serviceable schools.

Joined with an outpouring of support from foundations, organizations and individuals dedicated to improving education nationwide, in just three years Vallas has pulled many schools in his system out of physical ruin, launched a vast building plan with federal recovery money, and increased the number of students who score “basic” or above on standardized tests by 20 percent.

Critics and skeptics exist, of course, but the person who matters most – his employer – raves about Vallas’ accomplishments. “The progress we have made has been stunning,” says Paul Pastorek, state superintendent of education. “Paul has done an exceptional job.”

That assessment is seconded by Brian Riedlinger, president of the School Leadership Center and former superintendent of the Algiers Charter Schools Association. “I don’t know another person in the country who could have done as good a job as Vallas,” Riedlinger says. “He’s the best triage person I know.”

When Vallas assumed the position of RSD superintendent in July 2007, he took over the operation of 39 schools, 22 traditional district schools and 17 semi-autonomous charters – schools governed by a state approved charter, but not supervised on a day-to-day basis. In just three years, the district has grown to 70 schools – 33 traditional schools and 47 charters, including 10 charters in other parishes. He also has overseen the development of a master plan for new and renovated school facilities that has resulted in the completion of four projects so far, at a cost of $115 million. Ten others are in various stages of development. The current projects are funded by $700 million in FEMA recovery money.

 Another $1.8 billion in construction is slated for the future. Completion of those projects requires federal approval of a FEMA settlement of that amount. The settlement was negotiated by Vallas and his team, a feat that at least one observer says is of monumental importance.

Leslie Jacobs, a former member of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, says that when the settlement finally comes through, it will provide the money to build the finest schools New Orleans has ever seen.

“This is huge,” Jacobs says. “It’s very exciting.”

Jacobs also praises Vallas’ willingness to embrace unconventional approaches to seemingly intractable problems. “Very few individuals can come into a situation and in a purposeful way give up his power,” she says. “He embraced charter schools.”

Charter schools in New Orleans were originally seen as a way of getting schools up and running quickly after the storm destroyed buildings and dispersed employees all over the country. But Vallas encourages their expansion within the RSD’s network.    
Vallas’ critics point out, however, that the RSD is still a long way from becoming a success story. The majority of students attending RSD schools are still failing to achieve “basic” on LEAP tests, they say.

“Most schools are still academically unacceptable,” says Angela Daliet, director of Save Our Schools, a parent advocacy group. “[Vallas] has improved schools, as far as test scores, but we are in no way where we need to be.”

Well aware that the system still has a long way to go in improving student performance, Vallas recently added five weeks to the school year of the RSD’s traditional schools. According to news reports, Vallas believes that extra instructional time is needed for further gains in test scores. He lengthened the school day to eight-and-one-half hours in 2008 for the same reason.

Daliet says that Vallas has improved test scores because of the vast amount of extra money that has poured into the district since the hurricane. “The RSD budget is not sustainable,” she says. “He’s blown our budget.”

Daliet’s concerns echo events in Philadelphia that may have been a factor in his departure as the school district’s chief executive officer. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in April 2007, a few weeks before Vallas’ appointment to the RSD was announced, that school officials reduced Vallas’ financial authority over schools sometime before his departure because the district’s $2 billion budget had a $73 million deficit and faced large cuts.

In fact, some observers – even some supporters – think it may be time for Vallas to move on to another opportunity because he has accomplished what he does best: turnaround schools. He may not be the best person for the final stage of recovery, some say.

Vallas may be thinking the same thing. He spent much of the summer in Haiti working on a plan to develop a public school system in the impoverished and earthquake-stricken country. Because of these absences, four requests in June and July to speak with him for this article failed to achieve an interview.

Engaging the international community on behalf of Haitian children is quintessential Vallas, who’s known for taking on the most difficult challenges. Before he came to New Orleans, he turned around Philadelphia and Chicago’s troubled school systems, two of the nation’s largest districts. Like Louisiana, the state of Pennsylvania entrusted Vallas with schools so troubled that it seized them from local control.    

Speculation that Vallas may eventually turn his full attention to Haiti, requiring his replacement with a new superintendent, doesn’t trouble Pastorek. Vallas’ contract doesn’t end until July 2011, and Vallas has said that he’s committed to another year.

 “Paul has a soft spot for helping people,” Pastorek says. “That’s what brought him here.”

A plan to secure International Development Bank funding for a school system in Haiti is underway and when that “plan is finalized, [Vallas’] role will be reduced,” he says.

His agreement with Vallas has always been on a year-by-year basis, Pastorek says. He takes Vallas’ other interests with a “grain of salt,” because Vallas often talks of moving into politics or some other new direction.

Moreover, when Vallas doesn’t work, Pastorek says, “He doesn’t get paid.”