When Paul Vallas galloped into Louisiana four years ago like Roy Rogers on Trigger to take the reins of the Recovery School District, the red carpet rolled out from all directions. Louisiana needed a hero figure to turn around New Orleans’ failing schools, and Vallas, known as a turnaround specialist, promised to be “The One.” He promised test score improvements and he delivered, but the other side of the story is this: A huge segment of RSD students are still failing standardized tests in English and math.

Vallas’ challenge, though formidable, may turn out to be less difficult than the one his replacement faces. Vallas, the praised superintendent of Chicago schools, had already established himself as a name-brand in education circles before taking over New Orleans’ troubled schools. But John White, the former deputy chancellor for New York City schools who took over as RSD Superintendent in May, is still climbing the professional ladder. At 35, he takes on responsibility for a school system that’s a fraction of the size of the system he left, but one hindered by serious problems, some of which could yet prove to be intractable.

“It’s a daunting challenge,” says Louis Miron, director of Loyola University’s Institute for Quality and Equity in Public Education. “New Orleans isn’t New York City. The tax base pales by comparison.”

White takes over the RSD at a time when revenues are declining and the first round of reforms must be followed up with new strategies. Vallas’ move to turn many of the city’s failing schools into independently run charters resulted in higher test scores in those schools, but it also left behind a large segment of students to be educated in district-run schools that so far have shown less progress in student achievement.

Because of sound management and the ability to limit enrollment, many RSD charters, which have control over their budgets and curriculum, are achieving remarkable results. Knowledge Is Power Program network schools, Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School, Lafayette Academy and Arthur Ashe Charter are just a few that have brought national recognition to the RSD system and Vallas’ leadership.

More than half of students attending RSD charters in New Orleans scored basic and above on LEAP tests last year, far more than before Hurricane Katrina. These charters are closing in on Orleans Parish School Board charter schools, which had a passage rate of 81 percent last year. Many schools in the OPSB system were successful schools anyway, however, which is why the state didn’t seize them after the storm. OPSB charters include the city’s highest performing schools, serving many middle and upper-middle income students, in contrast to the RSD’s high-poverty student population.

Under Vallas’ leadership there’s no denying that the RSD, which took over about 100 failing New Orleans schools in 2005, has accomplished more than anyone could have expected in a few short years. On the other hand, the newcomer from New York inherited serious challenges when he took the baton from Vallas on May 1.

Even though RSD charter schools are gaining ground swiftly, test scores in 2010 showed that a majority of students in the entire RSD system – charters and district run – are still failing LEAP tests. The RSDs overall testing statistics are depressed by the less stellar results of direct run RSD schools, especially non-charter high schools. Not only are the majority of RSD direct run elementary schools failing fourth- and eighth-grade LEAP tests, a large majority of high school students don’t pass the Graduate Exit Exam on the first try.

On the eighth-grade LEAP, for example, only 31 percent of students in RSD direct-run schools passed the English portion of the test, and 40 percent passed the math. The schools posted double-digit gains, but 69 percent still aren’t performing at grade level. Some elementary schools, such as A.P. Tureaud and Mary D. Coghill Elementary are performing as well as some RSD charters, but most RSD high schools haven’t made much progress. Last year, only 23.5 percent of RSD-run high school students passed the English portion of the Graduate Exit Exam and 34.6 percent passed the math portion.

Last year, Vallas responded to these dismal numbers by lengthening the school year. He had already lengthened the school day to eight-and-a-half hours, which corresponded with some significant gains in test scores in direct run schools. Such measures seem to make a difference, but the cost of such adjustments may not be sustainable.

White takes over at critical juncture: Not only does he face the expectation of continuing improvement in the schools he controls, he must find innovative ways to increase LEAP passage rates with less revenue than Vallas had to spend.

Vallas enjoyed increased per-pupil funding because of one-time federal funds connected to hurricane recovery, says a March financial report by the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University. In 2008-’09 – based on state and local documents – the Cowen Institute calculates that all New Orleans schools spent about $3,500 more per student than the state average of that year.

The institute’s report says that one-time federal recovery funding is mostly gone, leaving the RSD system to operate on regular state funding in the future.

“The RSD seems to be making significant cuts in its expenditures,” the report says, “but it is not possible to identify where these cuts are occurring. From 2008-’09 to ’10-’11, expenditures per pupil decreased by 12 percent.”

The report goes on to say that the cost of Vallas’ decision to lengthen the school day was budgeted at $20 million last year, and his decision to lengthen the school year was expected to cost $7 million this school year. With costs increasing and revenue falling, the Cowen Institute questioned whether reforms may be in jeopardy in the future.

In light of the challenges that lay ahead, Phase II of New Orleans’ education recovery may prove tougher than the first, but many observers, such as Miron, believe that White is an excellent choice to tackle future problems. He says White’s youth, experience and knowledge of New York City schools is just the right combination for New Orleans.

“The job facing White is much more challenging than Vallas’,” Miron says. “On the other hand, I’m much more optimistic than I was in the early days of reform.”

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