The struggles and lessons of New Orleans

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Leslie Jacobs

Leslie Jacobs

On March 20, Leslie Jacobs and Shenita Johnson Garrard described how New Orleans is striving to convert a failed, corrupt school system into a decentralized system of schools. With some 60 percent of its public school students enrolled in charter schools, New Orleans has the most school autonomy and competition of any district in the country. Jacobs and Garrard spoke as part of the 2007 Chicago Schools Policy Luncheon Series, “Making School Autonomy Work for Children.” To listen to their full presentations, go to www.catalyst-chicago.org and click on “On the Air.”

Leslie Jacobs

Leslie Jacobs is a member of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. An insurance executive and native of New Orleans, she has been engaged in education reform for more than 20 years. She began as a business partner with an elementary school and then served on the Orleans Parish School Board.

HOW BAD WAS IT?

The valedictorian of one of the local high schools the spring before Katrina hit could not pass the state’s exit exam in math after six attempts. She took the ACT thinking that she would be a good college prospect. She got an 11, which is like random. And when this whole thing hit, there was absolutely no outrage. That is how abandoned in many ways the public schools in New Orleans were.

THE NEW SYSTEM

If you look at mayoral or state takeover of failing urban school districts, if you look at Chicago, New York, Philadelphia or St. Louis, you will see improvement not transformational change. It is change around the edges. We’re trying to do transformational change.

Number one is that we have built the most market-driven system in the United States. Every single school is a school of choice. No child has an attendance zone. Every school must provide transportation to the child if the child lives more than one mile away. Every school is in the state school accountability system. There is competition for employees. Schools set their own salary and benefits structures, work schedules, hours of operation. Service providers are competing for business, and this is pretty important in a devastated landscape like New Orleans.

Probably the most important thing is that the money follows the student. When I was on the [New Orleans] school board, it was an absolute culture shock how much of the student dollar is eaten up by central office. Now, 98 percent of the dollar follows the student to whatever school that student goes to. There are smaller class sizes. There are higher salaries—there is a labor shortage. You have more on-site administration.

NO UNION PROTECTIONS

We are now an employer at will. All charters are. They never were subject to collective bargaining or the tenure law, and the collective bargaining agreement is gone because the state’s Recovery School District was not a party to the New Orleans collective bargaining agreement.

CHARTER ADVANTAGES

We’ve lost respect for any and all governmental institutions because they all keep failing us. The recovery is really on the backs of individuals, and I liken charters to the individuals. So, you can’t get hot lunches? Charters will figure out how to have pizza Fridays, whereas the 25 schools operated by the school district just can’t respond that quickly.

The real advantage the charters have is that they’re able to cap enrollment. They enrolled their 400 students, they hired their teachers, and they got on their merry way. For the schools operated by the Recovery School District, the kids kept coming back, and the schools had to take them. We purposely opened schools throughout the city and began them with small student counts, so as people return they have a neighborhood school. But the effect was that no school could get its rhythm.

And there’s some pushback because people like neighborhood schools, and right now no school can give a preference based upon locale. We’re going to have to figure out how to blend it.

THE CHALLENGES

I could spend hours on this. We are starting from scratch in a devastated area. We’re creating a new national model that has absolutely no blueprint, and we’re doing so with just some unbelievable challenges. One is the students. Many did not attend school [after Katrina]. The emotional trauma these students have gone through is tremendous, and there’s like three child psychiatrists left in New Orleans.

We need to come up with coordinated registration so that there’s one place a parent can go and get information on all schools. You can’t have real choice unless you have informed choice. A group of us have been working with the Urban League to create one-stop shopping for parents and non-profits as well. So if you want to volunteer to tutor, if you want to give money as a business partner, there’s one place to call.

Capacity. More kids came back than we planned. We need more schools. We need more charter schools because charters are in big demand.

We have a divided public. The union was not supportive of this at all, nor were many of the legislators from New Orleans.

Probably the biggest challenge is quality educators. Pre-Katrina, this was a district that really never invested in people. It’s become a critical issue post-Katrina. The kids are returning, and they’re not bringing teachers, principals and social workers with them.

REPLACING CENTRAL OFFICE

We are trying to figure out what support schools need in the absence of a central office. One is purchasing certain services. So the state has created a shared service model that charters can opt in or out of. We’re looking to create new non-profits or expand existing ones to provide services usually handled by a central office. One example is New Schools for New Orleans. They’re really the ones that brought in New Leaders for New Schools, Teach for America and The New Teacher Project. They’re doing charter board recruitment and training, and educational quality audits.

We’ve gone to other institutions, so Xavier University has agreed to become a math and science center for professional development and alternative certification.

WHAT CHICAGO CAN LEARN

I was asked to do this. I don’t mean to be presumptuous here. Funding. What would happen if you went through the mental exercise of giving the money to the school site and then asking, how much should schools pay for what central office provides? And for true choice, you have to have transportation, parent information and what I call managed excessive space. If you’re going to have to have choice, there have to be good schools that can take in dissatisfied parents.

THE SOUL OF THE CITY

We’re fighting for the soul of the city, and not in the way people normally characterize it—rich, poor, black, white. I think that that national characterization, which our mayor helps promote, is not the real battle. Rather, we have a breakdown of the criminal justice system and some drug wars. So people who are back are not going to stay back if we don’t get control of our streets.

But you also have the allure of New Orleans as the domestic Peace Corps. There is a generation of 20-somethings and 30-somethings coming back to the city, bringing intellectual capital we’ve never had before. It’s not just in schooling. It’s in non-profits, housing, advocacy, entrepreneurship. I think that how New Orleans welcomes this generation, embraces them and enables them to get into positions of leadership is going to determine where the city goes.

Shenita Johnson Garrard

As a regional director of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), Shenita Johnson Garrard oversees the state authorization process for New Orleans charters. Previously, she worked for the Chicago Public Schools, where, among other things, she coordinated recruitment, evaluation and community outreach components of Renaissance 2010.

CHARTERS PRE-KATRINA

Prior to the hurricane, the State of Louisiana only had a handful of charters, and there was very little infrastructure to support the state in its role as an authorizer. Charter authorizers are responsible for improving student performance, and to do this they must establish firm standards and expectations, provide oversight and support, and implement fair and transparent processes to measure performance and capacity. In addition to helping lead the process to establish charters, NACSA also supported Louisiana in developing an evaluation framework, a charter school contract, and other charter policies and procedures.

STILL TO BE DONE

Almost two years after the hurricane, Louisiana still has to develop a plan and dedicate a new team to focus on recruiting operators to come to the city and knit together some type of system.

Louisiana is faced with a daunting task: not only to rebuild the city’s infrastructure but to build and sustain the human capital that is necessary to elevate the quality of education in New Orleans.

Well-developed and executed plans in New Orleans and in Chicago depend not only on quality operators but also on visionary leaders.

EVALUATION COMES EARLY

What is unique about Louisiana’s charter accountability system is that while there is a five-year agreement, schools are required to make progress and meet goals by year three. It is in the third year that the State will decide to extend the contract or place the school on probation. Three years is a short period of time, but New Orleans cannot again afford to perpetuate generational failure and, honestly, neither can any other urban city in this country. Decisions to deny or rescind charters are tough and often bring political struggles and complexities. Louisiana has already faced these types of challenges and is prepared to continue making the tough calls that truly set the tone for high expectations and that will make a difference over the long term.