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New Orleans Public Schools: Still Under Water? | The Nation

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New Orleans Public Schools: Still Under Water?

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This article was originally published at Wiretap magazine.

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David Parker Jr.

May 20, 2009

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches, the New Orleans public school system was devastated. A major U.S. city vanished beneath oil-slick waters, and nearly the entire population was carted away in buses, trucks, helicopters, cars, trains and whatever else could roll toward Houston, Atlanta or Little Rock. By the time the city reemerged, the State of Louisiana and its governing educational committees had vanquished the New Orleans Public School (NOPS) education system, fired all teachers and staff, and reorganized around the idea of charter schools.

But when the time came to open the doors, it quickly became apparent that there were not enough charter schools to accommodate all the students who were returning to the city. The state developed Plan B--creating a Recovery School District (RSD) to run alongside the charter schools. Taking control of 107 public schools that had already been deemed "failing" before Katrina, the state hustled to get campuses open as fast as students arrived.

Needless to say, it was a clumsy effort at first, plagued by mismanagements and difficulties. New Orleans City Councilmember Cynthia Morrell, who is chair of the Education Committee, recalls, "The state didn't know what to do. They didn't know the neighborhoods. They brought people from up in North Louisiana to try and rebuild the inner city of New Orleans."

Flash forward. Nearly four years after the storm, the landscape continues to change, a constant push and pull of public versus charter, and state-run versus locally run school organizations. Like gremlins, the types of schools multiply at alarming rates. There are public charter schools. There are traditional public schools. There are RSD schools. There are RSD charter schools. The categories often overlap. Loose confederations of charter schools form, such as the Algiers Charter Schools Association.

Some charter schools fall under the umbrella of university and corporate sponsorship, and begin to sound like professional football stadiums. The Capital One-University of New Orleans Charter Network, for example, includes six schools and is designed to channel children smoothly from kindergarten all the way to university. Many charter schools, which have historically trended toward selective admission, operate on open admission policies. Meanwhile, public schools, which have typically been open admission schools, have trended toward selective criteria, becoming magnet schools or specializing in arts or math and science.

This hastily stitched together educational patchwork makes it difficult to compare and contrast or to draw conclusions about the state of public education in New Orleans and how it is serving its students. In many cases, the student bodies in each school still shift fairly dramatically from year to year. Kennard Davis, a fifteen-year-old sophomore at Lusher Charter High School says, "You used to know what a school stood for. Some schools stood for sports. Some stood for academics. Now it changes every year."

And this, proponents say, is exactly why charter schools will excel in New Orleans. Dr. Vera Triplett is the chief operations officer for the Capital One-University of New Orleans Charter Network, and she sees charter schools as more nimble and effective organizations than their NOPS-run counterparts. "The principal and administration make policy decisions on-site," she says. "The only question they have to ask themselves is 'What's best for my students?' They don't have to worry about system-wide curriculum or policy that doesn't work for them."

Triplett actually sees this as a stabilizing year. "People got to see what they're actually dealing with this year," she says. "There was more consistency in schools, with both the students and the staff."

Robert White agrees. A math and science teacher at Edna Karr Charter High School, White experienced firsthand the transition from traditional public to charter school. "The culture changed completely," he says. "Nobody anticipated how serious it would be, but it's been a couple of years, and people are getting used to it."

White sees the move to charter as a positive step for his school and his students. "I have a lot more resources now," he says. "I have a laptop for every student. I have an ELMO (an electronic digital projector). The school just bought graphics calculators for all my students." He believes the increased resources help the school deliver a higher quality education, not to mention helping him as a professional. He's able to attend two or more conferences and trainings each year.

Improvement Indicators

Many of the indicators do seem to be hopeful. Students have more choices on where to attend, and test scores across the board in Orleans Parish have increased. State standardized tests and other indicators, such as attendance, determine a school's district performance score (DPS). If schools in Orleans Parish were still considered one district, their performance score last year would have been 66.4, which is 10 points higher than it was pre-Katrina. That's a significant improvement considering the circumstances. Administrators and school officials trot this number out regularly, showing it off to critics and the media. "We feel schools are improving, and the test scores are backing this up," says Siona LaFrance, communications director of the Recovery School District. She's optimistic that the education system is heading in the right direction.

Here's the rub: When you break that magic number down, 66.4, it reveals some startling disparities. It is an average, and what it cannot tell you at a glance is how wide the performance gap is between the highest scoring schools and the lowest. A closer look reveals that some schools are pulling ahead, and some are not. The carefully selected NOPS schools, for example, are scoring around 96, while the RSD schools are scoring barely above 50.

A report conducted by the Scott S. Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University examines the numbers. Using extensive follow-up research and polling, they find something none too surprising: Poverty equals lower test scores. The report states, "While all public schools in New Orleans serve significant populations of low-income students, RSD schools serve higher proportions of low-income students than Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) schools.... For these reasons it is not particularly useful or valid to compare OPSB and RSD school performance scores."

And here is where the new educations system faces its fiercest critics. As City Councilmember Morrell explains, "I've been clear about my concern from the beginning. I'm not opposed to charter schools, but right after a trauma like Katrina is not the best time to experiment."

Morrell feels it was a mistake to inflict wholesale change on a population of people that was already stunned and returning home to sift through what was left of their lives. "Just think about returning home," Morrell says, "and all of a sudden your neighborhood school is closed, or it's become a charter and it's full."

Neighborhood schools, in many cases, were like homes away from home and an integral part of the social fabric. Many students who could not or would not navigate the new system of school selection found themselves attending intake schools where they were temporarily served while officials evaluated their grade level performances and then placed them in available schools--usually in the RSD. As Siona LaFrance of the RSD points out, "More than 80 percent of students were below their grade level--some two, three, or more years below grade level."

Many students, while they were evacuated from the city, had missed months and even years of school. Many have returned to New Orleans without their parents who are settled in places like Houston, Atlanta or Little Rock. Many students are living well below the poverty level and many are suffering from mild to severe posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The RSD schools had their hands full. They scored low on test results and high on behavioral problems. New teachers abandoned their jobs, sometimes in a matter of days. Students ebbed and flowed all through the year causing disruption to class cohesiveness. As Kennard Davis from Lusher High explains, "Before Katrina there were money problems, but New Orleans was fun. Now there's depression. And the crime comes from children."

Addressing the Disparity

The RSD appears to be responding as aggressively as possible with its limited resources. Initial missteps and misspending appear to be giving way to improvements. School facilities have improved, and teacher positions have been filled. They have introduced gifted and accelerated programs and extended the school day. Additionally, they offer the only alternative education program in Orleans Parish, which puts a strain on already tight budgets. The early results hold some promise. "Our state test scores last year showed across the board improvements," LaFrance says.

Meanwhile ex-RSD officials have recently revealed a plan to create a nonprofit group that will "pluck off" weaker schools and turn them around through careful and sustained support and oversight. All schools absorbed by the nonprofit would be converted to charter schools (if they weren't charter schools already), continuing the national trend toward more involvement by outside organizations in the management of what has historically been a local governance issue. Instead of school boards making policy and offering guidance, nonprofits and private groups are moving into position to control schools.

Outside organizations such as Save Our Schools and the Greater New Orleans Education Foundation continually advocate on behalf of students and families to press for increased access to quality public education for every student in New Orleans. Their efforts continue to raise awareness and increase levels of engagement.

There is still a long way to go until that dream of equal access is fulfilled.

But at a classroom in Lusher Charter High School, Kennard Davis and Thomas Pritchett are working on their homework after hours. They come from very different backgrounds, but they find themselves together at a school that offers one of the best public educations in the city. Kennard is easy-going and quick-witted. He grew up attending public schools, and is now an athlete as well as a candidate for student council president. Thomas comes from a background of private schools and is a self-described "tech nerd" with his eye on MIT for college. Is it possible that one day the New Orleans education system will offer every student the same opportunity to sit in a classroom like this, in a top-performing school?

"It's kind of like a track meet," Kennard says. "The schools are just coming off the blocks. Who knows? When they find their stride--then they can work on their pace."

David Parker Jr. lives in New Orleans and is a recent graduate of the University of New Orleans MFA program in creative writing. Despite his better judgment he continues to pursue a writing life from his apartment in Midcity.

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