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New Ideas for NOLA

Students socialize at the McDonogh 15 School for the Creative Arts, a privately operated charter school in New Orleans.
Students socialize at the McDonogh 15 School for the Creative Arts, a privately operated charter school in New Orleans.

Big Easy schools still have big problems. Lawmakers and educators are trying desperately to improve the system, and to do so, they are experimenting with many of the same ideas and approaches that could soon be working in other school districts throughout the nation.

To be sure, the 65,000-student New Orleans school system has long been one of the most troubled, low-performing in the nation, and has never experienced the type of resurgence that some systems, such as Chicago and New York City, have undergone. Since Hurricane Katrina, school reform ideas are front and center. As of the fall of 2005, New Orleans was given a clean slate and a chance to try out some of the most popular school improvement ideas in the nation. Whether or not the change has been for the better remains to be seen, but it has been immense.

Consider charter schools. Before Katrina, there were seven. Now the 31 charters educate an estimated 56 percent of the roughly 28,00 students in the district—the highest percentage in the nation.

State participation has also been transformed. Once limiting its involvement to just the most extreme situations, the state now controls all but five schools, which are the only schools still managed by an elected school board. As a result, the traditional school structure has diminished. Neighborhood schools have been replaced by a citywide system
of choice.

But lawmakers and educators are learning that reinventing the education system is even more of a challenge than they had imagined. Part of the challenge is academic. Many students lost all or part of a school year during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or had their re-entry into the school system delayed by lack of space during this past year.

The problems are also logistical and systemic. The lack of classroom space and qualified teachers has been a huge obstacle, creating waiting lists of more than 300 students at some schools and class sizes of more than 30. As in the rest of the city, violence has spiked in the school system, forcing one school to bring in 20 security guards and three police officers for security. The superintendent of the Recovery School District (RSD), which is charged with enrolling new students and running 20 campuses, has also just resigned.

The list of problems goes on: Veteran teachers who lost their collective bargaining rights and were required to re-apply for their jobs have been slow to return to the city and charges of favoritism in the treatment of different communities and schools undercut confidence in the new system.

Test scores from the first full year under the new system will come out this summer, and the pressure is on to see if the new ideas and approaches are enough to counterbalance all that is lacking.

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