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After Katrina, New Orleans Schools Find Success

As the rest of the country watches, this formerly ravaged city is creating a new educational model that breaks rules, embraces choice and charters, and may serve students better.

If you were to study the top education issues in the country, from turning around failing urban schools to the charter school debate to teacher recruitment, you could collect information from coast to coast, as Race to the Top is trying to accomplish. Or, you could just stop by New Orleans, where all these issues and more have been playing out ever since the first person uttered "post-Katrina."

So when sitting across the table from Sarah Newell Usdin, the former director of Teach For America in Louisiana and founder and CEO of charter-friendly New Schools for New Orleans, I asked her point-blank: Don't you have all this figured out already?

Nodding her head vigorously before the question is even fully formed, she says, "We got that licked. Next question." It's a joke, of course, but during a series of interviews with Usdin, New Leaders for New Schools CEO Jon Schnur, FirstLine Schools CEO Jay Altman, and others, as well as a visit to Samuel J. Green Charter School, it slowly becomes clear that if Usdin and New Orleans don't have the answer, they are getting closer—and learning some valuable lessons in the pursuit.

While the questions can be easily formed—What progress are New Orleans schools showing? Can they sustain these gains? And most important, can this model work everywhere else?—answers are more hazy. But five years into the largest urban school turnaround attempt, the answers are edging toward clarity.

The Magic Formula?
So what's the formula, what's the takeaway that can help schools across the country, not only in urban areas, but in suburban towns and rural outposts? Well, this is how it boils down: There is no formula. Consider each school individually and do what works for those students, for that neighborhood, for those teachers and that administration.

But I'm getting ahead of the story, because the reform actually does start with a formula, of sorts. The first stage toward recovery for failing schools in New Orleans covered these steps: Admit schools are failing and the status quo is unacceptable; demand that all students achieve at a high level; and have every stakeholder in the school—the principal, teachers, parents, students—accountable for its success, with data backing up every hunch, idea, and change. The last tenet, agreed to by everyone I interviewed, was best put by Usdin in a statement as firm as her handshake: "Human capital matters a ton. We can't underestimate how important it is."

To understand the progress made in New Orleans, we have to remember how bleak the circumstances were. In 2003, the dropout rate hovered around 70 percent by one count, 64 percent of public schools were deemed "academically unacceptable" (compared to just 8 percent for the rest of the state), and buildings were crumbling. Gross mismanagement (missing resources, deceased people on payroll) led to the state starting to take control of a handful of the city's schools, folding the management of these schools into its existing Louisiana Recovery School District. Then a week after school started in 2005, Katrina came.

Five of the city's roughly 105 schools were in the recovery district before Katrina, and nine were separately run charters. Today, the recovery district, led by Superintendent Paul Vallas, has 70 schools, with 47 of those charters. The city's Orleans Parish School Board now runs just four regular public schools and oversees 12 charter schools.

Similarities and Differences
The basic rules that have applied to turnaround schools throughout the country apply in New Orleans as well. No one expects overnight success; each school is given at least five years to implement new leadership and curricula and improve student learning. That said, FirstLine CEO Altman says student test scores should increase along the way. FirstLine runs three K-8 charters, Green Charter School, Arthur Ashe Charter School, and John Dibert Community School. It will open two new charters by 2011. Altman says the bar was so low at Green, steady improvement could be measured right away, even though the students' achievements remain far from his goals.

While the city shares some similarities for reform with schools nationwide, there are many more differences between New Orleans schools and those elsewhere in the country. Not only do charters dominate the education landscape, but nearly every attendance zone has been eliminated, making school choice almost universal. None of the schools, from charters to regular public schools, are bound by a collective bargaining agreement.

The charters are run by a wide variety of operators, from FirstLine to the Knowledge Is Power Program (seven schools) to the Capital One-University of New Orleans Charter School Network (four schools). The schools have also folded in 470 Teach For America teachers and 24 principals from New Leaders for New Schools. Despite an emphasis on K-8 schools, charters not ready to run the upper grades were given the elementary grades and allowed to grow into the rest.

Behind all of the experiments is Superintendent Vallas, the charismatic school leader who previously ran both the Chicago and Philadelphia systems. "When so many other people would have run from the challenge of New Orleans, Paul gravitated to it," Usdin says, adding that transforming schools is his specialty.

Competition and Choice
After Katrina, the freedom to create charter schools from scratch, and the desperate need for functioning schools, attracted many reformers. Potential school operators were able to create proposals, go through a rigorous evaluation system, and, if approved, carry their plan out fairly rapidly.

"Katrina inspired a sense of urgency," says Jon Schnur, the New Leaders for New Schools CEO. Schnur even moved to New Orleans after New Schools opened a chapter there.

The lack of rules allow "for a level of innovation among educators that is really inspiring," says Usdin. "They're held accountable. Their destiny is in their own hands." Speaking of the rapid rise of charters and her role in the process, Usdin says, "I often get pegged as ‘She's that charter girl.' [But ] I couldn't care less what kind of school it is." What she does care about are autonomy and accountability. "Own the results," she says, in her no-nonsense style.

Altman says the main driver of the city's education turnaround is the accountability system built into each school. "If you're not above a certain level, someone else will run the school," he says simply.

The phenomenon is so unusual that Tyra Newell, executive director of the New Orleans branch of New Leaders for New Schools, even coined a word for it: co-opetition. "It's a mix of cooperation and competition," she says. She means that while all the various charters are willing to share ideas and information freely, each wants its students to outperform those in every other school.

Because most charters report to a board, the city has many more people involved in education than before 2005. "There's more opportunity to have significant influence than before," Altman says. Yet "some folks think parents aren't involved enough, due to the decentralized nature of the system."

Newell, who grew up in the city and returned after the flood, admits, "People are very cognizant of the mix of insider and outsider. There's a tension that exists. It's a delicate balance.... Not every parent in every school is happy."

Part of the problem is the new demands the schools place on parents and guardians. It isn't easy getting parents involved in the system, or to choose a school from the myriad number of charters. As Angela Watson Daliet, founder of Save Our Schools NOLA, points out, "What New Orleanians have done for generations is not educate our children." So asking parents whom the system failed when they were students to suddenly have faith in the schools is a mindset change not easily accomplished. And that, she points out, is for children who come from a stable home with at least one parent. Grandparents or older siblings are raising many children. "The absent parents are a direct reflection of our public school system. We have to stop that cycle."

"This is a newfound right," Usdin adds. People have to learn "how to advocate for themselves. We help parents evaluate schools. We don't have that figured out by any means."

National Blueprint
Although the leaders I spoke with are focused on improving the schools they work with, each transitioned easily to thinking about whether the model being formed here can help other schools throughout the country. Usdin says the question gets asked often. The setup of these turnarounds, where leaders can pick and manage and hold the team accountable is a "lesson transferable to anywhere," she adds.

Schnur answers by thinking back to the formula/no formula debate. "No formula? That sounds exactly right. There are some principles in place, but within those, no one size fits all," he says. To work elsewhere, "it won't be an exact replication, but that's part of the point here. This is critical for education reform in the country. There's a sense of urgency because it's an important example of what kind of progress is possible." He adds, "In the next few years, New Orleans will continue to be a test for our nation. A test for leadership. It has the potential to be one of a number of models for whole cities."

With the fifth anniversary of the flood in August, there has been renewed national focus on New Orleans's schools and its students' progress. The school system has slowly ramped up the number of students served. In 2005, just before Katrina, it had 65,000 students; the next year it was down to 25,600. Enrollment now has climbed to 38,000. The demographics are still daunting: 95 percent of students are minorities and 83 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Last year, 61 percent went to charter schools (a number that will increase this school year), by far the largest percentage of children in an urban area attending charters in the country.

The most important numbers have measured the students' progress. In 2002, only 31 percent of fourth graders were deemed at or above basic in English/language arts on the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program. By 2009, the number had swelled to 59 percent. Eighth graders have more than doubled the percentage at or above basic in the same time frame, in both English and math.

By another measure, students are big winners. In the fall of 2004, two of every three public school children attended a school that was rated unsatisfactory. By the fall of 2009, that number had dropped to only one in three children.

SOSNOLA's Daliet lets a little air out of the balloon when she observes bluntly: "The poorest kids with the least education are going to the worst-performing schools with the worst teachers." The nonprofit she started aims to improve the city's schools, but also help inform residents about the opportunities for their children.

The Challenges Ahead
Looking back at the progress made, it's easy to be impressed. Looking forward at the potential roadblocks that still exist, from funding questions to waning national attention to continuing challenges in academic gains, it's easy to believe the next five years may be harder than the previous five.

"They absolutely will," says Daliet. She cites everything from the possible turnover of strong leaders such as Vallas to the city's figuring out how to avoid the duplication of services and high busing costs it now faces.

Newell is more optimistic, but acknowledges the work to be accomplished. "We can see signs of progress, evidence that we're on the right track," she says. "On a scale of 0 to 100, we were at 10 or 20. Now we're at 40. No one's lost sight of the ultimate goal. Outperforming our state and our counterparts is not our final goal."

After extending the school day to 8.5 hours in 2008, Vallas hopes to spur more learning by extending the school year five weeks for the 23 recovery district schools. "With the longer school year, I'm guaranteeing another year of healthy increases in test scores," he told The Times-Picayune. (The city's charters set their own times and calendars.)

"Let's be very clear: There's a long way to go," Usdin says in agreement. "We eliminated two thirds of academically unacceptable schools. [But] there are three quarters of kids not going to college; we used to accept that," she adds. "There's a real hope in the city for education. An expectation that it is attainable for all. If we don't succeed, there's no one to blame but ourselves. No stealing resources, no dead people on payroll."


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