Academic journal article High School Journal

What's Next for New Orleans?

Academic journal article High School Journal

What's Next for New Orleans?

Article excerpt

The author, who lived and worked as a charter school consultant in post-Katrina New Orleans for 6 months, describes the evolution of charter schools as the predominant means of education and the challenges that chartering faces as a reform, raising issues of access and equity as central concerns. The article concludes by offering some solutions to the immense obstacles to developing an equitable and high achieving system of schools in the wake of Katrina.

Standing at the wrong end of a glistening handgun that dwarfed the pubescent hand holding it, and pondering the instigation of a "teaching moment", I more wisely handed over the $300 cash to the two teens who should have been studying chemistry or algebra. A strong arm robbery and aborted carjacking (probably because the kids were too young and didn't know how to drive) punctuated my time in New Orleans, a city on its knees, and a system of schools arising from the accumulated sludge of cronyism, corruption, racism, incompetence, and shared low expectations for many students.

Pre-Katrina the New Orleans Public Schools were among the worst in the nation. They improved in 2006, ranking second-to-last among the sometimes dirt-poor parishes of Louisiana, no enlightened wonderland of student achievement. Dozens of felony fraud convictions for school district employees leading to an FBI office within the District, a valedictorian who could not pass the high school exit exam and scored an 11 (less than random) on the ACT, as well as teachers who had given up on teaching, students who had forsaken learning, and schools that had been transformed into leaky holding tanks for a largely Black and poor student population, that was the majority experience for NOPS. There were islands of excellence, but even those found themselves submerged by Katrina.

Post-Katrina, New Orleans is faced with a brave, and arguably, new world of schooling. The financially and educationally bankrupt, Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), was stripped of authority over all the schools that were below the state average on standardized tests (102 of 128 schools, added to the 5 previously taken). By legislation, these schools were placed under authority of the State-run Recovery School District (RSD). The RSD then solicited proposals for charters to run the taken-over schools. These were evaluated by a highly reputable independent third-party. The RSD, not receiving enough high quality charter proposals, reluctantly offered to open some schools as traditional public schools and opened others as charters.

Of those high performing schools that remained in OPSB, several, frustrated with the OPSB in general and particularly the slow pace of reopening, converted to charter status. Other existing charter schools mustered the fortitude to open by force of shear will and community commitment. It is important to note, that these existing OPSB schools that converted post-Katrina were among the best schools in Orleans Parish, as they had evaded the takeover law. In the wake of Katrina, almost everything has changed. As school opens for the fall, by my count, there will be 11 OPSB overseen charters, 50PSB traditional schools, 18 RSD traditional schools, 19 RSD charters and 2 charters overseen by the State Board of Education (BESE).

The vast majority of New Orleans' public schools will be charter schools. The RSD is the major player in school oversight, and OPSB while retaining significant authority over a small set of schools has seen its responsibilities slashed. Furthermore, for both the RSD and OPSB traditional district functions are receding and the role of charter authorizer is ascending. Children and families have greater needs, employees are emotionally stretched thin as they try to piece their personal lives back together, and the traditional school support structures provided by a district (no matter how dysfunctionally) have largely dissipated. Meanwhile Districts are forced to take on new and unfamiliar roles. …

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