Working Hard in the Big Easy: Five Years Post-Katrina, Paul Vallas Continues to Rebuild the New Orleans Recovery School District

By Mellon, Ericka | District Administration, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Working Hard in the Big Easy: Five Years Post-Katrina, Paul Vallas Continues to Rebuild the New Orleans Recovery School District


Mellon, Ericka, District Administration


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IN THE SPRING OF 2007, SEN. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana made the first call. Gov. Kathleen Blanco made the next call. And Louisiana's state superintendent of schools, Paul Pastorek, made the final pitch. The trio wanted to know if Paul Vallas, the renowned CEO of the School District of Philadelphia, would make a move to New Orleans to oversee the most troubled campuses in the state and arguably in the nation.

Hurricane Katrina had ravaged Louisiana, and the low-lying Crescent City in particular, two years earlier. The school district, the state's lowest-performing, still was in shambles, with not enough buildings or teachers or any clear plan to boost student achievement. Vallas, it turned out, didn't need the hard sell.

"My initial response was that I was very interested in coming and helping," says Vallas, who felt compelled to assist almost immediately after the hurricane hit the morning of Aug. 29, 2005. He visited New Orleans a couple of times, consulting pro bono with state officials, before Pastorek officially named him superintendent of the Recovery School District of Louisiana in May 2007, after acting superintendent Robin Jarvis resigned after one year. The district is administered by the Louisiana Department of Education and designed to take underperforming schools and transform them.

The fast-moving, never-vacationing Vallas has built his educational career on accepting and, in large part, conquering challenges. When the calls came from New Orleans, Vallas was approaching the final months of a five-year contract in Philadelphia, where support for him was strong but slipping in some quarters. The New Orleans job was like a calling, and he took it without question for about $300,000, nearly $185,000 less than Philadelphia had offered him to stay.

This summer marks both the fifth anniversary of Katrina and also the third of Vallas' tenure in New Orleans. The state of Louisiana, of course, was dealt another blow this past spring with the BP oil disaster. In early July, tar balls started to seep into Lake Pontchartrain, which is adjacent to New Orleans and its suburbs. The lake is crucial to the areas environment, economy and culture, serving as "a recreational hub, a fishing grounds and a haven for sea life," according to The Wall Street Journal. But the leaked oil is not expected to adversely affect the schools or its students, RSD officials say.

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Before Katrina, the public schools in New Orleans regularly were criticized as among the worst in the nation. Today, Vallos is leading a turnaround. Scores on the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program have increased each year under his watch, with the percentage of students performing "basic" or above across all grades and subjects jumping 20 points over three years--the largest increase in the state.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan drew criticism in January when he called Katrina "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans." In a recent phone interview, Duncan explained that the steady improvement under Vallas' leadership shows that "from tragedy can come something of extraordinary hope."

"To see the progress the education system has made in a couple of short years is absolutely inspiring," Duncan continued. "That was a school system that was really struggling, and many children weren't being served well. To see the energy and sense of optimism is just a remarkable accomplishment."

From Loner to Leader

As a child, Vallas struggled in school. A main reason, he says, was his bad eyes. He couldn't see what his teachers were writing on the chalkboard. On top of that, he stuttered until age 22. "It made me a bit of a loner and an introvert," recalls Vallas, now famously long-winded.

The son of first-generation Greek immigrants, Vallas grew up on the South Side of Chicago and learned early the value of hard work. …

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