Education

Charter Changeover

After Katrina wiped out one of the worst school systems in the country, New Orleans has seized the chance to redesign its whole approach to public education.
by | September 2006

Doris Hicks is understandably frustrated. It's late July, and her new charter school in New Orleans' Ninth Ward is supposed to open in less than a month. The building it's slated to occupy, however, is in terrible shape. To make matters worse, the contractor who was scheduled to start fixing it up a month ago hasn't even begun.

So tomorrow, when a donor from New York City arrives with the entire contents of a school library--shelves included--there will be nowhere to put it all other than a storage container Hicks has scrambled to arrange. It's hardly the photo op she'd been hoping for.

What's more, she's still wondering what will fill her school once it does open, whenever that turns out to be. She hasn't seen any of the computer labs and other supplies she was promised to replace equipment lost to flooding at the school where she was once the principal. "But you can bet I'm going to get what I'm supposed to get," she says, resolutely. Then she sighs, "Oh well, I guess that's Katrina."

Yes, it is. But Hurricane Katrina is also why the public elementary school she once ran is being reborn as the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science & Technology. In the wake of the storm, Hicks and her staff put together a board of community members, parents and teachers, and chartered their own school. They had worked hard for years to become one of the few bright lights in an impoverished area, chafing all the time at the strictures placed on them by the old public school system--the directives on books and curriculum, the bureaucracy that stood in the way of getting supplies, the hoops to be negotiated when it came to hiring and firing teachers. Now, free to set up the school she wants to run, Hicks oscillates between exasperation at the hurdles and giddiness at her opportunity. "It is all tremendously exciting," she says. "The possibilities are endless."

It seems almost insensitive, in a city where miles of ghostly neighborhoods remain hunched in desolation, to talk about the exciting prospects offered up by calamity. Yet in their own guarded way, that is precisely what a lot of New Orleans residents are doing. Katrina and the flooding that followed did not just destroy some 80 percent of the city; the disaster also wiped away one of the worst public school systems in the country. Now, as the city tries to piece itself together, a lot of people--families who have ventured home, teachers and administrators who worked in the old system, state school officials in Baton Rouge, and wary residents longing to return from Houston or Atlanta--are placing great hope in the effort to start afresh. "We have the most extraordinary opportunity ever in the modern history of dealing with public education," says Paul Pastorek, a New Orleans lawyer and former chair of the state board of education. "We have a clean slate."

The system that is emerging is unlike any other in the country. For one thing, school governance is split: The Recovery School District, which is run by the Louisiana Department of Education, will directly run or charter the vast majority of New Orleans schools; the Orleans Parish School Board remains responsible for a handful of schools run directly by its administrators, has chartered others and still carries the burden of resolving the debts and liabilities it incurred pre- Katrina. More notably, however, New Orleans will be the first city in the United States whose schools are predominantly chartered--public schools that are answerable to the state or to what remains of the Orleans Parish district for their performance but otherwise pretty much on their own when it comes to organizing and running themselves.

This has made the rebuilding of New Orleans' schools a matter of devout interest not only to people who live there but also to the school reform movement nationwide. "For years," says Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, "we've talked about what a charter-dominant city might look like. New Orleans is a perfect test case of whether this thing can work at scale."

Yet it is one of the many ironies spawned by Katrina that the storm that handed New Orleans this opportunity has also made it exceedingly difficult to seize. For it's not truly a clean start; it's a tricky, improvisational bid to get past the legacy of what came before in a city that remains at best half-stitched together. "It is," says Leslie Jacobs, a state board of education member and an architect of the new system, "a Herculean task, and we're doing it in a state of the unknown. Will the water system hold? Will the streets ever be repaired? Will a hurricane hit us again? How many students are going to show up? Where will teachers live?" And yet, she adds, "I don't think we could have a better environment to impact kids. The system is receptive to change in a way it's never been before."

A TOXIC CULTURE

These days, you'll find the headquarters of the Orleans Parish schools housed in a former elementary school in Uptown, one of the few stretches of the city that emerged from Katrina mostly intact. The building's worn wooden floors, the piles of textbooks in the hallways, the murals on the walls--all speak eloquently of the children who are not there. So do the former classrooms in which school district employees now work, which look much as they did when school opened in August 2005, just before the storm. Peek into the room where the Human Resources Department staff sits and you'll see, still prominently displayed on the blackboard, the class rules: Be Kind. Respect People and Property. Do Your BEST Work Always.

Perhaps school officials should have moved into that building long ago, for it is impossible to overstate just how wretchedly the system they ran violated the rules 10-year-olds were expected to follow. The statistics are bad enough. In 2004-05, for instance, almost two-thirds of the schools in the New Orleans public school system were found to be academically unacceptable, compared with 8 percent statewide. Across the age spectrum, from fourth grade to the end of high school, the percentage of New Orleans students able to meet basic standards in math and English lagged the rest of the state by 20 or 30 points. In at least three-quarters of the city's public elementary schools, more than half the students were unable to meet minimum proficiency standards in math and English.

Then there are the anecdotes: The high-school valedictorian who had to take the math exit exam seven times before she could graduate. The smelly, decrepit buildings--students, teachers and administrators at one high school spent 10 years selling candy bars to raise enough money to put in air conditioning--and bathrooms littered with bloody rags. The students made to kneel on rice as a form of punishment in schools "so hidden and forgotten," as one teacher puts it, "that these things could happen."

Yet the system seemed impervious to change. In part, it was beset by rapid turnover among superintendents, 10 in a decade. But its real problems lay deeper, in an immovable bureaucracy that was such a morass of incompetence, indifference and outright corruption that it didn't really matter who sat at the top. "It was a toxic culture," says Brian Riedlinger, a longtime teacher and principal in the New Orleans schools who now runs a group of charter schools in the Algiers section of the city.

In the months before Katrina hit, after the state forced the Orleans Parish School Board to bring in a New York-based corporate turnaround firm, Alvarez & Marsal, to set its books in order, it became clear that school district headquarters was probably beyond repair. The Alvarez team, headed by former Brooks Brothers CEO William Roberti, who had led a similar turnaround effort with the St. Louis public schools, was stunned at what it found. "It was far and away the worst- run, financially and operationally, entity I've ever seen," he says.

In addition to the school system being $270 million in debt, there was no functional system for accounting for checks; payroll disbursements were coded haphazardly to different accounts; people who hadn't worked for years were still on the payroll, including one man who was on paid leave for 20 years yet kept getting salary increases. "The system was so broken," says Carrie Stewart, an Alvarez & Marsal employee, "that at the time you couldn't help but say, 'We need to start from scratch.'"

FREEDOM TO BE FLEXIBLE

It's not hard, then, to understand why school reformers in New Orleans and Baton Rouge might have looked at Katrina as an opportunity. The question was what to do about it.

In part, what has emerged is the result of simple happenstance. Although Katrina's devastation was mind-bogglingly vast, it was not total; in particular, the section of New Orleans known as Algiers, which sits across the Mississippi River from most of the city, suffered wind damage but no flooding. So it was one of the first areas to be resettled after families were allowed to return in November.

The problem was there were no schools for their kids. The public school system had shut down and laid off its entire force of teachers. So Lourdes Moran, the school board member for Algiers, set out to find a way for schools to operate on their own--a search that eventually led her to the idea of setting up charters, especially after new federal funding became available for charters in the South and a meeting with the teachers' union in Baton Rouge convinced her that its leadership was blind to the city's desperation. "There was a litany of things the union wanted us to hold to, as if we were still operating 126 schools," she says. Moran became one of the driving forces behind the new Algiers Charter School Association--which, with Alvarez & Marsal's help, in 40 days put together what amounted to a new district of six schools, and, with a like-minded majority on the school board, made it possible for other schools that had been in the New Orleans system to set up as charters.

The truth was, the school district couldn't have operated 126 schools even if it had wanted to, because in November the state had taken over 107 of those schools. Having tried over the years to work with the district to improve student performance--and having taken over a handful of the worst-performing schools in 2004--it had finally run out of patience. "You don't do something like that lightly," says Robin Jarvis, who ran the statewide school accountability system and is now the superintendent for the Recovery School District. "But we needed to do something, and there was a consensus we could use this opportunity to improve the education system. Also, we were getting calls from families in Houston or Atlanta saying, 'The school system here is great, what can you offer me to know that when we come back, we'll find schools like this?'"

Unwilling to force a lawsuit by stripping the duly elected Orleans Parish School Board of all its responsibilities, however, the legislation giving the schools to the state education department specified that they be schools performing below the state average, which left the Orleans board with 19 schools. The measure also gave the state's Recovery School District freedom from the Orleans board's legal obligations--including union contracts. This step would have been unthinkable before the storm, but as Pastorek says, "There was a true sense of frustration about what the city was, its limitations pre-Katrina. And there were many people who got involved in the politics post-Katrina who had not been energized or hopeful enough before, so it was an environment that said, 'What can we do differently?'"

By the time the school year ended in June, there were 25 schools operating in New Orleans: some of them, like the Algiers schools, run by local organizations; some run by national charter operators; some independently run; five were overseen by the Orleans Parish board; and four--after it became clear there weren't going to be enough charters to meet student demand--were in the hands of the state-run Recovery School District.

RESPONSIBILITY AND RELATIONSHIPS

The "system" that is emerging in New Orleans is essentially a market basket of schools among which parents are, for the most part, free to choose. The state money that funds public education in Louisiana will follow each student--so at some point in the future, when the immediate needs are less pressing, the charters, Orleans Parish schools and Recovery District schools will be competing with one another.

"It's a pretty controversial approach," says Jim Peyser, of the New Schools Venture Fund, which is based in Boston and San Francisco. "But the usual opponents are in disarray as much as everyone else is. So depending on how well the schools do in this first couple of years, the opposition might never coalesce. Whereas if the schools struggle, there's an opportunity for stronger opposition to develop."

The stakes, then, are high. Sarah Usdin, who runs the nonprofit New Schools for New Orleans, which was put together earlier this year to help charters recruit teachers and navigate the challenges of getting a school up and running, argues that the new structure imposes a tough burden on everyone involved. "So often in public education, you're pointing the finger at someone else," she says. "But if we want the schools to be responsible, they have to be responsible, and we have to help them. We have an opportunity here to be sure that every school offers every kid an excellent education, and if we don't do that, we can't blame anyone else."

Out in the schools, there is a keen awareness of this. "You become responsible for developing the opportunity, and I'll tell you, it doesn't come in a can or a box," says Tony Recasner, who ran the highly regarded Charter Middle School before Katrina and was given the charter to run a failing elementary school after the storm; the two schools began operating together as the S.J. Green Charter School in January.

Green is a fine example of what is possible in a decentralized system. Its student population is 99 percent African-American and overwhelmingly poor. "We realized that a six- or seven-period day for kids two or three grade levels behind added to levels of failure," Recasner says. "They had to manage too many relationships and responsibilities." So the school shifted to two-week segments in which students would study a single subject for three-and-a-half hours per day. This in turn led it to develop a rich collection of electives-- from gardening to bicycle repair--to fill the afternoons, and to start paying teachers for spending five weeks during the summer developing their courses. "It's made a remarkable difference in the quality of relationships between kids, their level of performance and their overall achievement," says Recasner.

The schools in Algiers have opted for a different approach. Like most of the schools in the system, they are not selective. The state, however, is putting intense pressure on the charters to show measurable improvement in student test scores within three years--or their charters will be revoked. So each of the schools run by the Algiers Charter School Association has two master teachers whose job is to coach and oversee the rest of the teaching staff. "There are two ways to improve school performance," says Brian Riedlinger. "One is you sort the kids, and the other is you build the capacity of adults. And if you build teachers' capacity, it's a long-term investment, and they can teach to anyone."

GROWING PAINS

Despite the undeniable excitement within the schools themselves, immense challenges stand in the way of realizing the new system's potential. The RSD, for instance, hired the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to oversee the applications process for charter operators; with a clear mandate for academic excellence, NACSA ran a very tight review, and by summer only eight of 44 applicants had been approved. This was not enough charters to meet the anticipated demand--state demographers suggest that as many as 34,000 students could be back by fall--so the RSD had no choice but to begin setting up its own schools. To that end, late in the game, it set out to hire 500 teachers. Initially, it was relying on New Schools for New Orleans to run that process, but that organization also set high standards, so by July the Recovery District had been forced to fall back on a less stringent but faster-moving teacher-application process.

Then there are the hurdles placed in the way by a city that is still recovering from a disaster. "We don't have a plethora of vendors back in town dying to serve schools at little or no cost," says Usdin, whose organization has taken on the role of trying to help schools find service providers. "You wait around forever for everything."

And what no one quite knows yet is what will confront teachers in their classrooms this fall. It's worth remembering that everyone-- teachers, custodians, students and their families--has an evacuation story, and many were traumatized by Katrina. "I think the entire metro area is going through some mass psychosis," says John Hiser, principal of Karr High School in Algiers. "We have seen more angry kids this year than I've seen in 37 years in the schools." Just as challenging is the fact that most of the students in the schools are the products of a broken system. "We've got children in the 9th grade reading at a 4th-grade level," says RSD Superintendent Jarvis. "It's not something I'm going to repair next year. But it is something we can work toward now."

And finally, there's the undeniably convoluted nature of the system as a whole, with some schools run by the parish board, some by the RSD and then a plethora of charters run by their own governing boards. The practical effects of this were obvious in late summer, when parents trying to sign up their children for school had no single place they could go to find out where and when they could do so. "These are growing pains," says Jacobs, "though we have to camouflage the complexity of governance for the rest of the world."

The result of all this is a certain watchfulness among those rooting for the schools as the new academic year gets underway. Scott Cowan, the president of Tulane University, headed a panel named by Mayor Ray Nagin to come up with a plan for the schools; many of its recommendations were adopted by the RSD. He suggests that "we may not be able to achieve our full capability because of this 'trifurcated' governance we have. There are lots of initiatives, but we don't know whether the sum will be greater than the parts."

Meanwhile, Pastorek, who headed the RSD advisory committee charged with designing the system, worries that in trying to deal with immediate crises--such as speeding up the hiring process for teachers- -the RSD may be laying the groundwork for a less-than-ideal system in the future. "Are we doing anything in a reactive mode that will lock us in and prevent us from realizing the possibilities?" he asks. "Are we damaging our opportunity or only delaying our opportunity?

Yet if there is intense awareness among those involved with the school-rebuilding effort that it is a work in progress, the sense of great possibility remains steadfast. "We have a chance here," says Ben Marcovitz, the assistant principal at the newly chartered Science and Math High. "We have a focusing moment where we can say, 'What is the best thing for children in our schools?'"

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net  | 

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