New Orleans School Reform Bets on Success

With drastic reforms post-Katrina, the New Orleans public school system is on the road from ruin to role model.

Posted: 08/28/2011 11:10 PM EDT

While the entire nation busies itself debating the nuances of education reform, New Orleans has quietly revamped its entire system of public education. Although there is still much room for improvement, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina six years ago may have handed New Orleans an opportunity to go from having one of the worst school systems in the nation to an example of what a city can do when it tosses aside convention and puts its students' needs first.

“From the rubble of Katrina is rising a 'Recovery School District' where students are being given unprecedented access to new schools,” Dr. Steve Perry, education reform advocate and founder of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Connecticut, told BET.com. “There appears to be a renewed hope about what’s going on.”

New Orleans’ successes in education are beginning to reverberate across the nation and excite education advocates about what kind of achievements are possible. But things weren’t always so hopeful.

Hurricane Katrina destroyed not only homes and businesses, but also the last vestiges of a decaying and ineffective school system. In 2005, it was reported that 30 percent of seniors in Orleans Parish dropped out over the course of the year and, in 2003, the state was handed a crushing embarrassment when a high-school valedictorian failed the math portion of the state exit exam five times and could not graduate. Speaking shortly after the hurricane, one New Orleans school board member flat out called the system “academically bankrupt, financially bankrupt and operationally bankrupt.”

Not only were many of the physical structures missing after the storm, but also missing were a number of students, teachers and entire neighborhoods themselves. Under the new Recovery School District, however, the old notion of neighborhoods determining what school children attend does not necessarily apply anymore.

In the Recovery School District, students are now welcomed to apply to any of the 46 charter schools or 23 “traditional” schools and, although there is an application process, most schools have policies that allow any student to attend.

The new charter system gives educators a greater say in how their schools are run, and even in the remaining traditional schools (since the city’s teachers’ union lost its collective-bargaining rights), principals now have greater control over the hiring and firing of teachers, a practice unheard of in the past. In addition, the charters have access to private funding that provides the students with better facilities and resources than were available under the old system.

And it’s working. In 2007, only 50 percent of high school seniors made it to graduation, and in 2010, that number jumped to nearly 90 percent.

Still, there are concerns. With a system that has evolved so fast out of necessity, some wonder whether the decisions being made truly reflect the wishes of the communities being served. Before Katrina, the New Orleans public schools were roughly 90 percent African-American and although the storm changed the demographics some, the education concerns of New Orleans are still very much those primarily of its Black community. While students are no longer tied to underperforming neighborhood schools, some parents find that the lack of close, neighborhood schools can be burdensome, as well.

“A lot of African-Americans, while pleased with the results, feel like they are not a part of the process and would like to have a say,” Dr. Monteic A. Sizer, Louisiana State Director of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, told BET.com.

However, Sizer believes the problem has a simple solution.

“With good, competent, capable African-Americans being involved in the boards, I think we will see more collaborative improvements. It would also give members of the African-American community some comfort that we are involved in the decision–making process.”

(Photo: Lee Celano/ Reuters)

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