By: Cindy Chang
August 26, 2010
When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Hurricane Katrina was "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans," the backlash was swift, and he soon apologized.
Perhaps only an outsider, someone who is not reminded on a daily basis of the tragedy that occurred here five years ago, could have put it so indelicately. But many in this city would agree with this rephrasing of Duncan's January remark: Only because the old was wiped out could the new take root so quickly.
Of all the things damaged by the storm and subsequent levee breaches, public education has arguably undergone the most far-reaching makeover. Most New Orleans schools were seized by the state and transformed into independently managed charters. Thousands of teachers were fired, and their union contract was never renewed. In a matter of months, the pre-Katrina New Orleans school system, infamous for corruption, rock-bottom academic performance and feces-smeared restrooms, was no more.
On the fifth anniversary of Katrina, the city is in the midst of a vast educational experiment, with the futures of its most disadvantaged children at stake. Nearly three-quarters of the public schools are now charters, making New Orleans the first majority-charter city in the country and giving rise to a free-enterprise landscape that has spurred innovation but also created tiers of haves and have-nots.
Test scores as a whole have risen rapidly, but some schools are performing abysmally, with others comprising a vast middle group, improving but still struggling to teach basic reading and math to low-income students who came in three, four, even five grade levels behind. With attendance zones abolished, students can theoretically go to almost any school in the city, but the popular ones fill up fast, leaving latecomers, special-needs students and the least savvy with few options in a system touted as "100 percent choice."
In one undeniable silver lining, a $1.8 billion FEMA grant announced Wednesday will completely transform the physical landscape of learning. Every one of about 85 remaining campuses, which were in deplorable shape even before the storm, will receive a full renovation or be rebuilt from the ground up. But for now, most children are attending classes in portables or dilapidated old facilities, leaving administrators to jostle for the few usable spaces.
At public meetings, the divide is stark between strident defenders who see nothing but progress and opponents who want a return to neighborhood schools with home-grown staffs.
Often, the opinions break down along racial lines, with white people generally cheering the changes and black people regarding them with more suspicion. Resentments have run high in cases where charter organizations have taken over schools and parents felt left out of the process.
One thing everyone agrees on is that the schools should eventually return to local control. Many observers predict there will eventually be some set-asides for children who want to attend the school nearest their home, cutting down on the long early-morning bus rides that have become commonplace.
But even with a locally elected school board and neighborhood-oriented schools, the charter-dominated model engineered by state education officials and Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas is likely to live on. Whether a loosely governed collection of charters can deliver a decent education to every child in New Orleans, year in and year out, remains to be seen.
"Schools have many more tools to be successful than pre-storm. They have the authority to make the decisions needed to be successful," said Andre Perry, associate dean of UNO's education school and CEO of four charters run by the university. "It's worth the risk. However, it's a much more fragile existence than we like to admit ... In a market-driven system, it's the most vulnerable who often do not reap the rewards."
Recovery School District
For Vallas, the numbers say it all. The fast-talking, tightly wound superintendent swept into New Orleans from Philadelphia after making his name in Chicago by rejiggering the city's schools and running an unsuccessful campaign for governor. In 2007, he took charge of the Recovery School District, which was created before the storm to turn around failing schools and greatly expanded by the state legislature in the months after Katrina to include almost all New Orleans public schools.
The RSD still has some of the worst test scores in Louisiana, but it is steadily closing in on the state average. Including the 16 schools still overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board, 42 percent of New Orleans students attend academically unacceptable schools, compared with 64 percent before the storm. Half of the city's eighth graders passed the English language arts LEAP, while only 36 percent did in 2005.
"The second year might be luck, but the third year, you can't argue with the third year," Vallas said.
The public school population of 38,000 is down by nearly half from before the storm, and a higher proportion of deeply impoverished families have not returned, making before-and-after comparisons problematic. Test scores were already improving pre-Katrina.
But for Vallas and his supporters, the data is enough to demonstrate that a district comprising mostly charter schools can educate inner-city children better than a centrally managed one.
Charters make most of their own decisions, from hiring principals to the length of the school day, but they can be closed or turned over to new management if they do not meet academic and financial benchmarks.
Leslie Jacobs, a former Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member and an architect of the state takeover, echoes Vallas when she lists the factors responsible for the gains -- the autonomy granted to charter schools, the infusion of highly motivated educators into the city, the freedom that families now have to apply to any school. Vallas also touts the longer school day he has instituted in the 20-some schools he directly controls and that many charters have also implemented. This year, the RSD direct-run schools are adding about five extra weeks of classes.
"In August of 2005, as school was starting, no one would have believed that in August 2010, New Orleans would be the most improved school district in the United States, that the secretary of education would refer to it as a new national model, that we would have shown that we can turn around chronically failing schools, that we would be celebrating the improvement in the schools as one of the things we're most proud of," Jacobs said.
But even Vallas and Jacobs acknowledge that some problems need to be addressed before it can be said that all children in New Orleans are equally benefiting from school reform.
The remaining 20-some district-run schools have been called "schools of last resort" by some critics and as a group are performing significantly worse on standardized tests than the charters. Most charters are open-enrollment, but they have been accused of cherry-picking more promising students and turning away special-needs students, who are more expensive to educate. Earlier this month, Vallas said he would revise enrollment policies to lessen the burden on district-run schools and will also be looking at ways to better serve special-education students.
"They've made significant strides, but there are still a lot of kids who need support," said Luis Miron, dean of Loyola University's College of Social Sciences and acting director of the New Orleans Institute for Quality and Equity in Public Education.
While a majority-charter district sets the stage for innovation, it also creates inefficiencies, as each school must replicate services typically provided by the central office. Educators predict that more charter clusters, such as KIPP, will develop and schools will begin to pool resources in areas such as transportation. With at least some of the gains attributable to the infusion of one-time Katrina-related grants, and to the almost superhuman hours worked by the staff at some charters, the future is far from a sure bet.
"Things are getting better. The worry is we spent a lot of money to make this happen. Is the improvement sustainable?" said Michael Schwam-Baird, formerly assistant director for research at Tulane University's Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives. "If it is paying teachers more and a longer school day, that all costs a lot of money, and where are we going to get the money?"
Orleans Parish School Board
The Orleans Parish School Board, which once controlled all city schools and was the seat of so much pre-storm dysfunction, has been reduced to a vestige, operating in the shadow of the much larger RSD. Even though the OPSB, with its seven-member elected board, appears to be running a much tighter ship now, some in the city view it as permanently tainted.
There is talk of creating a new locally elected entity to take over the job now split between the RSD and OPSB. But any such plan may have to wait another five years, depending on what the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education decides this fall.
For now, Vallas allies like Jacobs wield enormous behind-the-scenes power. Each one of the city's nearly 60 charter schools has an appointed board whose workings often remain mysterious to the public. Then, there are nonprofits like New Schools for New Orleans, whose names are unknown to the average parent, but who perform vital functions such as training educators and deciding which charters deserve seed money.
It is not hard to find parents who heap praise on the teachers and administrators at their children's charter schools. But there remains a vein of profound skepticism in the communities the schools are serving.
"I don't believe there's anything going on today that has produced a better result than we were already headed toward," said Karran Harper Royal, a parent advocate whose son attends Lusher Charter School. "It's really, really disappointing considering that we've given up on neighborhood schools, children are placed on buses and bussed all over the city, and parents don't have a choice in that, that our rights as taxpayers are usurped, with most schools having non-democratically elected boards -- I think that there are not enough benefits with all we've given up with the state takeover."
Batiste Cultural Arts Academy
Before setting foot in Batiste Cultural Arts Academy, students have to pass muster with Dwight Rhodes.
As they piled off buses one recent morning, a week into the school year, Rhodes pointed a long finger at untucked shirts and helped a few boys knot their neckties. For others, the problem was the grumpy expressions on their faces. "Look happy to be here!" commanded Rhodes, who is director of instructional programs.
The boot camp-like atmosphere continued as students marched single-file into the building with their arms folded, so as not to slap one another or otherwise cause trouble. Hall passes are outlawed -- students go to the restroom in groups, under the watchful eye of an adult. Those who skip school receive a phone call, followed in short order by a home visit.
At the same time, the school year was just getting under way, and administrators recognized that some parents could not afford to buy uniforms until their next paychecks came in.
Students were allowed to wear white T-shirts in lieu of colored polos for the time being.
During first period, fourth graders eagerly raised their hands to answer problems such as "8,476 is greater than or less than 8,469?" In a sixth- to eighth-grade reading class, the teacher led a spirited discussion about setting realistic goals beyond becoming a professional football player.
Last year, the Batiste building on Constance Street in the Garden District was occupied by Live Oak Elementary. A district-run school, Live Oak was performing so dismally -- three-quarters of its fourth-graders failed the reading portion of the LEAP -- that Vallas handed it over to ReNEW, a new charter management organization that will specialize in taking over failing schools.
With full discretion over hiring and firing, ReNEW Executive Director Gary Robichaux kept only 15 percent of the old teaching staff, bringing in young teachers such as David Collier, a Teach for America fellow with a degree in economics from Columbia University. Partnering with the famously musical Batiste family, for whom it is named, the new school will offer an array of instrumental music instruction in its after-school program and is boldly predicting that it will field the best middle-school marching band in town. At a second school, SciTech Academy, which is the new incarnation of the chronically failing Laurel Elementary, ReNEW is offering a science and engineering focus.
The ReNEW academies hold the promise of something better for their students, many of whom attended Live Oak or Laurel. But the challenges facing Robichaux and his team are monumental. Thirty percent of the middle schoolers at Batiste are reading at a first- or second-grade level, with another 30 percent at third- or fourth-grade.
Like many other charters and the RSD district-run schools, ReNEW is making up for lost time with an extended-day program and even Saturday sessions for those especially far behind. The day starts for sixth- through eighth-graders with an hour-and-a-half "literacy block," where all but the most advanced students work on sounding out consonants and vowels.
Robichaux draws inspiration from his years at the state Department of Education, where as a "distinguished educator" he toured Orleans Parish classrooms and wrote reports about the deplorable conditions but was powerless to make changes.
Now, as a charter operator, his fondest wish is to be left alone by the central office. He hopes to take over another struggling K-8 school next year, in addition to starting two alternative high schools.
"I hope someone doesn't end up controlling the schools and we go back to the old way," said Robichaux, a veteran of the St. Charles Parish school system, the KIPP charter schools and the RSD administration. "That's my biggest fear, that we go back to the old way."
For the children of the storm, whose young lives have been disrupted for months and often years, it can be happenstance, rather than the well-balanced menu of choices trumpeted by Leslie Jacobs and other charter advocates, that determines where they land.
Chris Haywood, now 17, remembers returning to his eastern New Orleans home after the floodwaters receded. He rescued many of the possessions in his upstairs bedroom, but everything downstairs was ruined. His mother broke down when she realized her family photos were beyond saving.
The family stayed in Alexandria for the boy's seventh- and eighth-grade years, then returned to New Orleans after receiving insurance money to fix the flood-damaged house on Bullard Avenue.
Haywood wanted to attend McDonogh 35, as his older sister had, but he arrived too late and did not have the proper paperwork. So he ended up at Miller-McCoy Academy for Mathematics and Business, an all-boys charter school a half-mile from home.
Initially, he was taken aback by the absence of girls and angry about being rejected by his sister's school. But after a few months of donning a blazer and tie and submitting to co-principal Keith Sanders' brand of tough love, he began to think a school pared of distractions might be the best thing for him. His childhood friends from the neighborhood who went to Sarah T. Reed High School are now in jail, he said.
"I was mad, but after I got used to it, I realized it could maybe be a life-changer for me, a chance to start over," Haywood said. "Going to a co-ed school, I'd probably be the same person I was before Katrina, not paying attention to books as much as I should have."
Haywood's friend and football teammate, Jonathan Buchana, attended school in Houston after Katrina before returning to Joseph E. Craig Elementary. When Sanders visited Craig on a recruiting trip, Buchana jumped at the chance to go to an all-male high school where strict discipline is the norm.
He was spending time with the wrong crowd and realized his future was at stake, but he did not have the willpower to extricate himself. Starting ninth grade far from his Treme neighborhood might allow him to make a clean break. His grandmother had been thinking of sending him to St. Augustine, and Miller-McCoy sounded like St. Aug minus the tuition bill.
"I wasn't going toward school, I was going toward something else," Buchana said. "I was hanging out with dudes I wasn't supposed to, fighting, hanging out on the street late at night. Before I came here, I realized that they will get me in trouble. I needed a way out, a way to escape when I had to."
At Miller-McCoy, Buchana wears a gold tie, the reward for making straight A's one semester.
In a system devised by Sanders and co-principal Tiffany Hardrick, good grades are a status symbol, with cufflinks and a paisley tie signifying that the wearer has had a perfect report card three semesters in a row. When asked about his future plans, Buchana has a ready answer: he wants to study psychology at Stanford University.
For all its ambition, Miller-McCoy has yet to prove itself in the unforgiving arena of standardized testing. Last year, only a third of 10th-graders passed the English language arts proficiency exam, with another third of the class in the lowest "unsatisfactory" category. Here, as at Batiste and many other charters, many students arrive four or five grade levels behind.
Their peers at some district-run high schools are doing worse: over half of John McDonogh students were "unsatisfactory" in English, with only 19 percent passing the test. Parents who are in the know are likely to avoid a school with such a poor track record. But others rely on word-of-mouth referrals, choose a school based on family tradition or enroll too late to have other options.
"When you're dealing with poor and under-resourced people, when things are fragmented, that poses the greatest risk to them getting what they need," said Torin Sanders, a former Orleans Parish School Board member and pastor of a Lower Garden District church. "We celebrate the achievement that our students have made post-Katrina. But I still remain concerned about the kids and parents who are still marginalized and still may not be getting the high-quality education they deserve."
Cindy Chang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3386.