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Decade of Recovery: New Orleans schools show progress

The reborn New Orleans school system has made significant improvements, but a long road lies ahead
Students in the Samuel J. Green Charter School listen to a math lesson. As part of the “portfolio” strategy, dozens of independent local and national organizations operate charter schools in the district.
Students in the Samuel J. Green Charter School listen to a math lesson. As part of the “portfolio” strategy, dozens of independent local and national organizations operate charter schools in the district. (Reuters/Lee Celano)

It’s been a decade since Louisiana established the Recovery School District to take over the lowest-performing schools in the state. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the RSD took over almost all the schools in New Orleans, and in the process restructured the city’s school system on an unprecedented level.

Over the past 10 years, New Orleans schools have gone from being some of the lowest performing in the country to becoming a working laboratory for a bold experiment in restructuring an urban public school system.

Trouble before the storm

By 2003, the New Orleans Public Schools decades-long decline had left it ranked next-to-last of the state’s 66 school districts and with the largest achievement gap in Louisiana, according to the state department of education. Meanwhile, district leadership was unstable; between 1998 and 2005, the district had eight superintendents. A long-term FBI corruption investigation of the district resulted in 27 convictions of school staff, administrators, and other employees by 2005.

Investigators also found that nearly $70 million in federal funds for low-income students was unaccounted for or misspent. By 2005, the New Orleans school system had, due to mismanagement, amassed a $265 million debt, representing more than half of its annual operating budget.

Road to Recovery

The state legislature created the Recovery School District in 2003 to take over the lowest-performing schools in the state. The goal was to reform, reorganize, or turn them into charter schools. The first group included just five schools, and they were all in New Orleans.

But when Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, damaging or destroying 112 of the city’s 128 school buildings and displacing 65,000 students and 7,500 school employees, the state officially declared that most New Orleans schools, now labeled as failing, would be taken over by the RSD.

This effectively abolished the former school district, leaving just 18 schools controlled by the local Orleans Parish School Board.

And so out of the destruction came an opportunity unprecedented in the history of urban public education: the chance to start over. The RSD remained a statewide entity, but taking over most schools in New Orleans gave it a new focus on the city.

Paul Pastorek, then president of the state board of education, would be named state superintendent in 2007, and almost immediately appointed Paul Vallas—known for his aggressive reform work as leader of the Chicago and Philadelphia school systems—to lead the RSD. “Why this job at this time?” Vallas said in an interview with The New York Times on his appointment in May 2007. “You’ve got an opportunity to create a new school system.”

Portfolio strategy

Both Pastorek and Vallas were proponents of an emerging school district governance system just beginning to be implemented in a handful of urban districts, known as the “portfolio strategy.” Paul Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and research professor at the University of Washington Bothell, coined the term after years of research on governance trends in urban school districts in the past 20 years. His new book, “Strife and Progress: Portfolio Strategies for Managing Urban Schools,” outlines the strategy as well as the increasing number of city school systems using it successfully.

Hill has identified seven main components of an effective portfolio district: a variety of school choices; school autonomy; pupil-based funding; a talent-seeking hiring strategy; options for school support outside of the central office; a performance-based accountability system; and a strong, ongoing public engagement effort.

“District leaders using the portfolio strategy are essentially trying to create the best schools possible, any way they can,” Hill says. Instead of a traditional top-down structure, the strategy emphasizes decentralization away from the central office, and giving more power for decision-making to principals. Each is given the autonomy to set their own budgets, hire staff, and determine curriculum.

District-level administrators instead manage, oversee, and hold accountable a “portfolio” of different types of schools, which could be traditional public, charter, magnet, online, or some other form of school. Neighborhood-based attendance zones are abolished, and parents can send their children to any school in the district.

Hill says both Vallas and Pastorek consulted him and other experts regularly about implementing RSD’s portfolio strategy. “The leadership in New Orleans looked at the situation and said ‘Instead of doing business the same old way, we need to use a more diverse approach to providing schools,’” he says.

As the RSD reopened more schools, principals were given the autonomy to manage their own schools, and to manage them their way. The lowest performing schools in New Orleans were closed, and the RSD accepted proposals from dozens of local and national charter school organizations to reopen them as autonomously operated charters.

Influx of charters

Displaced students gradually returned to the city in the years following Katrina. Before the storm, there were 128 schools; when Vallas took office in 2007, the RSD operated just 22 schools and oversaw 17 charters, while the Orleans Parish School Board ran 18.

As the student population grew, more charter schools opened, and the number of traditional, directly-run schools grew smaller as the RSD turned them over to charter operators. By 2011, some 78 percent of the city’s students were in charter schools, up from 56 percent in 2007 and by far the highest percentage in the country. The Brookings Institution named the RSD the top district in the U.S. for school choice in 2012, the only school system in the country with an “A” grade in its rankings.

“In the RSD, a large number of charters made the most sense for their situation because of the flexibility,” says Hill. “As students returned to the city, many were traumatized and needed extra support, or had fallen far behind grade level, and there was a lot of uncertainty about the size of enrollment. Using charters enabled the RSD to open specific types of schools quickly to meet the changing needs of the district.”

In 2010, state officials announced a landmark settlement with the federal government for $1.8 billion in long-term school reconstruction and renovation funds for New Orleans. The resulting School Facilities Master Plan projects a need for a total portfolio of 88 “school organizations” and between 42,000 and 47,000 students by the year 2016, still significantly smaller than the pre-Katrina population of 65,000 students and 128 schools.

Ensuring access

The RSD has had to defend its new portfolio structure against some criticism. Most prominently, the portfolio emphases on decentralization, autonomy, and school choice had created confusion about the enrollment process in the absence of a central system or neighborhood schools.

In particular, parents of special needs students had raised concerns that they were being turned down by their first choice schools, which tended to be charters trying to raise their achievement levels by enrolling the highest-performing students.

To address this concern, last January, RSD and Orleans Parish officials announced OneApp, a new centralized enrollment system through which all students apply to any schools in the city at the same time, ensuring more even distribution of special education students.

“That’s an example of how the leadership of the RSD has shown a respect for transparency and community engagement throughout this process,” says John Ayers, executive director of the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University, which has released an annual report on the progress of the RSD since 2007.

“They listen to criticism from the community and take it seriously. That humility is a large part of why they are succeeding where other urban reformers have failed.”

Seeing progress

Student achievement since Katrina has steadily improved; though with such a low starting point, the district remains low achieving. In 2008, just 28 percent of students in the RSD scored at or above grade level on the state’s LEAP standardized test. On the 2013 test, that number had climbed to 57 percent, a 29 percentage point gain that was the largest in the state for the time period. Still, that remains below the 2013 state average of 69 percent.

Like some other states, Louisiana assigns letter grades to schools annually based on student achievement. The percentage of RSD schools given an “F” declined from 50 percent in 2009 to 21 percent in 2011. The percentage of “A” schools increased from 7 percent to 11 percent, even while the state raised the standards for each grade letter.

Spring 2013 LEAP tests showed the percentage of third through eighth grade students scoring at or above grade level increased to 57 percent, a gain of six points over 2012, the largest year-over-year gain in the state. The RSD now ranks 57th out of 70 Louisiana districts in student achievement, up from 65th out of 66 in 2002.

Future trajectory

Vallas left the RSD in 2011, and Pastorek left the state office soon thereafter. Former New York City deputy chancellor of schools John White then became state superintendent and appointed RSD deputy superintendent Patrick Dobard to lead the RSD. Both White and Dobard are firm believers in the portfolio strategy, which White helped to implement in New York City under Chancellor Joel Klein.

White and Dobard have indicated the district will continue on the trajectory that Pastorek and Vallas established, particularly with regard to charter schools. In December of 2012, Dobard announced the RSD would continue to reduce the number of traditional direct-run schools from 12 to just five or six beginning in 2013-2014, creating the first nearly 100 percent charter school district in the nation.

“Our students and schools have overwhelmed us with their progress,” wrote Dobard in a recent op-ed in the Times-Picayune. “Yet we are reminded daily that there are still too many of our students not yet equipped for the opportunities of tomorrow. An unacceptable number of RSD students, nearly half, still perform below grade level on state assessments … The process of transformation, of a failing school system and the future of a city, is a marathon, not a sprint.”