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Working Hard in the Big Easy

Five years post-Katrina, Paul Vallas continues to rebuild the New Orleans Recovery School District.
Hurricane Katrina devastated some areas of New Orleans in 2005.

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.

Paul Vallas is surrounded by Benjamin Banneker Elementary School students whom he visited following a press conference at the school regarding new technology initiatives in the district.

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 area's 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.

Before Katrina, the public schools in New Orleans regularly were criticized as among the worst in the nation. Today, Vallas 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. His mother held various secretarial jobs, and his father, an accountant, opened a restaurant, where his son washed dishes. The young Vallas envisioned a career as a diplomat or in some type of public service.

After graduating from Western Illinois University in 1976 with a bachelor's degree in political science and history, his community roots pulled him into teaching. He worked for a year at Koraes School, the Greek Orthodox grammar school he had attended, before his side interest in the political arena took hold.

Vallas, who also earned a master's degree in political science from Western Illinois, landed a job in 1980 as an aide for the Illinois Senate, where he specialized in budget and school finance issues. His reputation catapulted him into a more prominent role, as executive director of the Illinois Economic and Fiscal Commission, the legislature's financial planning arm.

Vallas' path to the school superintendency was not a traditional one, but it began, indirectly, with his next job, as revenue director for the city of Chicago. He quickly was promoted to budget director, and two years later, in 1995, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley tapped Vallas to run the city's struggling public school system. What Vallas lacked in experience in curriculum and instruction he made up for in businesslike management skills.

Paul Vallas, center, breaks ground in October of 2008 on the new Lake Area School building, one of dozens of new schools being built in New Orleans to replace those damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

As chief executive of the nation's third largest district, Vallas expanded preschool programs, required summer school for struggling students, and pushed standards aimed at ending social promotion, refusing to let children advance to the next grade if they were far below grade level.

He stayed on the job for six years, longer than most urban superintendents survive. After he left, a Chicago Tribune editorial praised him as "the bomb thrower." "Vallas set off the revolution in public education here," the newspaper stated.

In Philadelphia, which Vallas took over in 2002, he brought similar reforms. He phased out middle schools—moving to K8 and high schools—and embraced privatization, charters and choice for the students. He generally drew praise for his reforms, though he left on a somewhat sour note with the district facing an unanticipated $73 million deficit.

Steady after the Storm

Before Hurricane Katrina, student enrollment in the 130 public schools in New Orleans was nearly 65,000. The seven-member Orleans Parish School Board controlled most of the schools, though the state had taken over five dubbed as failing. A law passed by the Louisiana legislature in 2002 and approved by voters the following year had given the state the power to take control of schools that had failed to meet its academic standards for four straight years.

After the storm, state lawmakers expanded the definition of failing schools, and most of those previously run by the Orleans school board came under the state's authority, as part of the Recovery School District. Reopening schools after Katrina was a slow, frustrating process, with many of the buildings destroyed beyond repair and most teachers having fled to other states. The Recovery School District reopened its first campuses—three charter schools—in January 2006, with three traditional schools opening in April. That spring, about 10,000 students were in the city's schools, with tens of thousands of displaced children enrolled in other school districts—mostly in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Georgia.

Vallas stated last year that he is looking to recruit the next team of leaders to take over the recovery district, but he says he will stay at least another year in New Orleans.

A year later, when Vallas arrived, rebuilding still was happening at a trickling pace, with 36 schools serving 16,300 students in the Recovery School District in the spring of 2007. In some cases, students wanted to return—there was a waiting list of 550 when Vallas took over—but the district lacked teachers.

Vallas launched a national advertising campaign in the summer of 2007 to draw educators with a missionary zeal from across the country. Various charter school operators wanted to start campuses in New Orleans, but there wasn't a streamlined system for evaluating their proposals because never before had the city—or any city—needed to open so many new charter schools so fast. "The problem was, you had kids and you didn't have a school building," Vallas recalls. "We had to recruit 500 new teachers to the system. Reform was off to a very bumpy start."

This school year, Vallas, who reports directly to the state superintendent, will oversee 68 schools—more than half of them charters—in New Orleans. (The Orleans Parish School Board runs only four schools and oversees 16 charters.) While the RSD charter schools are independently managed, mostly by nonprofit boards, they are held accountable to the same academic standards as the schools directly run by Vallas.

"One of the unique things about Paul is that he's recognized that charter schools really are helping to close that achievement gap," says Shannon Jones, executive director of the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University, which publishes an annual report on the state of the schools in New Orleans. "Even though it means taking away some of the control he may have, he's willing to do that."

Vallas, who seeks out high-quality charter operators but generally leaves them alone to run their day-to-day business, sees the competition as one piece of the reform puzzle. In the schools under his direct control, Vallas has implemented a longer school day and year (students are in class about a third longer than state law mandates), he has given principals the power to hire and fire teachers, and he has pushed data-driven instruction, including regular benchmark testing.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., speaks with Vallas, center, and entertainer Harry Connick, Jr., at the Habitat for Humanity building site in New Orleans in May of 2007.

Vallas says he now sees an influx of potential teachers. About 10 teachers are applying for each job; the district had about 140 vacancies to fill as of May 2010 due to retirements, transfers to other schools, and two new campuses that needed to be staffed. Hundreds of young teachers from top teacher colleges had been recruited and about half the district's teachers come from nontraditional routes such as Teach for America.

Before Katrina, 37 percent of the city's schools were deemed academically acceptable by the state. Now the number is up to 58 percent, according to Recovery District spokesman Ken Jones. High schools are a trouble spot, as they are in many districts.

Recently released state test scores show that 31 percent of Recovery District high school students failed the English test and 34 percent failed math. In the high schools run by the Orleans Parish School Board, the failure rates were 9 percent for English and 12 percent for math. "We need to see stronger academic growth among our high schools," Vallas acknowledges. "We've had growth in each of our three years, but we need to see more."

But Banneker Elementary School, like most schools in the recovery district, has seen solid gains during Vallas' tenure, according to Ken Jones, communications director. Banneker's test scores have improved by 22 percentage points since the 2006-2007 school year, the first full school year post-Katrina, he adds.

Impatient for Change

As both visionary and worker bee, Vallas doesn't sleep much. His closest allies and advisers lovingly and uniformly describe the 57-year-old as "impatient" and "demanding." "He wants results, and he wants them yesterday," says Kevin Guitterrez, his deputy superintendent. "That's demanding, yes, but I think all of us agree that's the right demand. We feel the pressure, but it's not a pressure that turns us off. It's a pressure that inspires us."

Vallas listens to state Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek at a news conference in May 2008.

Guitterrez remembers Vallas calling just a few minutes after the New Orleans Saints had won the Super Bowl last February. "And it wasn't to say, 'How 'bout them Saints?'" he says, explaining that Vallas wanted to discuss a school problem. Pastorek, who speaks to Vallas daily, describes him as "a much bigger risk taker than the average manager." "He's the kind of guy that would rather try to do 10 things, knowing that some won't be successful," Pastorek explains. "He is an impatient person, impatient for change and the success of kids."

Pastorek notes the personal sacrifice Vallas has made being in New Orleans. Vallas' wife, Sharon, a former police officer, has remained in Chicago with two of their three sons; their youngest is in high school in New Orleans. Every couple of months, Vallas, who is terrified of flying, makes the 15-hour drive home.

But last winter, he braved the plane ride and consulted in Haiti—pro bono, he says—to help the country rebuild after the deadly earthquake that hit in January 2010. And he plans to "transition out" of New Orleans in a year to continue that work, he stated in a video interview. "I'll continue to try to find things that are broken," says Vallas, "and try to fix them."

Ericka Mellon is a K12 education reporter for the Houston Chronicle.