\”Bad old OPSB.\”

When I began being employed as instruction reporter in New Orleans in late 2012, I heard that phrase again and again. The city was then seven years in to the post-Katrina education revolution that wrested control of the general public schools in the seven-member Orleans Parish School Board. Unheard-of academic gains followed the city's switch to a near-universal charter-school system, yet returning to failure always felt as near as the next hurricane. Give OPSB power again, people said, and the schools would slide right back where they started.

School-board candidates who wanted the district to resume its old role and who railed against charters, giving them a call privatized education benefiting billionaires, lost in election after election, including in fall 2021. But as schools shuffled students backwards and forwards between in-person and virtual schooling, amid a resurgence in Covid-19 cases and revitalized requires racial justice, something unexpected happened. After Fifteen years of hemming within the district, people started wanting it to do more.

Academically and financially bankrupt, under federal investigation, at best ineffectual and at worst corrupt, the pre-2005 New Orleans school district was the worst in Louisiana. Almost half of its 66,000 students attended a school that earned under 50 points around the state's 200-point report card. Only 54 percent graduated from high school. Many people fled: enrollment fell by 15,000 students in the 10 years before Hurricane Katrina.

Teachers struggled to do the things they could, driven by desire for the job or, in some instances, only the steady paycheck. Many people tried to attack the issue from a new angle. Several groups started charter schools, gaining the freedom to employ, fire, and teach as they wanted. At the same time, Louisiana created the Recovery School District to consider over and charter out struggling schools. But there was no sign that any major power shift loomed. Once the 2005 -06 school year began, the Recovery School District controlled only a handful of schools. Then, during the last week of 2006, Hurricane Katrina hit.

With hundreds of thousands of residents evacuated and campuses flooded with up to 12 feet water, the college board abandoned ship. It said there wasn't any method to reopen schools that academic year. The Orleans Parish School Board let go a lot more than 7,000 employees, sending pink slips to mailboxes that had been literally washed away. However the school closures exposed an opportunity for change. The Recovery School District seized four fifths from the city's schools, and most of the schools remaining underneath the OPSB's auspices went charter as well. The city eliminated traditional student assignment by home address and instituted universal school choice, allowing any student to use to any school.

It was one of the greatest transformations in U.S. education, arguably surpassing the 25-year state takeover in Newark: there, at least the buildings stayed mostly the same, whereas the decrepit New Orleans campuses took this type of hit within the storm and flood that FEMA allotted $1.8 billion to rebuild.

Support poured in: foundation money, federal grants, eager young teachers. Many schools never reopened, including the New Orleans Free School, a location where students got written evaluations instead of grades and called teachers by their first names. Logan Crowe, a teacher there, described the school as \”alternative prior to the word 'alternative' meant prison.\” Orleans Free started privately on the ground floor of the commune, then fought to keep its creative approach going once it joined the district. After it closed, Crowe signed on as assistant principal at Alice Harte Elementary and then became principal and CEO from the Recovery District's Andrew H. Wilson Charter, inside a newly renovated building. \”Orleans Parish schools needed to change,\” Crowe said, in hindsight now. \”And I believe many of them did.\”

Charters stayed running a business only when they met academic benchmarks and attracted enough students. And, indeed, scores increased. The city saw a \”stretch of improvement I've still never seen anywhere else,\” said Doug Harris, director of the Education Research Alliance for brand new Orleans at Tulane University. Those results were real, his team concluded-not caused by changed demographics, largescale cheating, teaching towards the test, or increased funding. \”I thought, this can not be right. There must be something else happening here that we're not seeing. But we just couldn't find anything like this,\” Harris said.

Where was the Orleans Parish School Board in all this? Squabbling over crumbs. In combative meetings, the members fought over who would be superintendent. They disparaged the Recovery School District charters and the children inside them. They fought with RSD within the FEMA rebuilding plan. Two Orleans Parish School Board members visited prison, 5 years apart, on federal conspiracy charges.

Successful Recovery charters had the choice revisit Orleans Parish oversight and declined, fearing it would damage their gains.

Finally, 10 years after Katrina, the school board hired Henderson Lewis Jr. as superintendent and fell in line behind him. Lewis was a new kind of superintendent, have less charisma, not a king, but a supervisor who had taught in the Recovery system and embraced the so-called portfolio model. Actually, he chartered the district's final traditional schools. The school board began passing policies like the Recovery School District's-for instance, requiring all its charters to join the computerized common-enrollment system once the schools' contracts were renewed. School board meetings became normal, even boring.

In spring 2021, Lewis and Patrick Dobard, superintendent of the Recovery District, went prior to the Louisiana legislature and asked lawmakers to turn back post-Katrina takeover. I was told that that OPSB would run such as the Recovery system, giving wide latitude to the charters-that parents and students wouldn't even notice the difference. It would be a new kind of decentralized district, one that would regulate, not rule. They promised that OPSB would not screw it up.

\”We are prepared,\” Lewis said.

Even an advocate of the reunification bill, New Orleans State Representative Walt Leger, sounded less than enthusiastic. \”There are lots of people, parents yet others, who are not thrilled about schools going back to the Orleans Parish School Board,\” he explained, but \”at some time, whether we like it or otherwise, the colleges need to be returned to the local authority, and now is as good a time as any, in my opinion, to begin with that process.\” The legislature approved no more the takeover, with a two-year runway. In 2021, the district reunified. (A handful of state-authorized charters that had never been a part of Orleans Parish remain underneath the oversight from the state's board of elementary and secondary education.)

To herald the brand new era, the district rebranded the machine as NOLA Public Schools. For about two years, things ran pretty smoothly, using the usual fretting over test scores and charter renewals. Then Covid-19 hit, intensifying the underlying problems. The district stepped forward to coordinate the response. And the people I interviewed for this article began wanting the district to wield more power again, to step up and create a vision and a guide for a city whose schools truly flourished.

In November 2021, the very first time since before Katrina, all seven school board seats were contested. Three members won re-election: Ethan Ashley, John Brown Sr., and Nolan Marshall Jr. They were joined by newcomers Katie Baudouin, Olin Parker, J. C. Romero, and Carlos Zervigon. Have the ability to and have had children in New Orleans public schools.

Among the unsuccessful candidates, Kayonna Armstrong favored returning to a method of schools directly run by the school board, Chanel Payne required a moratorium on charters, and Antoinette Williams supported direct-run schools along with independent charters. All of the winning candidates favored maintaining the all-charter model.

Olin Parker left his job running charter schools for that State of Louisiana to run for that school board seat. \”I saw the limits of what you can do from the state government side,\” he explained. \”I think OPSB continues to have a huge role to play.\”

In 2021, that would have sounded faintly ridiculous or perhaps a little threatening. Not anymore.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, academic improvement had stalled in New Orleans. In fact, it \”pretty much plateaued around 2021,\” Harris said (though he also suggested that \”you could reframe 'stagnation' as 'maintained improvement.'\”) As of 2021, 16 percent from the city's 16- to 24-year-olds were neither in school nor working, based on the Opportunity Index. Finally count, 1 / 3 of students attended schools rated D or F by the state. For the most part New Orleans high schools, the category of 2021, whose entire academic career took place within the post-Katrina system, averaged just one 17.5 out of a potential 36 around the ACT. That's lacking to obtain a student admitted to either of the city's four-year public universities.

The mediocre scores aren't any secret. \”We all say the same thing: We've come a long way, but there's a lot to become done,\” said Caroline Roemer, director from the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.

What's more, Harris's Education Research Alliance discovered that most of the academic improvement happened when a new charter group took control of a school. Although the school board lets students stay at their school when management changes, takeovers are grueling for those involved. Teachers often lose their jobs or leave; students need to acclimate to changes in school operations and culture; parents suffer from a brand new set of administrators, and everybody has to live with the fear the takeover won't help, because sometimes they don't. Joseph Craig Charter is on its third manager in 15 years, and 42 Charter School is on its fourth. Also, takeovers don't happen very often now, unlike in the early years of Recovery School District operation. Just one from the city's charters is changing hands during the summer of 2021: Crocker, moving to the third manager.

The shortage of good schools puts pressure on parents. Newly elected board member Katie Baudouin said she began thinking about running for the office during the tension of awaiting her older child's results on OneApp, the computerized common application that matches students with seats. Although the system allows preferences for siblings and children who live near a college, for many families it is a game of roulette, with bad odds which are more popular schools. The parents of 830 four-year-olds applied for A-rated Hynes Charter's 55 open kindergarten seats for fall 2021, and almost 2,500 rising 9th graders sought 262 spots at A-rated Warren Easton, the district reported. Many parents told Tulane's Cowen Institute that they didn't like the OneApp common-enrollment system, but many asserted was simply because they didn't obtain the school they wanted. A large number of families continue to opt from the public system altogether: one quarter of New Orleans children currently attend private school, according to the Cowen Institute.

While the Orleans Parish School Board is officially in charge, its ability to remedy a school's ills is very limited. That's because the state legislation that restored local control also prohibited the district from doing a lot of the job that districts traditionally do-including exercising authority over charter schools' \”programming, instruction, curriculum, materials and texts, yearly school calendars and daily schedules, hiring and firing of personnel, employee performance management and evaluation, terms and conditions of employment, teacher or administrator certification, salaries and benefits, retirement, collective bargaining, budgeting, purchasing, procurement, and contracting for services other than capital repairs and facilities construction.\” If student test scores start slipping, solutions are as much as the charter manager.

In an all-charter system, \”the role from the board becomes selecting operators and determining what sort of schools you want to have and who's likely to run them,\” Harris said. \”They're always grappling at the margins.\”

However, OPSB can help all schools to address the problems that hurt students across the board, former Recovery superintendent Dobard said, for example inadequate preschool services and teacher turnover.

These efforts have started in a tiny way. The prior board chose to use tax dollars to improve teacher recruitment and retention across the system and to train school staff to assist traumatized children. Many school board candidates, successful and never, promised to focus on students' mental health. \”It's no secret that there's a lot of trauma within our school system,\” board member Parker said.

Data in the city's Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies back that up. Among 2,800 middle- and high-school students the institute surveyed over many years, 27 % said they were subjected to violence against a parent or sibling; 12 % said they'd considered suicide; and 46 percent said they had experienced the murder of somebody close to them. Even before Covid-19 knocked parents unemployed, Louisiana considered 84 percent of the city's public-school students to become \”economically disadvantaged,\” a category that includes those who are eligible for a variety of public benefits as well as students who're homeless, in state custody, or not fluent in English.

Jamar McKneely, head from the InspireNOLA charter group, is among many charter leaders who focused for years on addressing problems within school walls. He's now referring to tackling poverty and homelessness directly. He's been in education of sufficient length that he's now seeing the children of his original students. All too often, those parents haven't managed to fulfill their dreams, he said.

\”We must many Black and brown families who are underneath the poverty line. The incarceration rates are still excessive. After i consider the homeless rates, they're still too high. That implies that not just from an academic standpoint, but from the social-economic standpoint, there's still lots of work to do this I would love to check this out board start to tackle,\” McKneely said. OPSB \”can't you need to be a board focusing strictly on academics.\”

Among those societal problems, one stands out as the biggest, or maybe the most foundational. The town is experiencing two pandemics, board member Ethan Ashley said: Covid-19 and \”the pandemic of systemic racism.\”

Although New Orleans takes pride in its long history of gens de couleur libres-free people of color-generations of racial discrimination have led to persistent poverty and lack of progress.

The school system also offers past racial inequality and unfairness. During the Jim Crow era, the all-white OPSB invested in white campuses while squeezing Black children into shabby buildings for part-day shifts. In 1948, 1,000 students attended Sylvanie Williams Elementary, where 3 classrooms had electric light, based on historian Walter Stern's 2021 book Race and Education in New Orleans.

After four brave Black girls enrolled at two white schools in 1960, what resulted was not integration but white flight. In 2005, 7 percent from the student body was white, and 9 in 10 of these white students attended the top-ranked schools, most of which had entrance requirements. Fourteen years later, white students made up 9 % from the student body, and 8 in 10 attended schools rated A or B, according to data in the Louisiana Department of Education. 4 % of white children, but 41 percent of Black children, visited a D or F school. Like the city itself, the school human population is significantly less Black now, however the difference is due to increased Hispanic enrollment, that has risen to 11 percent from 1 percent.

In addition, the folks waiting in front of and behind those students don't reflect the students' diversity. Being an employer, the pre-Katrina district was the backbone from the Black middle-class; indeed, some critics have charged that the goal of their state takeover was to disempower African Americans. Now a bare most of teachers and principals are Black; fewer than 4 in 10 charter groups possess a Black CEO; and 14 percent of charter groups have both a Black CEO along with a Black-majority board, according to Black Education for New Orleans.

Being taught with a proportionally diverse number of educators can produce a difference for Black children. Cultural competence \”is different from rapping a math lesson,\” said Adrinda Kelly, the director of Black Education for brand new Orleans. Research has shown a variety of benefits for students of color whose teachers look like them, from fairer discipline to higher test scores and greater enrollment in gifted classes. Inside a survey by Doug Harris's group, New Orleans students rated their teachers lower on quality than the national average. Half the Black respondents thought their teachers showed concern for their well-being or valued their ideas.

Some organizations will work on diversifying the teaching corps. Black Education for New Orleans coaches educators at Black-governed schools while offering professional development for Black teachers. New Schools for brand new Orleans runs an instructor residency with Xavier, the country's only historically Black Catholic university.

The school board is acting on this problem too. The previous board hired Beloved Community, a Black-led anti-racist education consultancy, to carry out a districtwide racial-equity audit that addresses both the central office and individual schools. All seven of the present board members have pledged to handle Beloved Community's recommendations and to create incentives for schools to enhance racial equity. Board member Ashley said he's excited about the audit, that they calls \”historic.\”

Facing these challenges, charter schools in New Orleans need OPSB now because they haven't before. Charter leaders for example FirstLine Schools CEO Sabrina Pence and charter fans such as former Louisiana state education superintendent John White are asking for leadership from the board, but another kind of leadership this time-not with the iron fist wielded by bad old OPSB, but through a new concentrate on collaboration, inspiration, and vision.

For progress to resume, the colleges are going to need money. School funding depends on sales and hospitality taxes, and gas and oil revenue, all of which are suffering. \”The financial picture is kind of grim,\” said Pence. FirstLine's founders opened the city's first charter school in 1998; the network now runs five schools.

\”We're going to have to ask for help from your elected officials to effectively buy the bacon,\” board member Ashley said.

Charters also need flexibility in academic standards. Currently, charter renewal relies almost entirely on a school's performance score, which derives from students' standardized test scores, graduation rates, and also the amount of advanced coursework a college offers. In New Orleans as with all of those other nation, youngsters are losing ground because of the pandemic's educational and private disruptions, and charter authorizers will need to take that context into consideration.

No one accustomed to talk about accountability more than former state chief White, who resides in New Orleans with his young family. However he's talking about the need to have a broader view. \”We're going to have a lot of youngsters with a lot of challenges at home who require to learn to read and who weren't consistently in class,\” he explained. \”How will we define recovery? What exactly is it that schools should be focused on?\”

Pence agreed. That old model fails at this time, she said. And also the solution can't be top-down. \”The community has ideas by what a great school is beyond academics,\” and they want input, she said.

Logan Crowe couldn't agree more. The school he ran, Andrew H. Wilson, lost its charter in 2021 over low performance, and InspireNOLA took it over. Several jobs later, Crowe has returned to his roots with The NET's new alternative junior high school. (The network's name stands for \”meeting Needs, raising Expectations, Practicing life.\”) Most New Orleans schools are similar to one another, and not everyone fits their mold, he said. \”I think that's shut a lot of people out,\” he explained. \”There have to be more selections for students and families who just want something different.\”

Though the hallmark of charter schools is autonomy and competition-and Pence, for just one, still wants to run her own bus routes-an all-charter district can't be each out for its own, said InspireNOLA's McKneely. \”We need to start looking at this from the systematic standpoint, not just one organization. I think if we do that more, then holistically our city will fare a whole lot better.\”

Charter groups happen to be cooperating and with the district for several years now, first to build up the common-enrollment system, then to sort out the details from the reunified district, and now to coordinate services during the pandemic. The work done throughout the crisis illustrates an especially public and efficient model for cooperation. The initial ramp-up for remote learning and teaching \”was definitely a collective process,\” McKneely said, involving many, many conference calls. The district led the push for technology, swiftly acquiring 10,000 laptops and 8,000 hotspots, which charters given to needy students, based on a district press release. Charters caused their own meal providers to get food to families, and also the district ran interference to make sure that the colleges would be reimbursed with the federal lunch program. Lewis and also the previous board kept up using the latest Covid-19 information from the city and healthcare systems, and hang reopening timelines and protection guidelines using the charter leaders' consent. For the first time, almost all the city's charters agreed to a typical school calendar and made a unified decision about whether or not to hold classes virtually or in-person. It might not be considered a coincidence that parents' goodwill toward the school system has gone up, based on an October 2021 poll through the Cowen Institute.

\”They just hit it of the ballpark,\” said the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools' Caroline Roemer of the transition to distance education. \”So many districts didn't perform the basics.\”

The school board can't force this kind of collaboration, because legally it does not have much muscle. But the board can persuade. It may advise. It may convene meetings to look for solutions. \”You're not forcing people. You're bringing them together,\” White said.

The fear of what happens if OPSB doesn't act has started to overshadow anxiety about what might happen whether it does act. \”The city, as with every cities, needs leadership at this time,\” White said. \”These are really the challenges. They might require collective solutions and collaboration . . . [and] really, just the superintendent and the school board are empowered to facilitate that kind of solution at that scale.\”

\”I would like to see them really produce a bold vision that would carry us beyond the progress that has been made yesteryear Fifteen years. And it's time for it now,\” McKneely said. He added a concept that will once have been anathema for any charter CEO: in a pandemic or perhaps a hurricane, \”some people still think that there's nothing wrong at certain times for that superintendent of Orleans, that has been appointed through the board, [to] make some decisions that are important to the wellbeing of the whole system.\”

\”There's a real opportunity for building and setting the vision for the next 5 years, for the city. That's got to become the primary priority,\” Pence said. \”Strong community engagement is critical so that people really have deep confidence in what that system appears like.\”

The elected, local school board is \”accountable towards the community,\” she added. \”And using a path forward that's charted out [and] that has had wide engagement I believe could be a huge, huge win.\”

Can big, bad old OPSB, now responsible for shiny NOLA Public Schools, meet those hopes?

Superintendent Lewis agreed, which the Covid-19 response showed it. \”We're in a position to bring people along,\” he said-to convene a college community around common problems, build relationships, and assist with resources. \”The last thing I wish to have to say is, 'My role is regulation and authorization, I'm just likely to relax and wait until you fail.'\”

Board President Ashley agreed with Lewis' assessment. The new board is \”up towards the task,\” he said. \”But it will not be simple.\”

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