While many observers feel that the public schools of New Orleans were a disaster before Hurricane Katrina made it to the weather map, the storm created an unexpected chance to reinvent a system known for poor student achievement, widespread corruption, dilapidated buildings and a revolving-door superintendent's position. "Prior to the storm, we had one of the worst school systems in the country," says Tulane University President Scott Cowen, who chaired a high-powered education committee charged with overhauling the schools in the wake of the storm. "Katrina allowed us to start with a clean sheet of paper, so out of a great tragedy came a great opportunity."
This sentiment was echoed by Brian Riedlinger, superintendent of the Algiers Charter Schools Association, which opened eight new schools over the past year across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans. "Urban education nationwide has not done well, and we have a shot at not only improving education in New Orleans but also becoming a model," he says. "No one has done this before."
To be sure, no urban K-12 district ever rebuilt totally from the bottom up, as New Orleans is doing. Most of the schools were under water, many were total losses, and the district sustained an estimated $800 million in damages. And as the city's population fell from 485,000 to less than half that number, the schools took an even bigger hit: numbers of students plummeted from 60,000 to 12,500, more than 7,000 teachers lost their jobs, and a central office of 1,200 workers all but disappeared.
The blueprint for restoring-and transforming-New Orleans' schools emerged last January from the "Bring New Orleans Back" Commission, appointed by Mayor Ray Nagin and subdivided into critical areas of recovery including schools. In preparing its master plan, Cowen's education task force tapped expertise and resources from the Gates and Broad Foundations, the Council of Great City Schools, the Rand Corporation, and reached out to leaders of successful school districts from Oakland, California, to Philadelphia. The committee also held public meetings and consulted with 1,500 local principals, teachers and parents, including many who fled the city.
Its final report was built around 33 major recommendations and advocated concentrating as much authority as possible at local school levels, holding principals and teachers more accountable for school performance. The group also recommended clustering similar schools into networks of eight to ten to better share ideas. There was also a dual emphasis on lowering teacher/student ratios and raising student achievement, with the aim of eventually scoring in the top 10 percent of urban schools nationally. This was perhaps the longest-term and most ambitious goal in a system where two-thirds of the schools were not meeting state standards pre-Katrina and almost three quarters of all eighth-graders fell short in math and English. "The recommendations already are taking hold," Cowen says, "and the reason they've gotten so much traction is that they're based on best practices."
Inputs to Recovery
A confluence of forces is leading to success in the New Orleans Public Schools. These include more money from state and national sources-with additional funds for emergency relief and special grants-a non-unionized teaching force resulting in better staffing decisions; a drastically reduced central bureaucracy that formerly invited corruption, inefficiency and criminality; and a retooled system of operations and fiscal management.
There are also changed attitudes. Parents are more engaged in their children's education, and educational leaders are implementing reforms. "We kidded ourselves for so long that things weren't so bad here," says longtime Orleans Parish School Board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz. "When the storm hit and people went to other places, they saw what those communities and their schools were like, and they saw that things could be different."
Most New Orleans schools now fall under the jurisdiction of the state-appointed Recovery School District, which ran four schools in 2003 and 2004 but post-Katrina was handed an additional 107 underperforming schools by Louisiana's state legislature. "Our state superintendent of schools started getting calls from around the country, asking, 'If I bring my kids back, what will you do? We want to come home, but we want them to have a good education," recalls RSD's Superintendent Robin Jarvis.
The state plan puts the Recovery School District in charge for the next five years before returning authority to the Orleans Parish School Board. This fall, RSD had 34 schools up and running, half of them charters, which Jarvis insists is part of a new era in public education. Building blocks included the Louisiana Comprehensive Curriculum, a standardized program in English, math, science, and social studies instruction and assessment that replaced the mosaic of past curricula. Also required is a strict 20:1 maximum student/teacher ratio in the elementary grades and a cap of 25:1 in high school, down from the former 35:1 ratio. And teacher workdays have expanded from six hours to eight hours, with one and-a-half hours designated for planning and development.
"The non-union environment is the best thing that could have ever happened to us," says Orleans board member Fahrenholtz. "Make teachers responsible for what they say they are doing. Now everyone has to perform, or they're gone. Why we allowed them protection in the past for their failures is beyond me."
New Fiscal Controls
Getting the district's house in fiscal order was also a pre-Katrina nightmare that is turning into an opportunity, says financial and restructuring expert Bill Roberti, whose firm Alvarez and Marsal specializes in organizational turnarounds. The firm has been on the scene since early 2005.
"This was a system badly in need of restructuring," Roberti says. "Even before Katrina, we were going to have to go through reductions in force and close buildings, and the deferred maintenance on other buildings was enormous. Katrina really accelerated dealing with all of those issues." According to FEMA, almost 30 schools suffered catastrophic damage and may have to be demolished.
The district's finances were in even worse shape, says Roberti, the product of longstanding mismanagement and widespread corruption. The system was running a $100 million deficit at the end of 2005, and payroll errors were occurring at a 20 percent rate, compared to 1 percent nationally.
"Instead of having to fix something that's broken, we're putting in a new system with controls that we didn't have before," Roberti says. Those controls should eliminate the fraud that ranged from stolen equipment to false retirements claims and that so far has led to an FBI investigation and more than two dozen indictments. The central office will also have a more reliable payroll system, a new IT system for grades K-12, and a greatly reduced central staff, down from over 1,200 to well under 100.
As a result of the strict controls, Roberti is even predicting a budget surplus for this year. "We'll have to book several years of surpluses to catch up," he figures. "But it didn't get messed up in one year, and it won't get fixed in one year."
The changes all add up to better schools, he concludes. "If you're running a smooth, well-balanced operation with clean, well-maintained schools and money to operate, then a superintendent can really turn to the meat of the matter, which is educating children."
For all their high hopes and new approaches, New Orleans' new educational leaders are still dealing with conflicts and ghosts of the past. For example, Tulane's Cowen raises concerns over the balkanization of the public schools. "If there's one thing we'd like to see happen, it's a single governance system," he says. "Right now we have a hodge-podge."
On the other hand, Jarvis prefers to turn over autonomy to RSC principals more gradually. "We feel they need to have a knowledge and skills base before we let it all loose," she says. Jarvis also warns about going overboard with good ideas. "We have national experts who have a vision for how things should work. Everybody has a plan, and sometimes I have to slow them down."
But educators definitely do not want to go back to the way things were in New Orleans, with a sprawling central bureaucracy, powers of special interests, and political infighting that went through 10 superintendents in as many years. Riedlinger therefore sees the present course as a one-time opportunity. "We're in a spotlight from every direction, and we have got to do it right," he says. " If we go back to the way we were before Katrina, shame on us all."
Ron Schachter is a contributing editor.