‘Drinking From a Fire Hydrant’: New Orleans’ New Superintendent’s Singular To-Do List
Missing students, painful closing/consolidation of schools, a new academic accountability system: There are no small tasks on Avis Williams’ agendaBy Beth Hawkins | November 17, 2022
On Halloween, Avis Williams showed up for work as the new superintendent of New Orleans Public Schools dressed as Wonder Woman, a gold cuff on her bicep and an Apple Watch on her wrist. Among a group of children trick-or-treating at district headquarters: a tiny doppelganger, identically dressed. In a photo of the two posted to Twitter, the littler Wonder Woman sports a shy smile, copying Williams’ pose.
Symbolically, a lot is going on in the snapshot. Williams is the first woman to lead New Orleans’ 181-year-old school system. Her background matches that of her district’s most underserved students, not the policy wonks and researchers who keep eyes on New Orleans. She can still recall the amazement she felt at first having a Black woman teacher — in eighth grade.
Constitutionally, she is the dynamic opposite of her laconic predecessor, Henderson Lewis. An avid runner, she describes herself as an adrenaline junkie. She’s a social media ninja, working her signature hashtags — #equity, #excellence and #joy — into everything from PowerPoints to a social media joust with community members over the best and worst Halloween treats. (She’s team candy corn.)
“She’s got a great personality,” says Dana Peterson, CEO of the nonprofit policy incubator New Schools for New Orleans and one of the architects of the school system’s turnaround. “She’s very engaging.”
And she has taken the helm at a moment when she will need every power in the superhero toolkit — starting with good will.
Operating within the unique structure of the nation’s only all-charter school system, Williams has been tasked with a lot. She must confront the same post-pandemic challenges as any other superintendent, but with the added trauma of Hurricane Ida — which ripped roofs off homes and damaged schools. Williams’ first days on the job were spent building coalitions to address a student absenteeism rate that refuses to stop rising and to provide access to scarce mental health services.
Ida and the pandemic exacerbated a long list of frustrations families have about navigating the all-charter system, created by state officials in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While the shift has been called the fastest school improvement effort in modern history, it’s far from done.
There are not enough high-quality schools, and those that exist don’t necessarily take all comers. There are long bus rides, wait lists and, in many places, a lack of attention to students learning English or who have disabilities. The centralized enrollment system is a source of constant complaints.
Most controversially, however, when Williams was hired, the Orleans Parish School Board handed her three goals involving the system NOLA Public Schools uses to make high-stakes decisions. She must figure out how to evaluate schools in the absence of state test data for 2020 and 2021, how to make the system fairer and more transparent going forward and how to manage the process of closing and consolidating schools because of ongoing enrollment declines.
As school closures are the most contentious thing the district does, any change to the poorly understood accountability framework upsets someone, somewhere. State law both requires New Orleans superintendents to make closure decisions and attempts to protect them from local political pressure. Williams, then, is being asked to change a system that is both unpopular and credited with creating better schools.
Opponents of the law wage continual campaigns to return to a traditional system of district-run schools. State Sen. Joe Bouie, a New Orleans Democrat, has called repeatedly for an end to the all-charter system. Meanwhile, an organization called Erase the Board campaigns to elect Orleans Parish School Board members who will demand a return to a system where district leaders run all schools.
Bouie has several times introduced legislation to change Act 91 to give the school board the power to make decisions — such as staffing and curriculum — that are now made by individual schools or their charter networks. One such bill failed in the state Senate last year. But in 2021, he succeeded in modifying the law to allow a board majority — versus the previously required supermajority — to overturn a superintendent’s decision to close an underperforming school.
Proponents of the all-charter system — including current board members, some of whom have deep roots in education policy — fear that in her efforts to refine the system, Williams could water down the decision-making process or, if she doesn’t get it right, hand these forces ammunition.
“She comes into her job as superintendent of New Orleans at such an interesting time for education in this country as a whole, and in this community,” says Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools. “New Orleans students were out of school due to the pandemic really for a solid two years. That in itself has caused us to think about how we are determining what a successful school looks like.”
It’s going to take Williams a little time to figure things out, Roemer adds: “I think she is still drinking from a fire hydrant.”
A shrinking district with mounting challenges
The 52-year-old Williams grew up in North Carolina in poverty. Her father killed her mother during a domestic dispute and was sentenced to life in prison, according to a profile of Williams published by the New Orleans Advocate. She served in the Army and worked as a personal trainer before becoming a classroom teacher in the late 1990s.
Williams came to New Orleans from the 2,800-student Selma City Schools district in Alabama, where she was superintendent for five years. During her tenure, Selma’s score on Alabama’s state school report card rose from 68 to 76 points, the equivalent of a full letter grade.
Like New Orleans, Selma has high rates of both poverty and crime. In response to absenteeism and in-school violence, Williams used restorative justice to reduce behavior problems and suspensions in Selma schools. She also used federal COVID recovery funds to hire social workers and counselors.
In March, Orleans Parish School Board members voted unanimously to appoint Williams, who started her job in July. Typically, a new superintendent gets to know the district and then releases a strategic plan — something Williams says she will do next spring.
But her success may hinge on how many of her proposed solutions are generated by school leaders who are accustomed to thinking of themselves as the superintendent’s equals. Though they compete with one another for enrollment, charter operators for the last decade have hashed out their own solutions to common problems, then presented them to the state officials overseeing the district.
District systems that attempt to ensure fairness in school funding, enrollment and discipline, among other things, are outgrowths of this process. They laid the ground for the 2015 law that would return New Orleans schools to the control of a local, elected board after 12 years of state oversight and enshrined in statute its role as a charter school operator.
Among other things, that legislation was intended to shield the superintendent from community pressure to keep poorly performing schools open indefinitely. The main criteria for decision were schools’ financial health and academic success, as defined by the student pass rate on annual state exams.
But less than three years after the district returned to local control, the pandemic struck, halting many improvement efforts — and forcing a two-year suspension of statewide tests. The board asked Williams to implement long-contemplated permanent changes to make the accountability system fairer. But first, she has to figure out how to make charter renewal decisions without legally mandated test data from 2020 and 2021.
At the same time, the district, ideally in collaboration with school leaders, must come up with a process for reducing the number of empty classroom seats in a city that is experiencing a drop in population. The number of schools needs to shrink — but in a way that, as much as possible, ensures high-performing and sought-after schools are located in buildings that were constructed or renovated following Hurricane Katrina and are distributed throughout the city, near neighborhoods where there is demand.
‘There’s nowhere else … where the stakes are so high’
A year ago, New Schools for New Orleans warned that local schools had 3,400 unfilled seats — a number that had more than doubled by the end of the 2021-22 school year. Overall enrollment had fallen from 49,000 in 2019 to about 44,000, and was projected to continue to drop. Because of declining birth rates and a reversal of a post-Katrina population growth, it is not expected to rebound.
Since falling enrollment makes it easier to secure a seat in sought-after schools, low-performing schools experience disproportionate declines. And as funding is tied to enrollment, as the number of children shrinks, it becomes harder for schools to pay for the full array of classes and services that students need. This, in turn, affects academic performance.
Last spring, New Schools for New Orleans urged school leaders to establish a voluntary process for deciding how to consolidate. By the end of the academic year, though, just two underenrolled schools had elected to close, while another two lost their charters under the old accountability framework.
In October, the New Orleans College Prep network announced that at the end of the school year it would relinquish its charter for Walter L. Cohen High School, which had earned a series of Fs on state report cards. Williams and the board must now decide what to do with the new building it had been slated to move into in December.
Because there has been little voluntary movement among schools to figure out how to consolidate, it remains to be seen whether the school system ends up with a process created by district leadership or in collaboration with school leaders.
But academic performance is not the only consideration as the district contracts. After Hurricane Katrina, the federal government provided nearly $2 billion to build new schools and renovate historic ones throughout the city. Those buildings are now aging, with some in need of expensive maintenance.
Normally, when a school’s charter is revoked, the superintendent decides what happens to that school’s building. Typically, a new charter operator is allowed to take it over. But the calculus is far different when dealing at a citywide scale. At the end of the contraction process, the city’s education leaders want New Orleans to end up with a mix that includes the highest-performing schools and the most attractive buildings, ideally distributed geographically in a way that ensures every neighborhood has good options.
This fall, the board began considering a policy Williams calls “district optimization,” which would provide a framework for right-sizing the district. In addition to decisions about which operators will keep their charters and who gets which buildings, any policy eventually adopted needs to give families enough time to find new schools, as well as some sort of preference in the enrollment system.
At the same time, Williams needs to overhaul the school evaluation scheme the leaner district will use. Under the current system, which is based on both state and local criteria, the number of students who score at grade level on annual end-of-course exams is a major element of a school’s evaluation.
But since schools’ poverty rates typically correlate with proficiency, a way to make the system fairer and to produce better data for school improvement efforts would be to factor in how much progress struggling students make, says board President Olin Parker, the former head of charter school accountability at the state Department of Education.
Because the New Orleans district’s charter school governance system is such a closely watched policy innovation — with aspects showing up in other districts and states — changing the accountability framework will almost certainly cause ripples. There’s widespread agreement that academic growth is a crucial measurement, but also fear that creating an accountability system that includes more — and potentially more subjective — measures of school quality could dilute its power to intervene in low-quality schools.
“Historically, I have been something of a purist about academic outcomes,” says Roemer, but the pandemic forced schools to become effective in other ways, such as distributing meals and technology, finding missing students, and closing and reopening during Hurricane Ida and its aftermath. “I like that we continue to push on the definitions of what a good school is.”
While the bedrock expectation that students make a year’s progress in a year should remain, adds Travis Pillow, an innovation fellow and senior writer at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, there are ways to broaden the accountability framework without diluting it. Schools could get credit for doing well with the students in the lowest-performing quartile, for instance.
“That’s becoming really important, because the bottom is falling out,” says Pillow, noting that the students who were furthest behind before COVID-19 have seen the biggest academic losses. “Some schools in New Orleans set internal goals of two to three years’ growth because they know they have kids that far behind.”
Finding a way to account for strong student growth in schools with low proficiency rates would go a long way toward securing public support for continuing the accountability system, says Doug Harris, director of Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, which has tracked improvement in the city’s schools.
“The [school] accountability movement has been concerned about too much focus on testing,” he says. “In New Orleans, it’s that times 10…. There’s nowhere else where accountability matters so much, where the stakes are so high.”
‘The secret sauce of New Orleans’
In most places, a new superintendent’s tour of a district is scripted and sleepy. There are education-themed meetings — “Listen and Learn” or “Soup with the Supe” — with different segments of the community and promises to look into the concerns that attendees voice. At the end of the semester, quarter or 100 days, the new leader will unveil a strategic plan, which probably was shaped less by community feedback than by school board instructions.
Williams’ “ABC tour” community meetings — ABC being “Dr. Avis’ Beignets and Conversation” — drew parents with problems with buses or who did not win their hoped-for seat in the lottery, as well as community members who know more about how schools can accelerate learning than lots of education policymakers do.
And there were people associated with Erase the Board, who would like New Orleans to revert to a traditional district, demanding to know how Williams, with her limited legal authority, would change a decentralized school system.
The new superintendent didn’t flinch, but she didn’t have all the answers, either.
“This job is unlike any other in the country,” says Peterson. “It’s all about change. How does she effectuate change?
“It’s not that New Orleans doesn’t have the same problems as other cities, but the way we solve them is very different,” he adds. “That’s the secret sauce of New Orleans.”
Disclosure: The City Fund provides financial support to New Schools for New Orleans and The 74.
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