In October 2005, I stood in the childhood home of a friend who had grown up in New Orleans. Two months after Hurricane Katrina, her father had already demolished everything on the first floor down to the studs. Waist-high water stains were still visible. Like many residents returning after the storm, his first step in rebuilding the city was restoring his house back into the family home.
New Orleans took another step toward restoration last week when Governor John Bel Edwards signed legislation returning all public schools to the oversight of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB).
From 2006 through 2012, my organization worked for the state evaluating proposals for new charter schools in the city. Every charter that opened in New Orleans during that time went through our evaluation process. Later, we worked with OPSB as it put in place systems for authorizing charter schools.
Because of our role — working for both the state and school board — I’ve been frequently asked for my opinion on the return of schools to OPSB. I’m happy to oblige, but my views are far less significant than those of people working with or in New Orleans’ schools every day.
Last week, I asked several of these people to answer the following question in 100 words or fewer: "During the next ten years, what actions must OPSB take—or not take—in order to continue the progress of the past 10 years?"
Here is what they wrote.
Patrick Dobard, superintendent, Louisiana Recovery School District:
"While system unification is a huge task in and of itself, one particular area of focus that must be pursued and acted upon by the OPSB leadership is that of being a portfolio manager. They must take a proactive approach to the development and management of a portfolio office that effectively addresses new school recruitment, growth plans for strong operators, board quality, nudging struggling schools, and if necessary, making the hard call to not renew a charter contract."
Stefan Lallinger, principal, Langston Hughes Academy Middle School:
"A democratically elected board making decisions about the schools in its community is as American as apple pie. It is time for the citizens of New Orleans to have our collective voices heard about what we want for our children. Nonetheless, as the transfer continues, let us not forget the most important lesson of the past decade: the structure of the system and function of the board matters.
"OPSB must control admissions, expulsions, facilities, equitable distribution of funding and most importantly, accountability of schools and CMOs. If we want to continue to realize the gains we’ve seen for our children, the board must not meddle in the autonomy of principals to hire staff, manage the budget and calendar, and establish the curriculum.
"We must heed the lessons of the past. Let’s not confuse ‘return of schools to OPSB,’ with ‘return to the way things were.’ Our kids can’t afford it."
Ben Kleban, founder and president, New Orleans College Prep:
"We are on a path in New Orleans towards establishing the most innovative and effective public school system in the country. In order to achieve that vision, OPSB will need to maintain and strengthen the balance of autonomy and accountability that has led the schools to be so successful over the past ten years. OPSB must also ensure equitable access to an excellent education for all children, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or special needs. Last but not least, OPSB must fully represent and engage the voices of our entire community in the vision and progress of our local public schools."
Dr. Andre Perry, columnist, Hechinger Report:
"The goals of New Orleans’ future shouldn’t be predicated on the last 10 years. New Orleans should always strive for schools that are based upon democratic principles that generate positive educational, economic, and political outcomes for the city and especially for the people who utilize public schools.
"The last ten years don’t need protecting—it’s the past. The New Orleans School Board should ensure that its students and families receive adequate and equitable funding for schools, safe and nurturing environments for kids, good working conditions for teachers, curricula that set students up for success, and the schools should be accessible by foot."
Erika McConduit-Diggs, president and CEO, Urban League of Greater New Orleans:
"The unification of New Orleans Public Schools is a pivotal moment in our history—one that will define our continued success and sustainability. The OPSB must prepare to support all New Orleans public schools as they transition back into the district. It must ensure that all schools can meet the needs of our most vulnerable children; ensure fair access to schools, programs, funding, and supports; hold schools accountable for continued growth and excellent outcomes for children; and ensure transparency and honesty in reporting successes, challenges, and corrective action steps needed to promote optimal results."
Caroline Roemer, executive director, Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools:
"First, we need to elect a school board that understands their role in a portfolio district. The school board then needs to focus on three things for continued progress:
"Ensure its superintendent will lead and make decisions that are rooted in academic outcomes;
"Create a charter school authorizing arm focused on high-quality charter schools that meet the needs of all students; and,
"Restructure a traditional central office into a portfolio district team that serves as a thought and support partner for its schools.
"The biggest challenge to all of this? Keeping politics out of decision making."
Here is what strikes me about these responses. While each statement is unique, the authors share a commitment to educate all children well and in keeping with the community’s values and aspirations. Qualities like equality, transparency, autonomy, and accountability resonate throughout.
Education advocates of all stripes use New Orleans as a cudgel against their opponents. In the city, though, the goals, aspirations, and path forward seem aligned — and widely shared.