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Schools of Thought

August 28, 2006

Suzanne Johnson
Michael DeMocker

Baronne Street is a disaster, even by current New Orleans standards. A pre-Katrina street project lies abandoned, leaving a road covered in deeply scarred, sandy ridges barely passable by anything less than a military Humvee.

tulsum_06_pubschOn the south side of this residential street that winds through the Delachaise neighborhood between the Garden District and Uptown New Orleans, a row of neat and colorful modified shotgun houses overlooks the mess. Neighbors fret about where to put their trash since garbage trucks can't get through. They also fret about what's going on across the street.

There, a hulking brick building sits vacant, trash littering its sparse lawns, its adjacent parking lot and playing fields empty and silent. The empty building is what remains of Walter L. Cohen Senior High School, one of New Orleans' failing public schools and one of the 85 percent that, as of late spring 2006, had not reopened following Hurricane Katrina's August 2005 assault. Blame it on wind damage, flooding, neglect or the evacuation of its students to all points near and far. Or all of the above.

Some of the Cohen kids are in Houston, where teachers complain that New Orleans high school students can't read. Or they're in other Louisiana schools. Or they're not in school at all. Before Katrina, more than 800 students passed through Cohen's hallways each year, their school labeled an academic failure when its standardized test scores were compared to state averages. As with other area schools, Cohen had been slowly improving its standardized scores in an attempt to avoid state takeover.

But that was then, before Katrina, before the Big One blew through town and changed everything in its path, and not always for the worse. Because if there's one thing that the myriad post-K New Orleans deconstructionists agree on, it's that there's an unprecedented opportunity here to reinvent one of the country's most troubled public school systems.


Before Katrina, Tulane University President Scott Cowen knew the overall public school system in New Orleans had problems, but not the extent of those problems. As he worked with Tulane administrators to ensure the survival of the university, his only focus when it came to public education was to find a school available in January 2006 for the children of Tulane faculty and staff. He did that, forging a charter-school relationship with the highly regarded Lusher School, located near the Tulane Uptown campus.

Lusher, previously a K-8 school, was chartered in December 2005 as K-12 and will remain open to the children of Tulane faculty and staff as long as they reside in Orleans Parish. A charter is a public school with a greater degree of self-governance than one run by a central school system, and is generally operated in partnership with a nonprofit organization. Before that deal was finalized, however, the call came from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (B '94), naming Cowen to the 17-member Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

The BNOBC, composed of community leaders from a variety of fields, was charged with developing a blueprint for rebuilding New Orleans. Cowen's specific charge: to find the right people and develop a plan to reform and rebuild public education. The "right people" became a 19-member steering committee of community and state leaders in education and business; a 28-member stakeholder advisory council intended to bring the concerns of the "stakeholders" -- teachers, parents and administrators -- to the table; and a 21- member blue ribbon national expert panel, whose members included representatives from the Rand Corp., Teach for America, and experts from such organizations as the National Catholic Educational Association, the New Teacher Project, the American Institutes for Research, and the Harvard Teacher Education Program.

"We set out to create a long-term vision for what the New Orleans public schools ought to look like -- one that would help attract families and businesses to the city," Cowen says. "We were dedicated to developing a plan for a school system that would serve as the model for all urban school systems in the 21st century -- beginning with New Orleans."

At a time when almost every rebuilding proposal in New Orleans was being met by opposition from some faction with a self-interest to protect, the idea of revamping the school system met with no opposition at all.

"Rebuilding the levees and housing are necessary ingredients to making New Orleans habitable," Cowen says. "But it's the school system and the quality of education we offer that can really transform this city over time. The others are necessities, but this is the piece that can really be transformative and I think people understand that."

tulsum_06_nops1At the same time, the State of Louisiana followed through on legislation passed in 2003 that provided for state takeover of schools that had consistently "failed" under the school and district accountability program.

The law established a Recovery School District to be run by the Louisiana Department of Education, and Louisiana education superintendent Cecil Picard was an ex officio member of Cowen's BNOB committee, ensuring that the city and state were on the same page in their recommendations.

Of the 117 public schools in Orleans Parish prior to Katrina, 102 were failing and were taken over by the state, leaving a handful of district schools to be run by the local school board. Currently, 25 public schools are open in the parish, serving approximately 12,000 students, or 20 percent of the pre- Katrina enrollment. Picard says about 30,000 students are expected in the city by August 2006, as opposed to the 62,000 enrolled prior to Katrina. Simple math dictates that some schools -- perhaps even larger ones in heavily flooded areas -- might reopen later rather than sooner, or not at all.

After several months of weekly public meetings and input sessions for displaced residents, Cowen and the BNOB committee on Jan. 17 presented the mayor with its recommendations: a hefty report that has drawn the endorsement of the mayor, the Orleans Parish School Board, and both local, state and national educators.

"The basic idea was to fundamentally change the way we run our school system and individual schools, with every decision based on what's best for students," Cowen says.

The plan is built around four basic goals:

  • To graduate all students ready for college and the workplace regardless of race, socioeconomic class, or where they live;
  • To empower schools to make their own decisions and hold them accountable for student performance;
  • To develop small networks of similar schools that provide flexibility, facilitate collaboration and best-practice sharing, and lend additional support rather than have schools rely on a top-down governance structure; and
  • To develop partnerships with parent and community organizations such as faith-based or business groups to keep everyone engaged in the education system.

"These four areas sound very basic -- almost simple," Cowen says. "But they represent a very different way of doing business for Orleans Parish schools."

One of the biggest changes would be allowing children to attend whatever school best meets their needs, regardless of where they live, and making individual schools responsible for the performance of their students.

"This will raise the bar for educators throughout the system," Cowen says. "But the key is to have access to good schools in every neighborhood."

It also will give local educators a greater say in how their schools are run. With the financial, hiring and academic decisions falling to the principals rather than the overarching school board, each school will be able to determine how to best meet its own needs. Principals will be better prepared to handle this new level of autonomy. The parish school board will focus more on driving transformation and ensuring accountability -- the "big picture" items -- rather than the minutiae of running more than 100 individual schools.

Cowen makes it clear with the new autonomy comes accountability. Other notable recommendations include a universal pre-K program, before- and after-school programs, and a professional development organization to assess and address the needs of school leaders. The plan has attracted support from what have often been fractious, if not downright hostile, groups.

"Everyone agrees that the plan we developed represents the end designation," Cowen says. "What we're trying to do now is get the state and Orleans Parish, as they reopen schools, to do it in a way that is consistent with this plan to ensure that we take advantage of this opportunity for transformation."


If the BNOB plan is followed, Cowen says, New Orleans can in a very short time--thanks to a kick in the pants from Katrina--go from having one of the country's worst public education systems to one of its best.

"New Orleans has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reconceptualize and rebuild our school system so that within a single generation it could be one of the top school systems in the country," Cowen says. "It usually would take many, many years to institute this kind of change and see the results. But we have the opportunity to do it very quickly. Katrina has given us a clean slate from which to work."

Now that the BNOB report has been completed, Cowen's -- and Tulane's -- involvement in the school system will remain advisory in nature, other than its role as the charter partner with Lusher School.

"We are talking about taking what we've learned here and creating, with Dillard and Xavier universities, a new Partnership for the Transformation of K-12 Public Education," Cowen says. "Over time, Tulane can play an integral role in policymaking -- not teacher education, but policymaking -- as to how urban areas can configure schools and manage them."

In the meantime, under the guidance of both the Orleans Parish School Board and the Recovery School District, Orleans Parish slowly continues to reopen schools, a mix of both charter and district-run schools, responding to the law of supply and demand.

"The key now is to synchronize the current reopening of schools and make sure it's aligned with this long-term plan," Cowen says. "Everybody agrees it's the right vision for the system; the question is how we get from where we are now to where we need to go."

As local and state education leaders develop plans to reopen the schools, officials are keeping one eye on the upcoming hurricane season even as they calculate how many of New Orleans' public school students might return by fall. For Walter L. Cohen Senior High, home of the Mighty Green Hornets, its building currently empty, its students dispersed, a fall 2006 reopening might mean a new start.


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