Here is all you need to know about the New Orleans schools before Hurricane Katrina hit, 10 years ago this summer: They were awful. The schools were awful, the school board was awful, the central office was awful—all of them were awful. At a recent conference held to tout the progress made by the schools here since Katrina, Scott Cowan, an early proponent of the all-charter-school model that exists here now, described New Orleans’ pre-storm schools as mired in “unprecedented dysfunction.” In other words, they were awful.
The problem with a story like this isn’t just that it leaves out anything that doesn’t fit but that it can be hard to contain once it gets going. Before long, this “awfulizing narrative,” as it was described to me more than once during the 10 days I recently spent in New Orleans, spread past the school yards and central offices, sweeping up in its wake parents, children, indeed the whole hot mess that is New Orleans. The awful story was at the root of the decision to fire 7,000 teachers after the storm, the majority of whom were black New Orleanians and the backbone of the city’s middle class. It is the reason why so few locals can be found among the ranks of education reform groups here. And it is a rarely acknowledged justification for the long school day favored by charters here—10, even 12 hours when you factor in the cross-city bus trips that a choice landscape necessitates.
“When you start from the point of view that the communities these kids come from are broken, then the goal becomes to keep kids away from them as much as possible,” says Deirdre Johnson Burel, the executive director of the Orleans Public Education Network or OPEN, which seeks to engage community members around school-related policy issues. “It’s a way of containing and insulating kids from their own families.
An advocate of school reform in New Orleans long before the cause was cool, not to mention lucrative, Burel doesn’t fit the pre-/post-Katrina schools narrative at all. A native New Orleanian, Burel is a proud graduate of McMain High School, then a magnet school, now part of the Orleans Parish School Board, still one of the city’s best. She was an early proponent of charter schools here, including the city’s first, NOLA Charter Middle School. “I worked in the district and saw the dysfunction. I saw what a difference it made for children and families when schools had autonomy and a community could create something for its own children.”
But when Burel looks at the version of education reform that has taken root in New Orleans since Katrina, she barely recognizes what she sees. “What we have now isn’t my vision. Reform here has diagnosed children and families as a liability.”
The Urban Education Future?
When Tulane’s Education Research Alliance gathered policymakers, education reform advocates and academics for a conference in late June, marking the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the beginning of New Orleans remaking of its public education system, organizers posed a question. Does New Orleans’ all-charter-school district represent “the urban education future”? The answer seemed predetermined. There is, after all, an aggressive effort already underway to sell the New Orleans model—”relinquishment” to true believers—with its mix of decentralization, school choice and extreme accountability, to urban districts across the country.
But again and again, the official theme of “measurable progress” was undercut by reminders of the real cost of what ERA director Doug Harris describes as “the largest overhaul of a public school system that the country has ever seen”: the 7,000 teachers whose firing was described as a wound that won’t heal; the shunting aside of special education students and English language learners, especially in the first years of the experiment; the loss of trust among New Orleanians who believe they’ve been shut out of any meaningful decision-making regarding their city’s schools.
“The test scores are up, but let’s be honest about what we had to do to get there,” is how scholar Andre Perry put it. “Don’t lie to people and say ‘it’s all good.’”
Perry arrived in New Orleans the year before Katrina to teach at the University of New Orleans (UNO). After the storm, he quickly got involved in the school reform effort and would eventually become the CEO of the Capital One/UNO charter network. Now, after several years in Michigan at Davenport University, Perry is back, and speaking in increasingly critical terms about the uncomfortable reality that, in a city that is 65 percent black, the education reform movement, including the fastest-growing charter school networks, is almost entirely white led.
“If we don’t have black leaders in the mix, we’re just reinforcing a power structure that helped cause the situation we were in,” Perry told me when I interviewed him earlier this year. Here he was blunter still: “We can’t have a white-led reform movement in New Orleans where all of the decisions are made by three or four power brokers.”
No place at the table
“It’s like there is no place for New Orleanians at the table,” parent advocate Ashana Bigard tells me. It’s a steamy weekday morning and Bigard is taking me on a tour of what she calls “the new New Orleans,” part of which is sprouting rapidly along a stretch of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. Named for the famed Louisiana civil rights activist, the OC Corridor is now a fast gentrifying thoroughfare, home to, among other new attractions, a restaurant that specializes in “urban caveman cooking” and cocktails on tap.
Bigard doesn’t fit neatly with the pre-/post-Katrina story either. She grew up in the Melpomene Projects, just blocks from where we are now. And by the time she ended up at the New Orleans Free School at age 11, she was reading more than two years behind grade level. But the school, a radical experiment in individualized learning and grade-free classes, suited her so well that she’d end up testing into a magnet high school, then studying elementary and early childhood education in college. She saw the re-envisioning of the schools after Katrina as a huge opportunity to make life better for the children of New Orleans, including giving more children the chance to benefit from the kind of liberatory education that so shaped her.
“I thought, ‘we’re finally going to get the schools our kids deserve.’ You had a third fewer kids than before the storm and much more money. There was a chance to really do it right,” says Bigard.
These days she advocates for parents whose kids face suspension or expulsion as a result of ending up on the wrong side of the strict disciplinary codes that are now the norm at many of the city’s charter schools. A parent of three, she’s also an outspoken critic of the system of schools that has been constructed since the storm. “I should have more choices, instead I have fewer.”
Bigard has brought me to this particular block of the OC Corridor to check out a new “edupreneurial” venture. She can still recall when this area was the Black business district. Before that it was the site of one of the city’s first major civil rights actions, a boycott by Black shoppers who were protesting the stores’ practice of hiring only white workers. Today the old Handleman’s department store building is home to a nonprofit called Leading Educators, one of a number of groups seeking to remedy a major problems in New Orleans’ new schools: staggering levels of teacher turnover. It turns out that when you replace a permanent, local teaching force with one that’s largely transplanted and temporary, even the lure of “historic homes at affordable prices” may not be enough to get them to stay.
When Bigard asks her standard question—”How many New Orleanians work here?”—the staff member who greets us isn’t sure. “One maybe?” (The correct answer, as I’ll learn later from CEO Jonas Chartock, is two out of twelve.) Bigard explains why she wants to know: that it seems strange to her that yet another organization focused on improving the city’s schools wouldn’t benefit from the knowledge and experience of people who are actually from here. The exchange is friendly, and it’s one I’ll see her engage in again and again during my stay here. “As a New Orleanian I have a generational investment in my city, but it’s like I’ve been iced out,” says Bigard.
The question of who gets to be part of the conversation regarding the shape and future of schools in New Orleans is more than symbolic. It touches on a fundamental—and still unresolved—debate about the very purpose that schools should serve. Put this question to an education reform advocate here and you’re likely to be met with an incredulous response; the answer is obvious. Schools increase the numeracy and literacy of students as measured by standardized tests. Effective schools are the ones that do the best job of that.
But what about New Orleanians who have a more expansive definition of what schools should do—whose descriptions of successful schools include, not just academic achievement, but harder-to-measure concepts like community building, justice, liberation, and the ability of the city’s children to not just survive but thrive in their own world?
Aesha Rasheed probably knows as much as anyone about the current schools’ landscape in New Orleans. She founded the New Orleans Parent Organizing Network (NOLA PON) and edits the New Orleans Parents’ Guide, the go-to reference for parents who must navigate a complex and ever-changing system of schools. The copy that she brings with her when we meet clocks in at 175 pages long, enough to give parents a data-filled snapshot of each of the 60 some charter schools operated by the Recovery School District (RSD), the 16 Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) charters, the six traditional OPSB public schools, a handful of independent charter schools that don’t fit into any of these categories, as well as information about the application processes for all of these now that parents are no longer assigned a school based on where they live.
But choice on paper doesn’t necessarily translate into choice in reality. As Rasheed explains, the emphasis on test-based accountability—charter schools must increase student test scores or risk closure—means that New Orleans has ended up with a lot of schools that aren’t “wildly different” from one another, as she puts it. Many of the schools here embrace the same combination of long days, strict discipline and a heavy concentration on the core, and tested, subjects: math and English.
“Schools are all under the pressure to make certain grades. As a school leader you’re going to look at what works in other schools, meaning what works in terms of getting the test scores that you need. Then that gets replicated,” says Rasheed.
If New Orleans is a free market of educational options, as its advocates like to claim, it is rapidly entering into its consolidation phase. Charters that have the most success raising test scores get to open new schools or take over existing ones. By next year, fewer than 10 of the charters in the Recovery School District will be stand-alone-schools. The rest belong to charter networks or national charter management organizations, including KIPP which operates nine of the RSD’s schools.
As Rasheed explains, what New Orleans doesn’t have many of are the kinds of innovative charters that attracted the pre-Katrina school reformers, schools like NOLA Charter Middle School, founded with the explicit purpose of giving teachers and school leaders the space to experiment with new approaches, in partnership with parents and community groups. Out of the city’s 80-plus schools, Rasheed says that just three were started and/or shaped in response to community and parent vision and demand.
“I don’t see charter schools in this community taking that opportunity. They’re not necessarily sitting down and saying ‘let’s put our heads together and think about how we can restructure in radical ways to meet the needs of the kids we serve,’” says Rasheed. “There just isn’t the incentive to do that.”
At the heart of the complex education experiment that is unfolding in New Orleans lies a relatively straightforward concept. Replace the centralized authority of the traditional school district with a system of autonomous schools and power shifts—to schools, to school leaders and to parents. But while schools, and especially principals, have far more independence and authority than under the old model, what about parents?
“Autonomy radically shifts the balance of power,” Rasheed says, “but it doesn’t shift it to parents.”
To find out why, I head to the furthest reaches of New Orleans East to meet Christy Rosales-Fajardo, or Miss Cristy as she’s known to the parents and students for whom she advocates. Fajardo specializes in helping parents who are the least equipped to navigate the intricacies of the city’s new schools: those who speak little or no English. Last year, when New Orleans saw a surge of unaccompanied minors arriving from Central America, Fajardo was the one who registered them for school. She estimates that at a single charter school, she is listed as the emergency contact for 80 students.
“The RSD doesn’t like me,” Fajardo says by way of introduction. We’re in the headquarters of her organization, NOLA Village, which occupies a donated space above a row of Vietnamese store fronts in the Versaille neighborhood of New Orleans East. Known as “Little Saigon,” this is the heart of New Orleans’ Vietnamese community, now home to a growing number of Latino immigrants who came to work in the city after the storm.
Fajardo is telling me a familiar story, one that I’ve come to think of as the conversion narrative—how she went from being a reform enthusiast to one of the new system’s loudest, and most persistent critics. “I thought charters were the best. College readiness, world-class education—I bought it all. I thought ‘charters must be better than what we have because everyone coming down here is so much smarter than we are.’”
But Fajardo, who spent years working as an advocate for children and parents in the pre-Katrina schools, soon found herself playing the same role in the new system. First informally, then as an organizer for VAYLA, a group of students and young leaders from both the Vietnamese and Latino communities in New Orleans East, Fajardo began to do battle on behalf of students and parents with limited English.
“I heard all the stories, about discrimination, about parents who had no way to communicate with anyone at their kids’ schools, about students being pushed out by schools,” says Fajardo. Her work with parents helped inform the federal complaint filed by VAYLA and other advocacy groups in 2013, alleging that New Orleans’ schools were violating the civil rights of non-English speaking students.
Fajardo is convinced that parents actually have less power in New Orleans today than they did under the previous school system. She argues that eliminating neighborhood schools has also eliminated the power of parents to come together as part of a community. “Parents are fighting individual battles with these schools and they’re all petrified of what will happen to their kids,” she says. Meanwhile, principals in the new autonomous landscape are more powerful than ever, functioning more like CEOs who report to hand-picked nonprofit boards. “That’s the power shift,” says Fajardo.
Before I go, I ask Fajardo about the claim made by so many education reform advocates, that by giving parents the power to leave schools they’re unhappy with, they have the ultimate control over their children’s education. But she doesn’t see it that way at all. “Unless everybody pulls their kids out, how do you ever change a school?”
When Fajardo protested policies at her young son’s charter school in New Orleans East—like silent lunch for kindergarteners—the principal, whose charter network now runs every school in this part of the city, suggested that perhaps Fajardo would be happier at another school. “But if I don’t stay and fight, who will?” Fajardo tells me. “I told the principal that before I pull my son out, I’ll pull her out.”
I believe her.
When economist Doug Harris presented his research findings at the ERA conference earlier this summer, purporting to have found that school reforms in New Orleans have produced significant gains in test scores, it was telling that the first question he was asked was “will anyone believe you?” Ten years into New Orleans’ education experiment, data here remains a hotly-contested commodity, often hard to access, and subject to ever-changing standards of measurement. But say that the rosiest claims for what’s happened here—a rise in test scores, graduation rates and ACT scores—are on the mark. Is it enough?
The challenge for architects and advocates of the reform effort here is that, expanded even slightly beyond these narrow metrics, the case that life is improving for the children of New Orleans gets much harder to make. Child poverty stands at 39%, a figure that’s unchanged since Katrina, even though the city is now home to tens of thousands fewer children. Inequality is the second highest in the country, on par with Zambia. And violent crime remains a persistent plague here.
“The measure of the work has to be about how it changes the life outcomes of our children,” says OPEN’s Deirdre Johnson Burel. “If my baby isn’t alive, it doesn’t matter what he got on his ACT. If he’s been divorced from his reality and has no idea who he is, what does it mean that he’s on a college campus, lost and confused?”
Then there are the huge number of young people in New Orleans between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school or working. The recent Measure of America study, conducted by the Social Science Research Council, found that the greater New Orleans/Metarie region is home to more than 26,000 so-called “opportunity youth. The youngest would have been just six when the overhaul of the school system began.
But even this number fails to convey the sheer number of young people here who have left the city’s schools, and are in one of the fast-expanding alternative programs, or are in work-training programs to prepare them for jobs in the tourism and hospitality industry. Added together, the number of students who’ve dropped out of the New Orleans’ schools begins to creep up uncomfortably close to the 43,000 students who are still in them.
Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, a nine-year-old nonprofit that helps develop youth leaders, recently decided to expand its focus beyond working in schools in the city in order to include youth for whom the system didn’t work. “Rethink is still very committed to the idea that young people should have an equitable voice and a powerful voice in determining every aspect of how their schools and their education system is shaped,” says executive director Karen “KG” Marshall. “If we stick to the model of operating in schools then we don’t allow young people who’ve been pushed out of schools to contribute to that larger vision and goal of systemic change.”
As the 10-year anniversary of Katrina approaches, we’ll be awash in claims that the makeover of New Orleans’ schools has produced a miracle. Hedge funder and education reformer Whitney Tilson presented an early preview recently when he pronounced in his school reform e-newsletter that in New Orleans, “a relinquishment (rather than reform) approach post-Katrina continues to yield STUNNING results.”
In the city itself, though, the conversation about the education experiment, and its real costs and consequences, appears to be changing rapidly. Soon after the ERA conference, Michael Stone, the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, posted an entry on the group’s blog entitled “No Miracles. Real Progress.” While Stone cited what he called “large academic gains,” he acknowledged “our city’s progress hasn’t cured the social ills that young people here face.”
Stone also spoke directly to the simmering resentment among New Orleanians about what’s happened to the schools in their city. “An encouraging decade of academic growth hasn’t erased the pervasive sense that reform was done “to” the city, rather than via collective action by citizens, veteran educators, and African American families in New Orleans,” Stone wrote. He called for patience, noting that the work of making New Orleans a more just place may take decades.
But after a decade of the most radical school reform experiment in the country, patience may be running thin. And building trust among a community where it’s in short supply may prove far more difficult than boosting test scores. “We were told there was no room for partnership because ‘you’re broken,’ says Burel. “So how does it become a partnership now?”
Jennifer Berkshire is a freelance journalist based in Massachusetts. She writes the blog EduShyster.com.
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