New Orleans Has Developed a New Normal in Education

By Richard Whitmire

Students wait in line at ReNEW SciTech Academy, a charter school in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. Nine years after Hurricane Katrina, charter schools are the new reality of public education in New Orleans. The vast majority of public school students will be attending a charter school established by a state-run school district created in the wake of the storm. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

RCEd Commentary

When schools reopen in New Orleans later this summer, you can expect a steady flow of reporters to document the 10th anniversary of the post-Katrina transformation of schools here. Roughly 95 percent of students here attend charters.

Regardless of how you feel about charters, that’s stunning. Many people look at Washington DC, with nearly half of the students in charter schools, as remarkable. Nationally, only 5.8 percent of students attend charters, which illustrates the significance of the experiment here.

To get an early preview into what all this means, I visited New Orleans during the last two days of school in May. I quickly realized that data doesn’t quite get at what’s happening here: it’s not about what everyone has been reporting on attendance, graduation rates, or test scores.

It clicked when I was sitting around a table with KIPP Central City Academy leaders and heard the phrase “new normal.” That’s what I was seeing here, a new normal that doesn’t look like other cities, regardless of the balance between charters and traditional schools.

Take this school as an example. It’s a middle school with a tackle football team and the dressing that goes with it: cheerleaders, marching band, majorettes. A KIPP middle school, a brand that prides itself on dramatic boosts in academic achievement, fielding a tackle football team?

It’s all part of the new normal. KIPP operates in the building of a school that, pre-Katrina, was a football powerhouse in New Orleans. Why not continue the tradition and give students, especially boys, a reason to stay connected to school?

What makes the normal “new” is that KIPP has combined old-school traditions with new school academics: Central City is the highest performing middle school in the Recovery School District.

In another part of the city, I saw another flavor of new normal as I walked through Arthur Ashe Charter School with special education coordinator Milton Pereda, who explained that in only the past four years his school had seen the percentage of special education students rise sharply, from 22 to 37 percent. In most schools around the country, charter or traditional, that would be a cause for alarm.

But they’re proud of those numbers. It meant that families throughout New Orleans were discovering that Arthur Ashe, part of the FirstLine charter network here, was the place to be if your child had learning challenges. That’s a good thing.

One reason Pereda and the rest of the staff here can feel that comfortable is they were confident that the new school funding system in New Orleans would reward them, not punish them, by funneling more money their way.

The New Normal was everywhere. Unlike schools elsewhere, nobody paid any attention to the “backfill” controversy over adding students in later grades. Here, the Recovery School District took care of that. Everybody backfills.

Not only does everyone backfill, but everyone also shares in students who arrive mid-year, who often prove to be very weak students. Even more startling: Everyone shares in taking in students coming out of the judicial system. In each case, a simple “round robin” system overseen by the RSD sprinkles the students among the schools.

One of the most thoughtful leaders I found here was Jay Altman, a charter school pioneer who launched the FirstLine charter network and has worked on achieving equity for special education students. “What we’re trying to do is create a city where every kid goes to a good school, and the way to do that is to not just think about your school when making decisions, but all the schools,” he told me.

No wonder Pereda felt so relaxed about the rising special education numbers at Arthur Ashe. His boss is OK with it.

In other parts of the country, uneven discipline policies have become flash points. But in New Orleans, the RSD has pushed for common discipline procedures. Not only have schools embraced the commonality, but some have pushed to dramatically reduce suspensions.

While visiting Sci Academy I found one example, a vastly changed discipline system that looks like this: Not until three teachers on the same day report a problem with a student does that student get sent to the “Positive Redirection Center.” There, they fill out a “reflection” form that requires them to analyze the problem. At the same time, they continue with all their classwork, which gets sent over by the teachers. That way, they don’t fall behind academically, which in turn only leads to more discipline problems.

The result? In just one year, suspensions fell from 42 percent to just 2 percent.

It’s as if everyone took a deep breath and concluded, “Hey, let’s take the contentious stuff out of the system so we can focus on kids.”

It’s an interesting compromise: Everyone agrees on the common rules, such as backfilling and special education, and everyone buys into the key operating principle: autonomy checked by accountability.

That autonomy, absent the competitiveness, allows the charters to experiment and then share successes. Take the KIPP Central City Academy. There, I sat down with science teacher Hilah Barbot, who ticked off a blizzard of innovations that got launched there, with many now moving to other schools.

The most interesting: College Writing Buddies, which this year matched 35 Tulane University students to 100 KIPP sixth graders. Using Google Drive, the college students guided the 6th graders through various writing projects. This coming year, the program expands to 150 students tutoring 500 students. The program is such a hit it even has its own website.

New Orleans may not have as many academic high flying charters as you would find in Boston or New York. Still, the academic improvements across the city are striking. But the real breakthrough may be the New Normal.

It feels kind of nice.

Emerson Collective fellow Richard Whitmre is the author of several education books.

Richard Whitmire
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