Building New Orleans Schools From The Ground Up

Even before Hurricane Katrina New Orleans Schools suffered from a lack of teachers, run down facilities and failure to meet state and national guidelines. Since the devastating storm those problems are compounded. As students and families trickle back into New Orleans Schools, those in leadership roles must provide all the necessities to educate the current 27,000 children, along with 100 more who are enrolled each week.

New Orleans Schools have a new leadership team in place to guide the way. Paul Pastorek was recently named Louisiana Schools Chief, and Paul Vallas will head the Recovery School District (RSD), which includes most schools previously run by the state board. Vallas, who has served as superintendent for both Philadelphia and Chicago Schools, appears very realistic about the troubles plaguing the New Orleans Schools. But he also claims that, “This will be the greatest experiment in choice, in charter, and in creating not only a school system, but also a system of schools.”

Vallas has said that the lack of usual limitations will create opportunities, but that the limited finances will remain challenging. New Orleans Schools currently have a mix of 58 public schools, charter schools and RSD schools open. 20 more New Orleans Schools are expected to open in fall of 2007. What will they look like?

Many hope that charter schools will continue to have a strong presence in the district. New Orleans Schools have 17 RSD authorized charter schools. There are also charter schools run under the local school board and 5 magnet schools. The world is watching to see how these choices are monitored and to determine their effectiveness. Many school reformers hail charters as the future of New Orleans Schools due to their combination of independence and accountability. Failing schools are simply closed.

Vallas and Pastorek recently attended an education summit hosted by the New Schools Venture Fund and the New Leaders for New Schools. The “two Pauls” outlined their plan for addressing issues like educator shortages and poor classroom space. Some of the proposals include initiating a “welcome school” to screen incoming children of New Orleans Schools for both academic and emotional needs. Post-Katrina teachers have seen a major increase in anxious and fearful children unable to concentrate on academic tasks.

The continued disruption and lack of routine in the lives of these children adds an emotional burden to the already understaffed and overburdened New Orleans Schools’ teachers. This leads to the problem of attracting teachers to this devastated and struggling area. Vallas plans to draw on the student-teacher populations to help prepare for the need. New Orleans Schools will need to hire 800 more teachers for the ’07-’08 school year.

New Leaders for New Schools, a principal training organization, has signed up to train 40 principals for New Orleans Schools by 2010. In spite of this outside help, the task is daunting and enormous. Vallas puts a positive spin on the challenge, “If we can create a dynamic school system here, that means it can be done any where, and there will no longer be any excuses for why it can’t be done.”

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