By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

More transparency, more equity, and greater levels of commitment to non-charter schools were among requests from community members at a public task force meeting Tuesday night with Recovery School District head John White.

Members of the task force – comprising representatives from the RSD, the non-profit Orleans Parish Education Network and the charter support group New Schools for New Orleans – presented feedback gathered during a July comment period. The public packed the cafeteria of Andrew Wilson Charter School, where the meeting was held, and suggested additional ideas.

The RSD, which took charge of the bulk of New Orleans public schools after Katrina, has chartered 46 and directly runs another 23. The Orleans Parish School Board was left with the schools not then in failure and today runs five directly and has another 11 charters. In addition, the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is in charge of three charter schools.

Tuesday night’s meeting is part of a “100 days” planning process inaugurated by White after he succeeded Paul Vallas as RSD superintendent earlier this year. The planning process, which ends Aug. 23, has sought input from four constituencies: community members, students, parents and educators.

White said he hopes that meetings will identify a core set of problems that can be tackled systematically.

“Our objective is to come back on the 100th day, and say, we’ve gone through all these recommendations, and this is where we’re going to focus,” he said.

While White’s “100 day” process is not the RSD’s first push for community input, it has features that make it unique. Soon after White’s May pledge to listen to stakeholders, the RSD set out 30 comment boxes at locations across the city; the results were presented at Tuesday’s meeting. The structure of the meeting was also more inclusive. Audience members broke into small groups to have their input recorded by a task force member. White himself sat in on the groups and took notes, and the main points were read aloud at the end of the night.

White’s methods contrast sharply with those of his predecessor. At contentious meetings on school facilities and where to build them, Paul Vallas allowed only a small number of audience members to take the microphone and speak for no more than two minutes.

Many in White’s audience Tuesday night praised the multi-faceted RSD system for providing parents with greater school choice and teachers and principals with greater autonomy. But dissent also was heard.

“Choice in New Orleans can be overwhelming,” said Chris O’Neill, a representative of the community-based Colton School Group. “The RSD has never commissioned a third party to do a study of why parents pick the school their child is currently in. A lot of the reasons parents pick are random.”

Rashida Govan, research director at the non-profit and non-governmental Orleans Public Education Network, pointed out that openness is needed in light of autonomy.

Rose Peterson, director of the Eastbank Collaborative of Charter Schools, expressed concern that RSD’s momentum toward chartering off most of its portfolio can weaken morale and focus at direct-run schools awaiting change. “Because if a school feels that at the end of day that they will be turned over to a  charter operator, then there may be less of a commitment at that school,” she said.

White has already heard from both students and educators. The first of two task force meetings focused on the concerns of parents will be Aug. 10, at Langston Hughes Academy from 6 to 8 p.m.

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...