Maintaining school reform's momentum in New Orleans will be tougher both politically and in the classroom. Photo: EditorB, Creative Commons

Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans public school students attend charter schools, more than in any other city in America. That puts us on the cutting edge of a nationwide school reform effort. But what makes New Orleans even more striking is this: to date, we’ve led the nation in our willingness to transform low-performing schools and replace them with higher performing institutions.

That’s going to become a tougher and tougher challenge.

Over the past six years, we’ve turned around schools that often had sky-high drop-out rates, low academic rigor, and school cultures plagued by violence. This has, without a doubt, improved children’s lives.

But as a city, we will soon be faced with a more complicated question: how do we transition from “better than before” to a system of academically excellent schools? It is one thing to close or transform a school where over half the students drop out before graduation. It is another thing to decide what to do with a school that is safe and reasonably well operated but lacks excellent academics.

This will be difficult work for numerous reasons. Educators who did heroic work to increase student achievement from “F” to “C” may feel attacked by the push for even more dramatic improvements. And parents who have stood by a school during its struggle for initial improvements may now feel reluctant to shake things up. “Good enough” schooling may become the enemy of an “excellent” school.

So what do we do with “better than before” schools?

Do we give the school more resources and hope that it improves? Maybe. But perhaps the school does not have the necessary leadership to get to the next level.

Do we close the school and open a new one? Sometimes that’s appropriate. But we better be very confident we can deliver a great school if we are putting families through the turmoil of closure. And right now the blunt truth is this: few schools in New Orleans have achieved academic excellence. That means as a city we must be continuously vigilant to make sure that a new school improves significantly on the one it supersedes.

So what are we to do? Well, few cities in the nation have had to grapple with this question. Most are still working to turn around desperately failing schools. In answering this question, New Orleans will again be at the national forefront of educational reform.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. No educator does. But I would offer these as the principles we should keep in mind as we continue to pioneer the future of public education in New Orleans and across the country:

-We must always remember that New Orleans children can achieve at the highest levels. Our best schools are already proving that’s possible. If someone argues “this is as good as we can get,” take them on a tour of an excellent open-enrollment public school. I try to visit these schools at least once a month so I can make sure my expectations remain high.

-Some of our “better than before” schools will likely make the jump to excellence. We need to support these schools with the full arsenal of proven reform techniques to increase the chances of their reaching the next level.

-Some schools that are safe and orderly will not make the jump to excellence. In these cases, we may have to undergo difficult transitions to bring in new leadership who can raise the academic performance. But we must initiate these transitions only when we have proven school operators who are ready to take charge.

In short, the work is not going to get easier anytime soon. As a city, we’re going to have to answer increasingly difficult questions about the future of our schools.

But if the past is any indication of the future, I’m hopeful that we’ll be up to the challenge. New Orleans has the opportunity to be the nation’s first excellent urban education system. With continued courage, we will be.

Author’s note: Neerav Kingsland, a graduate of Yale Law School, is chief strategy officer of New School’s for New Orleans where he focuses on the areas of human capital, charter school development, school support providers, and governance.