School choice since Katrina: the promises made, the challenges ahead

Technology and new approaches to teaching have transformed New Orleans schools since Katrina.

Technology and new approaches to teaching have transformed New Orleans schools since Katrina.

In pre-Katrina New Orleans, parents faced a difficult if not impossible choice: 1) they could send their child to a failed (and sometimes dangerous) public school; 2) they could hope against hope that their child got into one of the few selective-admission magnet schools; 3) they could forsake their tax dollars and shell out more money for private education. (Orleans and Jefferson lead the nation in private school enrollment), or 4) they could move to a district where the schools were deemed “better” and commute to jobs in the city.

My parents tried magnets and private schools, but for many New Orleanians, option 3 was no more realistic than option 4. They didn’t have the money or access to pertinent information. And options 1 and 2 were like playing Russian roulette – with your child’s future. It wasn’t much of a choice. Public education in New Orleans had become the city’s greatest liability, the main reason residents moved to the suburbs and a principal reason businesses refused to relocate here. It was a source of unemployment. It was a source of crime. It was destroying the city from the inside out.

Prior to the storm, politicians, educators and parents made all kinds of excuses for the failures of public education. Most of them started with the term “those”: “Those children can’t learn.” Those parents don’t care. Those neighborhoods are too dangerous. Those leaders are corrupt …” Excuses, in many ways, had become one of the biggest obstacles to change.

The first post-Katrina wave of new New Orleans schools made no excuses. They replaced “those” with “our,” stating emphatically, “Our scholars can and will succeed!”

These “no-excuses” schools applied research-based practices that had been proven to work in other 90/90/90 schools, schools in which 90 percent or more of the students qualified for free or reduced lunch, 90 percent or more of the students were from an ethnic minority, and 90 percent or more are meeting the district’s minimum standards for academic achievement.

They modeled themselves after successful schools working with a similar demographic in other cities, schools such as YES Prep, Uncommon and KIPP. They used “Leveraged Leadership” and “Teach Like a Champion” as their playbooks, and they replaced traditional feel-good inputs with cold, hard statistical outcomes.

And, many got results.

For those that didn’t, their excuses were not accepted. The successful schools set high expectations, focused on instructional efficiency and streamlined operations to concentrate resources in the classroom – where they belong — rather than in a bloated central-office bureaucracy. That reallocation of funding to instruction rather than administrative bureaucracy became a hallmark of the reform movement.

My work as a school evaluator for the state Department of Education and later as the founding school leader of an arts-oriented elementary school in Jefferson Parish have given me a broad perspective on the innovative practices taking root in public education since Katrina.

The new schools have had to be realistic. Unlike the businesses in the popular book “Good to Great,” by Jim Collins, New Orleans schools had to get “good” before they could become “great.” It would take time, hard work, blood, sweat and tears. College Prep, Collegiate Academies, Success and others were up for the challenge and in for the long haul.

Meanwhile, a common refrain heard around the city went like this: “I appreciate what these no-excuses schools are doing, but I wouldn’t send my child there.” Likewise, some teachers complained, “It’s not where I would want to work.” There was still room for more innovation.

Even before Katrina, parents, educators and business leaders dreamed and schemed to offer a wider array of schooling options. While their grassroots efforts had led to a few small inroads into the bureaucratic monolith, the system was definitely stacked against them. An entrenched, conservative school board, systemic inefficiencies, broken infrastructure, corruption and nostalgia all stood in the way. It was as if the great Italian painter Giotto di Bondone had been born in 10th Century Constantinople rather than 14th Century Florence; prospects for a Renaissance were pretty dim.

The creation of the Recovery School District and then the Katrina disaster two years later changed all that. New Orleans became a veritable Petri dish for experimentation, a blank slate for new approaches. Carpetbaggers with big ideas rushed in and joined forces with their local counterparts. Barriers to reform were torn down and incubators for innovation sprung up. The promises and possibilities for choice suddenly became real.

Over the past 10 years, a number of break-the-mold schools and strategies have taken root in the Crescent City. Some have withered while others have blossomed. The following are just a few examples:

In a popular comedy sketch, Father Guido Sarducci argues that everything we learn in school can be summed up in just five minutes. Among those retained lessons are a couple of foreign language expressions, such as “¿Cómo está usted?” and the answer, “Muy bien.” (I can empathize. I took four years of Latin and can only remember “e pluribus unum” and “caveat emptor.”) Unlike Europeans, Americans rarely speak more than one language. The fault, in part, lies in the way languages are taught in school.

To change this, vocal (and usually bilingual) parents and educators pushed for a different approach. They wanted their children to have more (and more natural) exposure to another language at an early age; they wanted children to be immersed in French or Spanish or Chinese.

The International School of Louisiana (ISL), Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans, Audubon and Hynes all offer language-immersion programs. Core subject areas are taught in a target language, often by native speakers and often using curricular resources from other countries. Children leave these schools fluent in at least one other language.

The number of children enrolled in immersion programs has more than doubled since Katrina. And, with the new International High School of New Orleans, they can continue with their studies and graduate with an International Baccalaureate Diploma, which is recognized by universities around the world.

Five years after graduation, “estudiantes” can definitely say much more than, “¿Cómo está usted?” — which is “muy, muy bien!”

When schools struggle academically, or when districts are under pressure to make budgetary cuts, the arts, inevitably, are the first to go.

Advocates for the arts, especially parents and teachers who have been inspired by them, fought for more not less. They argued, rightly, that core subject areas could be taught (even better) in and through the arts. On the blank canvas left by Katrina, their persistence is finally paying off.

That was the inspiration behind Young Audiences Charter School, the arts-based elementary school that we launched in Jefferson Parish in 2013. Like some of the other high-powered and highly innovative charter networks in the area, teachers were encouraged to name their classrooms not for the colleges or universities they had attended but for artists from whom they drew inspiration.

But the arts education was not an end in itself at YACS. Rather, it was a tool — a creative environment, if you will — that made the core curriculum more accessible.

Kindergartners at schools like YACS are counting to the beat of Louis Prima, Fats Domino and Professor Longhair; second-graders are learning about the Harlem Renaissance and geometry through the paintings of Romare Bearden; middle-school conservationists are bringing awareness to Louisiana’s vanishing wetlands with original YouTube skits and haiku Twitter campaigns. High-school historians are rapping about the American Revolution, westward expansion and the Civil Rights Movement. Kids are learning the traditional 3 R’s through music, dance, theater, creative writing and the visual arts. They’re meeting Common Core benchmarks while honing 21st Century skills.

From Reggio Emilia to The Kennedy Center, from KidsmArt to the Louisiana Children’s Museum, from artists in residence to “master” teachers, from tableau, the strategy in which students communicate the meaning of a concept with their bodies, to interdisciplinary projects, from STEM to STEAM, from gallery walks to student portfolios, from starting every day with an art prompt to holding regular exhibitions of student learning, schools in and around the city are integrating the arts in myriad ways. Homer Plessy, Young Audiences, Encore, A+ Schools, and the NOCCA Academic Studio are among local schools scattering the arts throughout the curriculum.

Instead of cutting the arts, these creative schools are building on them while helping children find their own muse. With its artistic pedigree, New Orleans was an obvious place to create such schools. (Note: For a little cinematic inspiration, see Dead Poets Society, Music of the Heart, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Freedom Writers and School of Rock.)

In his bestselling book, “Disrupting Class” economics professor Clayton Christensen shows “how disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns.” He asserts that new technology, including adaptive programs and blended-learning platforms, will do to education what the iPod and iTunes did to the music industry: turn it on its head. They personalize learning, allowing teachers to tailor instruction to better meet individual student needs. These breakthroughs can also bring quality education to previous “non-consumers,” making the world even flatter.

One of the first to embrace this new paradigm was San Diego’s heralded High Tech High. In addition to blended learning, which combines online learning with more traditional classroom instruction, the school put technology in the hands of its students, allowing them to explore, discover and create.

Rocketship Education, a reform model out of Silicon Valley, was designed for younger learners and has provisions to meet the needs of 90/90/90 schools. The network runs schools in several cities and eventually would like to work in New Orleans.

Meanwhile, here on Silicon Bayou, classes are being “disrupted” as well. There is a virtual high school and several schools that offer online courses for academic credit. Teachers are using programs like Dreambox and KidBiz to differentiate instruction; their scholars are “attending” Khan Academy and listening to TED Talks at home and over the summer to extend and enrich learning; and they are playing interactive games like Minecraft and Zoombinis that reinforce 21st Century Skills.

Teachers are leveraging software to collectively and continually refine and align the taught curriculum. They are collaborating with colleagues here and around the globe via programs like Evernote; and they are using precision diagnostics like MAP and iReady to individualize instruction.

Administrators are providing teachers with targeted, real-time feedback, and they are sending home standards-based report cards that are far more insightful than traditional letter grades.

And, as with High Tech High, our artistic scholars are using technology to construct their own modes of learning. They’re creating Garage Band Jams, writing code and building robots, selling original artwork on Artsonia, and connecting with students on the other side of the planet via social media. It’s a brave new world!

Some of the tools being used nationwide were actually developed here. Kickboard and Whetstone for example were born of the New Orleans experiment. The next great breakthrough in education could actually be revealed here at a 4.0 launch. Who would have thought?

Creating public school choices for parents, kids and teachers doesn’t come easy. First, there has to be a demand for options. Like private schools, public schools now have to “sell” what they do differently, be it interdisciplinary instruction or single-sex education. If they can’t find a market, they quickly go out of business.

Next, they have to change the learning and professional cultures of the school. They have to find teachers, parents and students who are mission- and vision-aligned. They have to provide professional development and ongoing support for new practices, and they have to ignore — or convert — the inevitable naysayers.

While schools can break the mold, they can’t shirk accountability. The state doesn’t care about foreign language proficiency or portfolios brimming with masterpieces. It cares about PARCC, letter grades and graduation rates. Regardless of the approach, all schools have to end up at the same destination. Inequity is no longer acceptable.

There are also the practical constraints of time and money. New Orleans’ commitment to citywide open-admission charter schools means busing children all over town. Transportation comes at a cost. It’s a drain on many school budgets and makes a long day for students who select schools at a distance from their homes. It’s one of the reasons community schools are mounting a comeback.

Finally, one of the biggest challenges facing choice is the choice itself. Parents have to figure out what school is best for their child; they have to find the right fit. Parents, like their kids, have to do their homework.

But post-Katrina New Orleans is finally delivering on the promise of choice, a choice not just between good and bad schools, but rather between great schools that do things differently. Will greatness give way to sustainable, across-the-board excellence? Only time will tell.

A native New Orleanian, Folwell Dunbar has been a participant in the post-Katrina reform movement, first as a charter school authorizer and evaluator and then as the founding school leader of an arts-integrated elementary school. To see a crossword puzzle he created on the theme of educational best practices, click here.

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