Education panelists applaud progress while recognizing need for more growth

New Orleans’ historically struggling schools have made progress — but there’s still a long way to go, panelists agreed Wednesday at an event hosted by 100 Black Men of Metro New Orleans.

The panel’s main topic was the unification of New Orleans’ disparate schools. For the past 10 years, city school governance has been divided among the locally elected Orleans Parish School Board, state-run Recovery School District and statewide-elected board of education.

Should schools be brought under one roof?

“This is an idea whose time has come,” said Deirdre Johnson-Burel, director of the Orleans Public Education Network.

Johnson-Burel is not alone. Four bills pending in the legislature outline the return of Recovery School District schools to the School Board, the local entity from which they were seized after Katrina. Senate Bill 432 received unanimous support in the state senate today.

For Wednesday night’s panel, Orleans Parish Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. joined Johnson-Burel, two charter leaders and the head of a local nonprofit. Lewis was charged with unifying the schools when he was hired.

Thelma French, the president and CEO of Total Community Action, Inc., has been involved in the system for a long time. She says that a lack of reliable information makes the current system confusing.

The question she hears repeatedly from the parents and grandparents she serves on a daily basis: “Can you help me with a school?”

She hopes unification can make the schools more navigable and accountable, and give the people a say through their locally elected School Board.

Panelists championed the recently adopted unified funding formula as one example of progress in unifying the system.

RSD and OPSB schools used to allocate different amounts of money based on student characteristics, such as special needs. But when the state board punted the decision to assign a dollar amount to students to the School Board, OPSB gave Lewis the power to make the decision himself.

“But now, as we move forward, we have a unified funding formula,” Lewis assured the crowd.

“That is a landmark step,” Johnson-Burel said. “It’s a huge, huge, necessary step and an important pre-step, if you will, to unification.”

“The differentiated funding formula was an example of unification before we had unification,” New Orleans College Prep CEO Ben Kleban said. “We’re ready to come together.”

Panelists also addressed accountability and transparency.

French said the state’s grading system, which has changed multiple times in previous years, is hard for parents to understand.

“I want an A to equal 95 to 100,” she said, appealing to the educators in the group. “I think that’s what parents understand.”

In recent years the 200-point scale shrunk to a 150-point scale, on which 47 is considered failing for high schools. Anything lower than 45.1 is an F for elementary and middle schools.

French and Johnson-Burel stressed the need for reliable data as well.

“We know some schools are vilified because of their discipline data…and that’s because they’re more honest with the data,” Johnson-Burel said.

Kleban said he thought a proposed bill that would create a state board to review school suspensions would increase transparency.

Jamar McNeely, CEO of InspireNOLA, said he welcomes authorizers intervening when charter schools don’t meet expectations.

The panel took questions via comment card, one of which asked if charter school CEO salaries would be examined and possibly lowered to send more money to the classroom.

Neither Kleban nor McNeely directly answered the question.

“We are an incredibly lean organization,” McNeely said.

Kleban: “I would support more transparency around understanding whether those salaries are appropriate.”

On highly-qualified teachers, Lewis, Kleban, and McNeely all addressed a comment card which drew a charged audience response: would they hire Teach for America teachers?

All three said hiring someone was not a matter of how the individual got there, but rather a decision on who was qualified and best fit the organization’s needs, which could include TFA applicants.

Regarding neighborhood schools and OneApp, the common enrollment process run by computerized lottery and used by most schools, panelists generally agreed improvements could be made. OneApp placements were released a week late this year, much to the displeasure of anxious parents.

Lewis said some of the catchments zones are so big that data indicating a high percentage of students were matched in their zone is practically worthless. The zone covering eastern New Orleans is particularly large.

“That’s not real information for me,” Lewis said.

He said they are considering whether to change the boundaries of the catchment zones, or increase the number of zones overall.

“Until every single student in our city is in a high-achieving school we still have a lot of work to do,” Lewis said.

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