A firm contracted by the Orleans Parish School Board to lead a national search for a new superintendent for the NOLA Public Schools district held eight community meetings on Monday and Tuesday, drawing only about 25 attendees from the public. 

The firm, Greenwood Asher & Associates, was seeking input on what qualities and skills community members would like to see in the 44,000-student district’s next superintendent. Henderson Lewis, Jr., who has held the $250,000 per year job since 2015, is set to depart at the end of this school year. After receiving a one-year extension in his contract in the early months of the pandemic, last June, Lewis announced the 2021-22 school year would be his last leading the unique, all-charter school district.

Participants expressed concerns about student well-being, accountability for underperforming or poorly managed charter schools, ensuring teachers could provide input on policy and striking a balance between charter school and district responsibilities. Several attendees said they wanted to see candidates with education experience in New Orleans or a connection to the city. Many also said they hoped the district’s new leader would have a background that included school leadership, strong communication skills, a willingness to rethink accountability and to address poverty and other inequities in the system and the city.

The search firm held two simultaneous sessions at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on both Monday and Tuesday. About 25 people in total attended the eight sessions, based on The Lens’ observations. Two sessions attracted only one member of the public and one had zero participants.

Crescent City Schools CEO Kate Mehok, whose charter network runs three schools in the city,  expressed concern about the low turnout at the meetings, as did OPSB member Carlos Zervigon. The highest turnout at any single session, not including media or firm staff, was seven people. 

KIPP New Orleans Schools CEO Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise said she understood the rise in COVID-19 cases prompted the firm to hold virtual rather than in-person sessions. Zervigon attended at least three sessions and the CEOs attended one each.

“People are immensely consumed with the surge right now,” Kalifey-Aluise said. “I do hope we will have other opportunities to involve a broader swath of the community.”

Krystal Hardy Allen, a community and policy advocate, asked if there was anything the firm could do to increase community participation. “I wonder how many people actually know about it aside from it being posted on NOLA-PS’s (Instagram) page.”

Cerise Martin, an administrator with KIPP New Orleans Schools, also asked that the firm ensure they were making opportunities for community input available to the city’s growing Latino population and encouraged them to provide translation services. There did not appear to be translation services at the sessions on Monday and Tuesday. 

Accountability, facilities, poverty and education

Kevin Griffin-Clark, a vocal education advocate who ran unsuccessfully for the Orleans Parish School Board in 2020 and New Orleans City Council in 2021, said he wanted to see a superintendent who would assist struggling schools rather than waiting for them to fail and ultimately closing them. 

“When will you step in with a failing school?” he asked. 

Education advocates have long asked for the district to step in to assist struggling schools instead of allowing them to languish then closing them. While the district does have some ability to involve itself in the schools it oversees, charters have broad autonomy in how they conduct their business. 

Zervigon said that was a constant message he’d been hearing from constituents. 

“If a school is underperforming how do you handle that?” he asked.

Lona Hankins, a former Recovery School District employee and public school parent, echoed concerns about greater accountability in a later session.  

“The school district … hides behind the state’s metrics,” Hankins said, referring to an annual list the state publishes listing schools that require intervention based on student subgroup test scores. 

“When you ask the school district, ‘How long are you going to allow them to stay on that list?’ they say, ‘Well, that’s a Department of Education issue. They need to clear it up with the department.’ But you’re the authorizer, why aren’t you holding them accountable?”

She also hoped a superintendent would seek broader support from the community and city, noting early in the city’s charter reform advocates boasted goals such as moving all children to on-grade reading levels. 

“Why is it impossible now when the first couple years of this charter movement you were saying it was doable?” she asked. “We’re not asking the superintendent to do it by himself but at least acknowledge there’s some things out of his control and advocate for those things to go get fixed.”

“I’d like a superintendent to understand how much it costs to educate a child and be bold enough and brave enough to say ‘Y’all want to get a Newman education — that $400 in property taxes is not going to get you a Newman education,” she said, referring to the private school. 

Both Hankins and Sarah Vandergriff, from the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, expressed concerns about district facilities. The district has many new school buildings, built with funds from a historic $1.8 billion FEMA settlement after Hurricane Katrina, but not all buildings have been fully renovated. 

“Basically we’re out of money,” Vandergriff said. “So you have some students sitting in brand new buildings and others in buildings held together by duct tape.”

Krysal Hardy Allen, a community and policy advocate, said she’d like to see a new superintendent develop a fair and transparent chartering system and improve partnerships as well as operational infrastructure. 

“I think no other city has faced the compounding nature of complex traumas and things this city has had to go through, especially in the education ecosystem,” she said. 

Vandergriff said she’d like to see a superintendent with strong communication and management skills.

“Someone who’s definitely comfortable working their way through all the different political stakeholders,” she said. “Someone who can comfortably be in the hotseat. Someone who can handle the tough conversations in a very public manner.”

Torina Williams, a professor who graduated from a New Orleans high school said she hoped the new superintendent would work hard to keep teachers’ input in mind when developing policy.

“I would say the most important part of the ecosystem is going to be the teachers. If we have healthy teachers that can be in the classroom then they bring that energy to the classroom and the students can benefit from it,” she said. 

“I’d like the administration to focus more on the needs of the teachers and listen from the teachers perspective,” she said. “Too many times we try to solve problems not realizing we are ten and five years removed from the classroom.”

Mehok, the CEO of Crescent City School, echoed the preference for an educator. 

“I think I am going to emphasize how important it is that this person has been in school leadership,” she said. “I hadn’t thought that a while ago until I realized in this time period where all these new things are happening to school leaders. We never thought we’d know as much about health and safety as we do now.”

“I’ve come to believe it would be very difficult to lead this unique system if you didn’t have those experiences,” she said.

Kalifey-Aluise also said she hoped the new superintendent would be prepared to face declining enrollment in the city. 

“I think we need to make sure we’re mining for skills to be able to address this declining population and declining enrollment problem in our city,” she said. “At some point that is going to require addressing a very different population number than we planned for many years ago.” 

The district is currently working on a “right-sizing” plan to address enrollment and two schools announced last week they would close at the end of the year. 

She also emphasized that the district’s new leader would need experience working with students in poverty. Approximately 86 percent of the district’s students are economically disadvantaged, according to state data, and that population varies widely by campus. 

Retired teacher Wanda Romain said the new superintendent absolutely must know “how to deal with trauma in communities of color.”

“Unfortunately a lot of my experience in the last three years has been dealing with families with housing instability, employment instability, and they have to move to another parish because mom found a new job,” she said, emphasizing the effect it has on children. “Then they had to move two weeks before Christmas and the child had to miss the school play because they moved. And that mattered to the child.”

Mehok also hoped the next superintendent would focus on broad community input. 

“My concern at times is sometimes the loudest voices the district is hearing from is from our middle and upper class families who have some agency and time to advocate for themselves,” Mehok said. “I think sometimes we have lost that our system is one of mostly kids in poverty.”

Kalifey-Aluise asked if the search process was still on track. 

“We still have high hopes of getting back to New Orleans before interviews,” consultant David Presley said. “I don’t anticipate, at least at the moment — all these things are so fluid and flexible — but I have not heard any mention of delay.”

“Early April is kind of the end of the runway,” he said and promised to ensure the search timeline is uploaded to the district’s superintendent search website.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...