The Orleans Parish School Board’s newest committee — the Innovation and Stability Committee, created by board members last summer — aims to take community ideas to see if they can help improve NOLA Public Schools students’ experience and district operations.
The committee, which met for the first time Thursday, will act “as a mechanism to propose, vet, and assess propositions that improve student achievement, the student and family experience within NOLA-PS,” committee chair Nolan Marshall Jr. explained. It will also evaluate ideas for the district’s “organizational efficiency and effectiveness.”
“From the very beginning, although the founding fathers actually promoted public education and the need for it, it has never truly been embraced by all segments of this nation, this community. Therein lies one of the problems,” Marshall said.
As its name suggests, the committee has two main goals. One is to consider “innovative” new policies, in some cases piloted by individual schools, to potentially be applied districtwide. Speaking to The Lens, one school leader suggested a third-party funded universal basic income program that he’s piloted with some students as an example of the type of proposal the committee might look into. School and community leaders have also advocated for systemwide solutions to issues such as costly busing and highly specialized special education services.
The other purpose is to improve stability for families and staff in the ever-changing all-charter district, which does a round of performance-related school closures each year and is now considering further closures as part of a “right-sizing” plan due to flagging enrollment.
Born out of a July resolution, the committee will be composed of three board members and allows for members of the community representing different sectors, such as business, education and other nonprofits, to be appointed to serve as well. Marshall emphasized that the committee could consider ideas for new policies or initiatives from anyone.
The committee has a unique structure among the school board’s committees, which are typically composed solely of elected board members. This committee limits board participation to three members. Other members can come from the business community, nonprofits and foundations, educators, parents and students, education advocacy groups or service providers, elected officials, religious leaders and criminal justice organizations.
“The committee will accept ‘innovation’ ideas from anyone and it will undergo evaluation if selected by a committee member and research and development,” he said, saying that such a committee was long overdue in the unique district.
The committee will oversee ideas from the proposal phase, evaluating the urgency of such changes, through potential challenges, and ultimately funding if an idea is deemed an improvement for families and the district.
“This committee is an effort to bring everybody together so we’re all on the same page, so we’re all working for the best interest of the children,” he said. “That means we leave our egos at the door.”
Board members Olin Parker and Carlos Zervigon will join Marshall on the committee. And the new board president — to be elected by members later this week — will serve in an ex-officio capacity alongside NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. (Current board president Ethan Ashley, who attended Thursday’s meeting, welcomed a new son last week and said he will not seek another term as president.)
A decentralized district
The NOLA Public Schools district authorizes roughly 80 charter schools. The independent charter schools have great autonomy in everything from the curriculum they chose and programs they operate within the building to the teachers they hire. Such a district has given the city a vast array of unique schools and smaller charter networks that operate essentially as their own districts.
Part of that unique system is an annual review of charter contracts up for renewal, which can result in the closure of a school if it has not met academic, operational or financial standards. This year two schools will close in May after not meeting academic standards. Another two will close as part of a “right-sizing” plan because enrollment did not grow as much in the city as the district projected.
More than a year ago, district administration pitched an “innovation zone” — a support system that would help struggling charter schools, prevent closures and provide stability. It would increase district oversight in charter schools — a bit of a fuzzy area as charter schools have broad autonomy in how they operate, though such a system could have been worked into new charter operating agreements.
That system didn’t quite get off the ground, but district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo says its intentions will live on through the committee’s work.
“Through yesterday’s Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) Innovation and Stability Committee Meeting, the District is looking to connect the work done around innovation zones to new ideas the board and the District are working to develop to help create more stability for families through support and early intervention in schools,” she wrote in an email.
Member Olin Parker said he hopes charter school groups can learn from each other and that the committee will help foster the spread of programs in the district.
“We clearly have a lot to learn from each other about the work that is already going on,” he said. “What are we doing now that is working and what is missing from our current suite of offering that we can come together as a city and make a reality.”
Ashley also shared his sentiment.
“We want to highlight, acknowledge and share [best practices],” Ashley said. “Oftentimes it only happens in silos.”
He thanked Lewis and his team for working to share best practices between schools but said he hopes the committee can help them. “They can’t be the only ones laboring on this.”
Member Carlos Zervigon said he thinks there is great institutional knowledge across the district’s schools, but the nature of the system can sometimes lead to competition rather than collaboration. “Sometimes we lose our ability to think about districtwide solutions.”
Jonathan Johnson is the CEO of Rooted School, which opened in 2017, focuses on getting students real work experience and internships while in high school and connecting them to jobs upon graduation if they aren’t headed to college.
“With my work at Rooted I have sort of a laser focus on how we move young people at an early age into living wage jobs faster and that are sustained,” Johnson said. “I think we can be wildly more inventive and imaginative as a community on how we do that.”
The school is piloting a cash transfer program, where a select group of students receive $50 each week.
“How could the district develop its own pilot with youth cash transfers?” he asked. “And connect it to accelerating upward mobility for a historically marginalized group of people.”
Rooted also created the Green Balloon Fellowship, aimed at ensuring students are employed in high-wage jobs after graduation. Fellows start at at least a $32,000 salary with full benefits, Johnson said. He said graduates in the program are currently working at local companies like Entergy, Ochsner and Lucid.
“We have seven graduates and they’re currently in our pilot cohort that’s happening right now,” Johnson said. “We’re going to grow the fellowship next year to include any recent grad in New Orleans and we’ll get it to about 20 fellows.”
Johnson thinks such a program could be useful across the city.
“Sharing them as examples of ideas that we could potentially be exploring as a community to accelerate upward economic mobility for youth,” he said. “Rooted does not like hold a monopoly on these things.”
Other charter groups, like Arise Schools and New Orleans College Prep have spent years working to turnaround schools they took over.
In an interview, Joel Castro, the CEO of New Orleans College Prep, said he hopes the committee focuses on equity and how the district oversees turnaround schools.
“Most certainly issues of equity, how families are able to access schools,” he said. “Do all schools carry the same weight in terms of serving students with special needs, ELL, students from families with limited resources?”
Aside from innovations like those, the committee will also look to adopt policies that can stabilize the family experience in schools — including mitigating disruptions caused by the district’s frequent school closures.
New Orleans College Prep’s footprint in the city has shrunk over the years. After losing the charters of two elementary schools — Sylvanie Williams Elementary and Crocker College Prep — it now operates Walter L. Cohen College Prep, an Uptown high school, and Hoffman Early Learning Center, a pre-kindergarten.
“I think school turnaround is an area of education that takes not only a school or network but the entire charter board to NOLA-PS to OPSB to deeply understand what the work of school turnaround and school improvement is,” Castro said. “For example a school that is struggling mightily but has high growth measures…those are schools you want to support, not pound on and jump. I think we have to do more engagement around that body of work.”
Jolene Galpin runs Arise Schools, a two school charter network in the city. The group’s flagship school, Arise Academy, will close at the end of this school year because the school did not meet academic requirements for a contract renewal.
Galpin is excited for the committee’s work, but worries enrollment and funding challenges will damper innovation in the coming years.
“There are schools, CMOs that are having to choose to close schools and I think there’s going to continue to be a lot of instability in the city over the next couple years. And I worry about how that will impact innovation,” she said.
“Will schools be able to offer up some of the great, niche innovative programming if they’re worried about enrollment and expenses?”
She said her colleagues are concerned about enrollment and finances, though federal pandemic relief funding — like the $13.2 billion Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund passed last year as part of the CARES Act — has helped over the last two years.
“When I talk to colleagues about what makes their school unique, it feels like the concern right now about enrollment and finances and what’s going to happen after ESSER funds run out is going to cause there to be not a ton of differences between schools,” she said.
“How are we all working together to ensure we really are offering different options to families and as the district decides to close or open, turnaround or transform schools, how are they making sure any new school is offering something different?” she pondered.
“That’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about both as a school leader and parent of two kids in the city.”