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New Orleans Think Tank Traces Progress of City's Recovery District

The charter-run schools that are a part of the New Orleans Recovery School District have shown some dramatic gains in student performance, but the schools that are managed directly by the district have not shown the same level of improvement, according to a report on the tumultuous eight-year history of Louisiana's Recovery School District.

The report was released Wednesday from the Cowen Institute for Public Affairs Initiatives, part of Tulane University. (An executive summary of the report is also available.)

The report noted that in 2007-08, 65 percent of schools in the recovery district were rated as "academically unacceptable" based on the state's school-performance score, which includes factors such as student performance, dropout rates, attendance and graduation rates. By 2010-11, the number of academically unacceptable schools had fallen to 36 percent. In 2004, before the RSD took over most of New Orleans' schools, 71 percent of students were attending academically unacceptable schools.

However, the failing schools tend to be concentrated among the group of schools that are run by the district. For example, in 2010-11, all of the RSD direct-run high schools were in the academically unacceptable category, the report says.

The report did not attempt to delve into the reasons there are differences between the charter-run and district-run schools, said Debra Vaughan, the assistant manager for research for the institute. However, she believes that those schools may have needed more than they received from the turnaround district.

"RSD's reform strategy has been charter schools," Vaughan said. "I don't know if they focused their energy and resources in improving their direct-run schools. They tried to make them charter-like, but I think those failing schools needed more support from the district."

The district is making plans to turn over its 16 direct-run schools to charter managers. Forty-nine schools under the district are charter-managed. The Orleans Parish School Board oversees 17 schools.

The recovery district, which now oversees schools in other parts of Louisiana, is known for being on the cutting edge of school reform: Most of the RSD's schools are charters, which were offered a great deal of autonomy in return for raising student test scores.

But the Cowen Institute report is a reminder that when the RSD was formed in 2003 to address persistently failing schools in New Orleans, the system's leaders were moving rather slowly. The charter school landscape in the city was not robust, and by the start of the 2005-06 school year, only five schools had been taken over and turned over to charter managers.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in August 2005, the recovery school district transformed itself into a muscular driver of education reform. It ended up getting in the business of operating schools, because more students were returning to the city than there were operating schools to house them, Mogg said.

Education Week wrote a series of articles on the RSD's operations in the 2007-08 school year, which you can find here.

The RSD also opened up the district to new management structures. The district had to recruit large numbers of new teachers and principals, and instituted programs such as pay-for-performance and bonus pay for teachers.

The district's academic success compared to where it was before the storm is seen among some reformers as a success story. But the report offers some cautions. For example, having enrollment decisions controlled by individual schools meant that some schools were not accepting students with special learning needs. The Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center has reported that the charter network has not provided adequate services to students with disabilities. The organization has filed a legal complaint against the state.

John White, the current superintendent of the RSD, has proposed a centralized enrollment system that would address some of those issues. Instead of parents being forced to apply to individual charter schools, they will now put together one application and a ranking of choices. The system will give preference to students who live closer to the school where they want to enroll.

Still, about two-thirds of parents in New Orleans believe the schools are better now than they were after Hurricane Katrina, compared to 31 percent who answered that way in 2009, according to a separate public perception survey that was also released by the institute. Parents of students with special education needs were less pleased with the enrollment process than other parents, more apt to disagree that information on school options was readily available, and more likely to have plans to change schools.

Mogg, the institute's research manager, said that the report on the RSD's history should serve as a guide for education leaders in other states who may want to institute similar reforms.

"There are positive outcomes, but there are a lot of challenges that needed to be addressed," she said. "We hope to tell the story for the people here, but have it be something of 'lessons learned' for people around the country. "

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