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School Reform, New Orleans-Style

When the leaders of Michigan's Education Achievement System were looking for an example of how to organize their newly-created network of low-performing schools, they took a trip down south, to New Orleans. Tennessee did the same as it planned its Achievement School District, which will eventually manage low-performing schools in Chattanooga, Memphis and Nashville. (I wrote about both districts' work in an article last December.)

And now, the nonprofit organization New Schools for New Orleans has created a guide for other policymakers who may be interested in bringing reforms similar to the New Orleans Recovery School District to their own cities. The Recovery School District (RSD) took over most of New Orleans' city schools after Hurricane Katrina and converted them to charter schools. The RSD now manages schools in the city and other parishes in the state. A link to the free guide is here; you must provide your name, organization and email address before downloading.

The guide, which was released March 1, was created as part of the organization's $28 million federal Investing in Innovation grant. New Schools for New Orleans received the five-year grant in conjunction with the Recovery School District in October 2010. The funds are intended to expand the charter model in New Orleans and other urban districts.

Neerav Kingsland, the chief strategy officer for New Schools for New Orleans, said in an interview that the guide is not intended to suggest that everything New Orleans did should be replicated wholesale. For example, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina forced a ramping-up of services that turned half of the city's schools into charters within two years. A more manageable pace of expansion, Kingsland suggested, might be converting somewhere between three to eight percent of a city's schools to charters each year.

The guide also notes that districts need to play a role in nurturing charter school management organizations. "Aggressive growth cannot be managed solely through the opening of stand-alone charter schools," the guide says. Instead, districts have to concentrate on attracting high-quality managers as well as growing their own networks. Fewer than 10 percent of the charter schools in New Orleans are run by national charter networks, the guide notes. Instead, the Recovery School District helped expand some strong schools into fledgling networks.

The guide concludes with examples of the roles that a central office must play even within a decentralized district of autonomously-run schools. For example, some entity must be responsible for an enrollment and transportation system, and for evaluating schools and shutting down low-performing schools. Those are issues that the Recovery School District is still grappling with, Kingsland said.

However, he said the district is happy to talk both about its successes and the work that it still needs to do. "We're hoping we're that city that can help other cities," he said.

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