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Achievement Improves in New Orleans Schools, Challenges Remain, Says Report

In the nearly 10 years since Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, the school system has undergone a series of dramatic changes, chief among them the decentralizing of the school system in which 91 percent of the children now attend charter schools.

Decentralization, however, has had mixed results, bringing with it a unique set of challenges, according to a new report released Wednesday, "The State of Public Education in New Orleans, 2014,"  by Patrick Sims and Debra Vaughan of the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University.

Despite the obstacles, the authors of the report were clear to highlight the successes from the near decade-long transformation.

"While debates rightly persist about particular aspects of the reform movement, academic performance has improved and students have better options than they did before Hurricane Katrina," they wrote.

The report examines the last school year in New Orleans. Forty-four school boards ran public schools in the city, including the Orleans Parish School Board, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, 12 charter management organizations, and 30 independent charter schools.

(After Hurricane Katrina, the majority of the schools were placed under the state-run  Recovery School District. The Orleans Parish School Board, which ran the entire public school system before Katrina, maintained  direct control over 17 schools. Since then, the number of direct-run public schools in both systems has declined as the number of charter schools has increased.) 

The report looked at various markers—from student achievement, charter openings and closures, the distribution of special education students across the system, enrollment, and finance and operation—in a school system that has stabilized in recent years, but is still very much in flux.

Among the challenges noted:

Decentralization:  Without a central office overseeing services such as data management, students can fall through the cracks, and a hodgepodge of transportation networks serving the individual school boards means higher transportation costs. New Orleans spent 21 percent more on average on transportation than the average Louisiana public school, according to the report.

Academic growth:  Although student achievement has improved since Hurricane Katrina, only 19 percent of New Orleans' public school students scored at "Mastery" and above on 2013-2014 state tests.

School Choice:  Despite greater choice, parents still have limited options.  More high-quality options are needed.

Political Pressures and Priorities:  Disagreements at the state level over the implementation of Common Core State Standards are likely to have an effect on the local schools. And the failure of the Orleans Parish School Board for two years to find a permanent superintendent has also led to instability in local governance. As a result, during the 2013-2014 school year, 10 charter operators that were eligible to return to the Orleans Parish School Board opted to remain under the oversight of the Recovery School District, primarily because of the lack of stable governance under the Orleans Parish School Board.

Among the successes of the last school year:

  •  A Cooperative Endeavor Agreement between the Orleans Parish School Board and the Recovery School District that provides a structure for future collaboration and shared responsibilities between the two major schools boards. The two are expected to create an "exceptional need fund" to serve high-needs students; provide services to chronically absent students and those with mental health needs; collaborate on planning on the types and number of schools the city needs; and work on a common accounting process. The agreement also details the use of specific school buildings and maintenance of facilities.
  • Both the Orleans Parish School Board and the Recovery School District adopted new performance metrics, which will help make decisions about opening and closing charters more transparent.
  • The majority of public schools in the city participated in "One App," the joint enrollment applications for all public schools and some private schools that receive vouchers.

The public school system will need "strong leadership" and coordination to be successful, the authors noted.

"Politicians will need to put the needs of students ahead of their own political aims and school leaders must continue to focus on improving the achievement of all students," they wrote.

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