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New Orleans' Schools 10 Years After Katrina: Q&A With Patrick Dobard

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There's skepticism that New Orleans' nearly all-charter system of schools is a model that can be imported wholesale to other places. But what about specific policies and lessons? In this first part of an occasional series, Charters & Choice explores how New Orleans has tackled issues arising from all-out school choice and what other cities and states can learn from the Crescent City's experiences.

The Recovery School District is not a traditional district. It was created by the Louisiana state legislature to take over failing schools, which it did en masse in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

Today, the  RSD is made up entirely of charter schools and oversees the vast majority of campuses in New Orleans.

Other states, such as Tennessee and most recently Nevada, have drawn inspiration from the RSD and passed laws creating their own state-run school turnaround districts. Still others, such as Georgia, are attempting to do so.

While reporting for Education Week's special series on schooling in New Orleans for the 10th anniversary of Katrina, I asked the superintendent of the RSD, Patrick Dobard, to talk specifically about the challenges that have arisen from this unique system of indepedent schoools. (Dobard also wrote his own take on the evolution of public schooling in New Orleans since the storm.)

Many issues, he told me, come from the tension between allowing schools to have the autonomy that is central to the idea of charter schools, while also making sure they're not taking advantage of that freedom by failing to serve some of the highest-needs students. Below is our conversation on the topic, edited for length and clarity. 

Q. Looking back over the last 10 years, what are some of the biggest challenges New Orleans' schools have faced not having that traditional district infrastructure?

A. One we initially had was around enrollment. Once charters started opening up, they had their own registration and enrollment process. There was no central function, so about four years ago we created a system that we called OneApp. OneApp basically meant one application ... before we had OneApp, parents would fill out different applications for different schools. So you might go to 10 schools, fill out 10 applications, have to do 10 registration processes to see if you got in the school.

Now all of the RSD charter schools are in a central enrollment system. All of the Orleans Parish School Board network schools or the direct-run schools are in the enrollment system, and a handful of charters by OPSB are in the system. There are still about nine schools that are charter schools by the Orleans Parish School Board that aren't in the central enrollment system, but we want to get all of them in it.

What that has done is it's made the playing field very equitable. We're able to solve for issues of equity that otherwise are a bit unwieldy when you have a decentralized system of schools.

Q. Can you give me some examples of how it helps create equity?

A. In a decentralized system of schools you might have schools that don't want to serve kids with special needs, or try to push kids and families out. With our central enrollment system, it's one; it's agnostic and doesn't know whether or not a kid has a disability, so schools, once you get a kid in the school, the child is assigned to the school, you have to serve that kid.

We've put in very strong transfer policies, so you just can't move kids along. We're able to track them in our system, so therefore we don't have the high mobility rates or movement rates of special ed kids.

When we unpack that a little bit more, we also created in New Orleans for our charter schools a differentiated funding formula, where what we've done is we've weighted the state funding that schools receive in order to make certain that the kids with the most significant challenges get more dollars put towards them. It's the money literally following the kids.

We've also created a youth opportunity center as a means to ensure equity, where we focus on our chronically absent and truant youths. We don't want kids out on the street, and so we're working with schools, we're working with law enforcement, and we're working with partners in social services to help those students, to find out why they're missing school, why they're truant, and then to work with the schools and counselors to keep them in school.

Those are a lot of the ways that we've been able to ensure equity across the board, but it's an ongoing process. So as we're faced with challenges we try to make certain that we work with equitable solutions that don't trump autonomy but do underscore that government has to play a role and make sure that we have a fair, transparent operating space for everyone.

Q. Are there any other issues that just haven't been addressed yet, maybe like transportation, that you're still looking for? What's the next thing that you guys want to try to solve as a system that's been an issue?

A. I think one area that we're really digging into now is trying to solve for what in some circles are called "disconnected youth," or ... "opportunity youth." These are students who are in high school, either they graduate and then they're not connected to college or a job.

What are some of the wraparound services that we can do to maybe, one, assess students earlier, at certain points in their matriculation through schools, and then, two, what are those things that can put in place, either through policy or programs and services, that's going to help them once we identify what they need in order to get them on track to graduate as well as to go into maybe a 2-year college, a 4-year college, go into a high-wage, high-growth industry?

I feel like the first 10 years has just been laying the foundation of getting good academic growth, and the foundation of schools solid. I think the next 10 to 15 years is literally around those areas, again, that are called like "wraparound services," so what are the mental health interventions that we could put in place? Do we need more than school psychologists? Maybe we need psychiatrists, and really dig into some of the deep, emotional trauma. Students in urban areas not only have trauma from Katrina, but they have trauma from just living in violent neighborhoods, in parts of the city that might be extremely dysfunctional at times.

Those are the things that traditionally haven't been the main focus of schools, but I think times have changed to where schools are such a central point in the place of children that we have to look at that. We have to look at like how health and services are being applied to families, and do they have the right access to it. Can schools be the conduit to make certain that this is done well in order to make sure that we're working on the whole child?

I think we're also definitely looking at how can we drive cost down around transportation.

We're also looking at, again, how to better make certain that we keep students in school and serve them, so alternatives to suspensions; alternatives, maybe in-school suspensions. We've done a great job of lowering the expulsion rate, but we also want to monitor that and make sure that we're keeping kids in quality school environments. I think those are a few of the areas that we're looking at, that we feel like they'll be policy areas as well as program areas that we need to focus on.

Another big area of focus is around how do we create a more robust career and technical education component within our schools? A lot of our high schools right now are like college-focused in the "no-excuses" model, but we really need to start diversifying our portfolio, and our school leaders have embraced that.


Photo: Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard last month outside his childhood home in New Orleans' 7th Ward.--Edmund D. Fountain for Education Week

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