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Creative Cities: New Orleans

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A brewstorm (a lightning round of Pabst-powered edu-visions) at Matt Candler's 4.0 Schools last Wednesday was the kind of gathering that could only be held in a handful of cities. New Orleans has always been a creative hotspot, just not in education. When I visited in the spring of 2005, the academic performance, the condition of school facilities, and the level of corruption were unbelievably bad -- in some cases worse than what I had seen in South Africa the month before.

Meeting edreformer Leslie Jacobs was the highlight of that trip. As a member of the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), Leslie was a primary architect of the Recovery School District (RSD), a statewide school improvement zone, in 2003. Leslie had some great allies including fellow BESE board member Paul Pastorek. Rudy Crew had created a similar takeover-zone in NYC two years before, but the RSD was the first aggressive state effort to address chronic failure. The RSD took over a failing school in the fall of 2004 and took over for four more in the spring of 2005. Jacob's leadership turned out to be fortuitous.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ripped through New Orleans in August and September of 2005 devastating most school buildings and displacing many families. After the hurricanes, the state board, with the support of Governor Blanco and State Superintendent Cecil Picard, decided to place most of the Orleans public schools into the Recovery School District.

A few weeks after the hurricanes, Jim Shelton and I visited with Tulane president Scott Cowen who was charged with leading a committee to reform and rebuild the city's failing public school system. Cowen, Picard, and city leaders were deep in triage efforts and making temporary education arrangements. In the midst of the chaos, Cowen asked how the education system could be redesigned for better performance. We described a portfolio approach (that we had written about in 2004) including high performing charter networks.

After the RSD takeover, Jacobs and her colleagues began recruiting partners and high-quality charter operators including KIPP which made an early commitment to being part of the new system (today they operate nine schools). The fact that BESE and the legislature addressed chronic failure, developed a solution, and built capacity pre-Katrina is a critically important to the educational success evident today.

Talent confluence. On a visit in 2007, I found the most amazing confluence of education talent ever assembled at a converted retail center purchased by Tulane and home of theCowen Institute as well as Teach for America,New Leaders, TNTP, theLouisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, and New Schools For New Orleans (NSNO). For local and recruited leaders that wanted to build a great network of schools, the converted mall at 200 Broadway was a turbocharged incubator. (Here's a 2009 report on a site visit.)

In 2007 BESE selected Paul Pastorek as state superintendent. Pastorek, a bright and brave attorney and edreformer, turbocharged state and RSD efforts. He was the founding chair of Chiefs for Change and probably the best example thereof for the four years he served. Pastorek recruited Joel Klein's deputy John White from NYC to run RSD. White followed Pastorek as State Superintendent in January 2012.

New Orleans is the best example of the difference that a focused talent development and recruitment strategy can make:

  • Teach for America , directed by Kira Orange Jones, has 400 teachers and 600 alumni
  • New Leaders , directed by Adren Wilson, has trained 35 school leaders
  • TNTP recruits and trains teachers
  • Leading Educators , led by former SUNY authorizer Jonas Chartock, supports 106 teacher-leaders in the midst of their two-year fellowships ; and
  • There are two Education Pioneers working with the RSD with plans to select and train 80 to work for high-impact partners in New Orleans.


In his iNACOL keynote, White said that despite extreme poverty New Orleans was on trajectory to pass state average achievement levels despite 85 percent of students in/near poverty. Almost 80 percent of New Orleans public school students attend charter schools with more than 40 different operators according to the Cowen Institute. Bills passed in 2012 expand private school and online options.

EdTech. A Brookings report indicates that entrepreneurial activity in New Orleans is now 40 percent above the national average. Forbes said, "Assets such as low cost of living, high quality of life, and culture" have been essential in attracting and retaining the talent that has turned New Orleans into a tech hub.

NOLA entrepreneurs are supported by Idea Village, a nonprofit incubator supporting entrepreneurs for ten years, Voodoo Ventures, operators of the Launchpad coworking space and an angel investor group, and Abstraction Ventures. Jin-Soo Huh recently launched Ed Tech MeetUp: New Orleans.

As noted last month, Matt Candler is growing people that are growing educational solutions. His New Orleans-based incubator, 4.0 Schools, is based on a process that most organizations start as an idea and go through a five-stage process: itch --> hunch --> test --> launch --> scale. Matt, Brian Bordainick, and the team "live on the left side" turning hunches into testable products.

A couple of the cool 4.0 solutions including Kickboard, a super gradebook;mSchool, which is inventing accelerated competency-based pathways; and enrichED, which helps schools hire great, part-time and substitute teachers; were the first big ed-tech shop in NOLA.

Going digital. Firstline Schools is a homegrown five school network piloting a blended model. Bricolage Academy opens next year. Neerav Kingsland and NSNO will be growing more blends (and is a s tudent of portfolio strategy).

In the fall of 2011, families gained access to two full time virtual options includingLouisiana Connections Academy and Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy. The state virtual school served up 9,179 part time course enrollments last year. A Course Choice bill passed in 2012 (HB976) which allows students to take supplemental courses from approved providers with fractional funding following the student beginning in 2013. Students in schools graded C or below can take any course, while students in schools graded A or B can take courses for which their school offers no equivalent. The state is reviewing providers now and will have a course catalog published in January.

Last, but certainly not least is the story of Luis Tandalla, a college senior at the University of New Orleans that wrote an algorithm that beat the best data scientists and the best testing companies at scoring constructed response assessment items in the Hewlett Foundation-funded Automated Student Assessment Prize. Get that kid a visa and get him on a NOLA edtech team!

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