For education leaders and managers who work outside of the school building, it’s too easy for us to go a long time without stepping foot in a classroom. But it’s vital that we anchor our work there.
To do just that, our 70+ EP staff visited local schools in New Orleans as part of our annual all-staff retreat in October. As our local ambassador, my job was to give our team a glimpse of our city’s unique landscape and plan our school visits.
New Orleans, by all accounts, has undergone one of the most compelling educational transformations this country has ever seen. In the years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the public school infrastructure in 2005, our city’s formerly centralized school system has morphed into a system of schools run largely independently from locally elected boards, bureaucracy, and unions.
Now, talented “edu-preneurs” – who know acutely the high stakes for non-achievement – have taken the reins to meet the deep needs of students and families. As a result, there’s an incredible amount of choice for parents, guardians, and families. (Take a look at the robust New Orleans Parents Guide as evidence.)
I, too, had a lot to choose from when organizing our staff’s school visits. I focused on three priorities to show our team where NOLA schools are making progress:
You can have excellence and equity for all students through open enrollment. In NOLA, nearly all schools (except 10) participate in the city-wide open enrollment system, known as One App. I wanted my colleagues to see excellent schools that serve all kids, free from conditions like pre-selection or recruiting based on a particular talent or athleticism.
A major critique of the city’s post-hurricane reforms is the overall lack of public engagement in the reform process. Now in NOLA, students and their families choose the right school for them each year, effectively creating over 45,000 acts of engagement annually. Educators across the city are working to ensure that every choice for NOLA families is of the highest quality.
You can close the gap at any age. From elementary to high schools, NOLA schools have distinct approaches and challenges to closing achievement gaps for students of all ages. Many of the new schools in New Orleans began as “slow-growth” charters that started with kindergarten, and then added a grade a year at a time. These schools are closing gaps early. But older students who had been in the system for many years – and often many grade levels behind in their learning – also have significant needs.
Some of the folks I admire most in the city are those who jumped into high school leadership with the firm belief that excellent teaching and support will change life trajectories. The Collegiate Academies network of high schools has firmly embraced the growth mindset for both students and adults, where every teacher is observed and given actionable feedback daily. The results are unmistakable. At Collegiate Academies’ Sci Academy and at Cohen College Prep (a New Orleans College Preparatory Academies school where EP Alumna Paris Woods serves as Director of Alumni Support), over 90% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch and both send more than 90% of their seniors to 4-year colleges.
You can serve all kids and close the gap in a system that provides choices of different models. Immediately following the storm, the “KIPP-like” model – with a laser-like focus on school culture that emphasized college-going, extended schools days and years, and an emphasis on core subjects – dominated the local landscape. Though the imitators have had mixed success, the overall model continues to be the most effective in serving at-risk students and families.
More recently, however, innovative thinkers in NOLA have both reimagined and gone beyond the “no-excuses” model to adapt to a city where charter is the norm and all students and families must be served. At Bricolage Academy (where EP Alumna Ashley Beckner is the founding Director of Finance and Operations), a socioeconomically diverse student body is tackling new approaches to school and learning, exploring their potential as “makers” and innovators. Every day, Bricolage students spend time in the innovation room to “tinker” with challenges using available resources. At Morris Jeff Community School, a grassroots charter school in the Mid-City community, students engage with rigorous content at the only International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program in the state.
Our team learned a tremendous amount from visiting six local elementary schools and six local high schools. (And for me, I enjoyed our school visits just as much as when our team joined me for a night of Rebirth Brass Band at the Maple Leaf Bar.)
While our local context is unique – as in all cities – the lessons we carry from our time in NOLA schools transcend the city. Here, we see most of the same challenges that urban centers throughout the country are facing. In New Orleans we saw what talented leaders can accomplish, given the autonomy to execute on a vision to address these challenges on behalf of students and communities.
Michael Richard /reeshard/ is the Director, New Orleans for Education Pioneers and a former school leader and teacher. He is a committed advocate for equity in educational opportunities and especially devoted to support the continued compelling educational transformation taking place in New Orleans and around the country.