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post-Katrina and beyond...



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Monday, July 03, 2006
By Steve Ritea

Some say it's like trying to repair a car going 60 miles an hour. And adding to the problem, you're almost out of gas.

No one ever thought fixing New Orleans' public schools would be easy.

But now, after decades of half-baked reform efforts that have failed generations of students, the city's schools might finally have a shot at real, substantive change for the better. In any event, Louisiana's grand experiment in public education is unlike anything the nation has ever seen.

Since November's state takeover, 25 campuses have managed to open, serving 12,500 students. About 30 more schools are preparing to open later this summer for the first time since Hurricane Katrina, expanding the city's total public school capacity to 34,000, although closer to 22,000 are expected.

But with two months to go before schools reopen, a startling amount of work remains to be done. The state hopes this week to begin offering jobs to principals for 15 of the state-run schools scheduled to open Sept. 7. But not a single teacher has been hired, as is also true of many of the charter schools opening in August. Registration at the new state-run schools begins July 10, but many of the buildings the state inherited from the local district remain uninhabitable. Crews are working around the clock to get them ready.

And as if that weren't enough of a challenge, all administrators can do is estimate how many students will come back.

"It is going to be extremely messy," said Paul Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle. "But their oars are in the water and they're paddling as fast as they can."

Good teachers wanted

While state and charter school officials remain confident they'll be able to pull it off, if just barely, critics wonder whether the reform and upgrades they envisioned in engineering the takeover can be realized on such a hectic schedule. In short, it's a case of being careful what you wish for, as they face the opportunity of a lifetime under the worst possible circumstances.

While state officials talk of attracting the "best and the brightest" and creating a "world-class" public school system that will be "a model for the nation," observers say they're already at a severe disadvantage on the most important part of putting a school together: getting good teachers.

The recovery district estimates it will need about 500 teachers, and is aiming that all of them be fully certified, a criterion that in recent years was often observed in the breach.

"It's late in the game to be looking for vast numbers of teachers," said Bruce Villineau, a recruiting expert with the nonprofit New Teacher Project who has been working with charter schools in New Orleans. "Based on our research, the longer you wait, the lower the quality level of your teachers."

"Most principals and teachers are already signed up at this point," agreed Kevin Hall, chief operating officer of the Broad Foundation, a nonprofit education group that has offered assistance to the city and state since Katrina. "The pool you're selecting from is probably much smaller than it was 60 or 90 days ago."

The problem, state school officials said, is that initially they were expecting to find outside groups to charter or run most, if not all, of their schools and thus be in charge of their own hiring.

Although recovery district and charter schools are not covered by collective bargaining, United Teachers of New Orleans President Brenda Mitchell said many of her members looking for jobs on those campuses are growing impatient.

"The frustration among many teachers is they don't know where they're going to work in the fall, and in order to have stability in their lives, they need some answers to the basic questions of employment," she said, noting many are already taking jobs elsewhere because they can't wait any longer. "They've got to make decisions about their own personal lives and their families."

Typically, "interviewing starts in January or February under normal circumstances," Villineau said, "but these are certainly not your typical school-opening circumstances."

Principals hired first

Robin Jarvis, a seven-year veteran of the state Department of Education who was officially named superintendent of the recovery district schools in April but became its point person months before that, said members of her staff were busy interviewing principals last week and are planning to make job offers this week.

The state already has opened three recovery district schools in the city and most of their faculties will be returning.

Meanwhile, the state has received more than 1,000 teacher applications, following advertisements it started running nationally and locally starting in May. But Jarvis said it won't start screening any teachers until later this month -- after principals are hired. "It's critical that principals get to be involved in trying to hire their teachers," Jarvis said.

She doesn't believe they'll have a problem.

"I happen to know personally some teachers who want to work for us and are doing everything they can to wait for us to hire," she said. "Some of them are really committed to the children of New Orleans."

If they're getting a late start on hiring critical staff, it's largely because the state never anticipated having to operate so many schools on its own, Jarvis said.

Back in January, less than two months after the Legislature voted to sweep 107 of 128 public schools into the state-run recovery district, the state Department of Education's plan was to turn them into charter schools administered by outside organizations, whose performance would be closely monitored.

"I am not interested in running schools," state Education Superintendent Cecil Picard said at the time. Hiring and the myriad other tasks associated with opening schools would be left up to sponsoring organizations.

In the months that followed, 20 groups applied to run 43 schools. The state contracted with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to scrutinize the applications and set a high bar.

By last month, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education had approved six of those groups to run just 10 schools.

"There was a lot of work to do in going through the charter applications, and until we knew which of those would be approved by BESE, we didn't know how many schools we would have to operate," Jarvis said.

Iffy data

The state also has been delayed waiting for demographic projections. Before you know how many third-grade teachers to hire, you need to know how many third-graders will be enrolling, Jarvis said.

But some of the data assembled by state-contracted demographer Greg Rigamer has been met with skepticism. In particular, Jarvis questioned projections that showed there would be no increase in high school students beyond those already enrolled.

Jarvis, who already has plans to open six more high schools in September, said Rigamer's data is under review.

Hiring aside, readying more than 30 campuses, some in heavily flooded parts of the city, for recovery district and charter schools to open as early as next month has required feverish effort.

"It's easy to stand off in the distance and say maybe we haven't done things fast enough," Jarvis said, "but no one's ever been in this position of having to rebuild and restaff the schools really quickly."

Maybe so, but Tulane University President Scott Cowen, who helped shepherd a new plan for public education reform as a member of the mayor's Bring New Orleans Back Commission, called the state's lack of progress on readying schools for students "astounding."

"Even though it's very complex and challenging, we needed to work at a much more rapid pace than we have, ever since the storm," he said. "We're moving at what I call bureaucratic time, rather than entrepreneurial time, where you realize speed is of the essence . . . Because of the complexity and because we have public officials doing this, the speed has been compromised."

Back in the fall, as his education committee was beginning work, Cowen suggested the state quickly appoint a board of business and community leaders to run all the city's schools. The idea was quickly shot down, however, with state officials informing him the state Constitution wouldn't allow it.

"My view was I'd find a way around it, because these are strange times," Cowen said. "We're at a tipping point with the school system, and one way to proceed is throw out the old rule book, which we didn't do. Instead people said, 'We've still got the old rule book out there and we'll do the best we can with it,' but unfortunately that always leads to sub-optimal results."

Despite the obstacles, BESE member Leslie Jacobs said she remains optimistic. "I am totally confident we will have better schools opening this fall than we had opening last fall before Katrina," she said.

A number of things will, in fact, be dramatically different.

More money

Jacobs said much more money will be funneled into the classroom, an easier feat for the large state agency compared with cash-strapped New Orleans Public Schools, the vestige of the old system that now runs just four schools. One example of that, she said, is the decision to staff for a 20-1 student-teacher ratio in elementary schools and a 25-1 ratio in high schools. Before Katrina, New Orleans Public Schools budgeted for a 26-1 ratio in elementary schools and a 28-1 ratio in high schools.

The recovery district, like the charter schools that are springing up across the city, also will not be bound by union rules -- giving it autonomy to evaluate teachers and hire and fire as it sees fit. Officials also are working to create performance-based pay, giving teachers extra incentives to excel.

Susan Harvey, a veteran of New Orleans Public Schools who was rehired as a teacher at Banneker Elementary when it reopened as one of three recovery district campuses in April, said the changes are everywhere.

For one thing, Harvey said, she's finally getting paid for the hour of planning time she does each day after her kindergarten class goes home. Her previous salary under NOPS was based on a six-hour work day, ending as the children left. Now she's getting compensated for work she used to do for free.

Teachers typically are not allowed to earn overtime.

Any problems with her paycheck also can be resolved quickly. "With NOPS, you would drive across the river to the central office and sit for hours and hours and nothing would happen," she said. "Here the payroll person gave me their cell number."

Before, when she needed something for her classroom, Harvey was asked to write a "wish-list" -- and often it remained nothing more than that. Earlier this month, recovery district staff walked into her classroom, asked what she needed and promised to deliver it in short order.

While Harvey has yet to see the additional classroom furniture she requested, she's optimistic it will arrive soon.

"When you have a concern, you speak with someone and there's action," she said.

Incredibly, the recovery district has an administrative staff of just 25 to oversee those three schools and prepare for the opening of 15 more in September. Although that number might well grow, Jarvis said her intention is to keep her central office lean, in stark contrast to the 1,200 central office employees before Katrina.

While departments such as payroll and bus service will be handled by the central office, Jarvis said, many of the functions NOPS put in its district headquarters will be left to individual schools, giving principals more freedom -- though they will still be subject to close scrutiny by the state.

Changes for teachers

The positives of the new system don't come without new uncertainties and a little fear.

After 20 years protected by a union contract and collective bargaining, Harvey and other new hires are being offered year-to-year contracts, subject to performance evaluations that will determine whether they return the following year.

Jarvis said principals wielding a comprehensive checklist will be required to regularly visit classrooms and submit state forms monitoring each teacher's performance. Harvey said she's confident of her teaching skills and "as long as they evaluate me fairly, on how well I teach my students, I should do fine."

State officials also promise more and better professional development than anyone was used to under NOPS.

But when the state begins hiring this month, teachers will be subjected to a skills-assessment test that was considered irritating, if not insulting, by prospective staff at charter and recovery district schools who took it to qualify for jobs in the school year just ended.

Karla Davis, a special education teacher at Banneker who worked at Booker T. Washington High before Katrina, said she was upset about having to take the test. On the other hand, "most of the teachers here are really teaching," she said. "Some at Booker T. were not."

The most accurate barometer of how well recovery district and charter schools are working, however, won't be available for almost two years, when school test scores are released in May 2008.

While May 2007 scores will create a baseline on which to judge schools' growth the following year, largely new staffs and student populations at most schools across the city will make comparisons to their pre-Katrina performance impossible.

By May 2008, however, state officials will be only two years away from deciding whether to return the schools they took over to the local district.

Although the legislation passed in November does not require the state to give any of the schools back, experts say it would be unwise for the state to hold on to them too long.

"Over time, having the schools run by the state run by an outside entity undercuts the city's ability to pull itself together and stand up on its own," said Michael Casserly, executive director for the Council of the Great City Schools.

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Payzant, who worked in New Orleans Public Schools in the late 1960s, agreed.

"It would be highly unusual for any state in the nation to oversee on a day-to-day basis the governance and the administration of a large urban school district," he said. "That really needs to be delegated to local officials who will take responsibility and be accountable for the performance of that school district."

While that's a wholly legitimate long-term concern, "that's not something they should be worrying about now," said Hill, of the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Now, everyone agrees, the focus is on just getting schools open.

Looking forward, not back, is more important than ever before for the state, charters and what's left of NOPS, said Sarah Usdin, of New Schools for New Orleans, a start-up nonprofit group working to assist charter schools.

"I think it's very bad in post-devastation existence to second-guess yourself," she said. "For better or worse, this is where we are. We still have a tremendous opportunity and we have to move forward."

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Steve Ritea can be reached at or (504) 826-3396.