Filed Under:  Education

Future role of RSD being questioned

30th June 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard has frequently said, “Our success is measured by literally working ourselves out of a job.”

This fall, the RSD will no longer be directly running any public schools in New Orleans. Every school the state agency took over following Hurricane Katrina has been handed over to a charter operator and privatized.

The RSD by design is not meant to run schools indefinitely, Dobard has said.

But just when the superintendent will no longer earn his annual salary of nearly $250,000 — and when “success” can be declared – remains to be seen.

With the RSD perpetually ranking as one of the worst districts in the state, it appears that for now, the jobs of the majority of the central RSD staff are safe.

However there have been staff reductions over the years as the RSD has gradually gotten out of the business of “transforming” low-performing schools.

In 2010-2011, the RSD ran 26 schools, 23 in New Orleans and three in Baton Rouge. The district employed 131 people with a payroll of approximately $7.4 million.

In 2011-2012, the RSD ran 19 schools (16 in New Orleans), and employed 92 people with a payroll of about $6.9 million.

In 2012-2013, the RSD ran 12 schools in New Orleans and 10 statewide. There were 99 employees with a payroll of about $6.7 million.

Of the 99 employees, 36 received an annual salary over $75,000, and 11 received over $100,000.

Currently, there are no direct-run schools in New Orleans and a central office RSD staff with 68 employees. The payroll is approximately $5.1 million. Of the 68 employees, 26 earn an annual salary over $75,000, and 10 people earn a salary of $100,000 or more.

According to The Lens, total costs over the past five years have decreased by about 57 percent, from a budget of $493 million in 2009-2010 year to the RSD’s recently proposed budget of $214 million for 2014-2015.

Outside of New Orleans, there are 12 schools in Louisiana under RSD jurisdiction. But other communities might want to take note from the New Orleans takeover, where the RSD chose only one path to “turn around” schools: privatizing and chartering them.

Within the total $214 million budget, the operating budget has dropped significantly while the construction budget has increased. Five years ago it was $189 million, and next year it will be $194 million, The Lens reported.

Dobard denied a request for an interview about the RSD’s new role in an all-charter district, and about whether or not he is still committed to “working himself out of a job.”

According to RSD spokeswoman Zoey Reed, “We are partnering with OPSB to take on city wide challenges as outlined in the CEA and we will keep running enrollment and oversight functions.”

The Cooperative Endeavor Agreement (CEA) to which Reed referred was signed in March by the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) and the RSD.

It contains three areas of focus: a “Citywide Exceptional Needs Fund to support schools with the costs of serving students with disabilities with the highest needs, a Therapeutic Setting for students in need of intensive mental health support, and a Youth Opportunity Center to provide to support students at- risk of dropping out due to truancy, chronic absenteeism, or court involvement.”

Despite nine years with nearly unlimited funds and autonomy, few would disagree that the RSD still owes a lot to the children of New Orleans.

Barabara Ferguson, a former teacher, principal, and superintendent, said that the jury is still out in terms of whether charter schools are improving education in New Orleans.

Charter schools are supposed to develop innovative strategies to teach the hardest to reach children and youth, she said.

Ferguson and Charles Hatfield founded Research on Reforms, an organization formed to analyze the data to determine whether or not the 2005 reforms are working. “We are neither friends nor foes of charter schools,” Ferguson emphasized, but rather have the goal of providing analysis to ensure that at-risk youth have equitable access to education.

In today’s education landscape with more than 40 independent districts in New Orleans alone, there remains a lack of consistency and cohesion. Schools write their own policies on whom they will enroll, and who they will dis-enroll.

The majority of the schools are myopically focused on increasing standardized test scores and four-year college preparation – giving the city little variety or opportunity for the children who may excel at things not measured on a standardized tests.

While the original intent of charter schools was to find innovative ways to teach the kids who are the hardest to reach – in the New Orleans experiment, mass-charterization has largely had the opposite effect: The most vulnerable, most at-risk children, and those whose gifts aren’t readily measured by standardized tests – are the ones who have been unceremoniously shoved through the cracks in the name of “reform.”

Even schools that call themselves “open enrollment” have creative ways of pre-screening their students and pushing out those considered “disruptive” through inane and highly subjective discipline policies. And some of the lotteries are multi-tiered, Ferguson noted. “To say open is not accurate,” she said.

But because the state refuses to release that data that would allow Ferguson and Hatfield to anonymously track the movement of students, she said it is now very difficult to find where students are coming from and going to, and to track the students who have dropped out of the system entirely.

Originally, the charter school concept was focused on channeling resources directly to the people working most closely with the kids and into the individual communities, Ferguson noted, as opposed to spending on a school board level.

However, in New Orleans, it was not local groups but rather large national charter management organizations (CMO’s) that came in and dominated the infiltration.

In addition, Ferguson noted that CMO’s such as New Orleans College Prep claimed to takeover a failing school – in this case Walter L. Cohen High School – but in reality only took the building, brought in their own students who met their own criteria, and did not actually take the Cohen students.

“It’s so unconscionable,” Ferguson said, of CMO’s being allowed to take “failing” buildings but not the “failing” students within.

And Ferguson said that despite extensive research, they have yet to find any truly innovative approaches and isolate any “great teaching techniques.”

Schools are not judged by the state on their innovative teaching techniques, their enrollment of children with special needs, or the counseling and therapy services provided to the most challenging students. They are not judged on their vocational offerings, their art and music programs, or their ability to teach kids things like social and emotional skills. They are judged almost entirely by their ability to teach kids how to take standardized tests.

It’s the hardest to reach kids—those who may be teetering between a path to becoming a productive citizen or to becoming incarcerated that the New Orleans experiment has thus far failed. They are the ones least desired by most charter schools, which operate as private businesses using public funds.

For many schools, students with special needs are viewed as liabilities – they cost more to educate and don’t typically produce high test scores.

Unlike a unified district with shared resources, each of the more than 40 mini-districts are responsible for paying for their own counselors, social workers, mental health experts, special needs teachers, foreign language resources, etc. Those who do provide those services often have to cut from other areas of their budget. Those who don’t provide those services break the law with little accountability from the RSD.

According to a recent report by the Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, there are 14,000 low-income youth in New Orleans between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not in school and are not working.

This translates into a loss of $195 million in 2011, the report says, through a loss in tax revenue, a lack of productive workers, and an increase in social services.

For the 2012-2013 school year, 28 percent of high school students were labeled as “chronically absent,” – missing school more than 10 percent of school.

In terms of the RSD’s continued role in the city, Ferguson cites the tracking of the student population as an essential function. If a student leaves or is removed from one school, there must be a system and a shared responsibility to ensure that they are enrolled elsewhere, she said.

Ferguson said she would also like to see the RSD fulfill their obligation to find innovative ways to teach at-risk children and youth. They should be asking questions, she said, such as: “What innovative educational methods have come out of the big experiment? What have we learned new about how to teach difficult to teach youth?”

As is, with CMO’s allowed to selectively admit and retain students (even those calling themselves open enrollment), Ferguson said it is hard to see how anything innovative is being done to reach the kids with the highest needs. “Removing a student that is difficult to teach is not an innovative strategy,” she said.

So as long as a large number of youth in New Orleans remain “disconnected,” and as long as the charter schools continue to struggle to reach the most at-risk kids and provide adequate resources for students with special needs, the RSD has plenty of unfulfilled promises and a continued role in the city.

The CEA directly addresses the system’s failure thus far to engage the kids most in need of extra support.

The ability of public schools to educate all children is directly tied to the quality of life for the entire community, Ferguson noted.

Academic “success” also remains elusive. The RSD touts success in terms of the numbers of kids attending failing schools pre and post Katrina. But the definition of failing has changed almost every year since the storm, the student population is different, and critics claim systemic manipulation of the numbers.

And even their own numbers don’t suggest that success can be declared any time soon. Based on the state district rankings and the grading of the majority of charter schools still under RSD jurisdiction in New Orleans as a “D” or “F,” Dobard and his central staff don’t appear to be working themselves out of a job any time soon.

This article originally published in the June 30, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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