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New report details successes and challenges of N.O. schools

11th August 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

A new report published last week by Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives details the successes and challenges of the school system in New Orleans with its 87 schools governed by 44 different boards.

In the eight years since the Recovery School District (RSD) took over 90 percent of New Orleans schools, the report highlights academic gains, but notes that there is still much work to be done, as the RSD remains one of the lowest-performing districts in the state.

The report is the Cowen Institute’s 2014 account the “State of Public Education in New Orleans.”

The decentralized system has had unintended consequences which the messy myriad of boards continue to struggle to address, according to the report: “The complex and decentralized nature of public education in New Orleans creates potential barriers for the system to equitably serve the needs of all students. Rules, policies, and procedures vary across the systems. While OPSB and RSD have worked together to rebuild and renovate public school facilities, no single entity is responsible for ensuring that all students receive equal treatment across the changing policies and directives.”

While the legislation states that schools taken by the RSD can be returned to local control in five years, that hasn’t happened, and most likely never will, the report states: “Long-term unified governance under OPSB appears to be out of reach.”

While 17 schools are eligible to return to local control, “this marks the third year in a row that all eligible charter schools have decided against going under OPSB governance.”

However it is not up to the charter school, but rather the unelected governing board. And as seen with several West Bank schools, even when the overwhelming majority of faculty and community members begged to have their school return to the OPSB, the governing board would not allow it.

A primary stated concern among eligible charters has been maintaining their status as a Local Educational Agency (LEA). In 2013, legislation was passed that allows charters returning to the OPSB to maintain their status as an LEA and thus maintain significant financial autonomy.

“A unified system of school with a single central office responsible for serving all students and holding all schools accountable to transparent and equivalent standards is unlikely at this point,” John Ayers, Executive Director of the Cowen Institute wrote in the report.

To address some of the concerns related to a lack of unification, the report points to the Cooperative Endeavor Agreement (CEA) signed by the OPSB and the RSD to “serve the most vulnerable student populations.”

The CEA focuses on the need to better serve students with special needs, and designates additional funding to do so.

Many charter schools lack the capacity to meet the legal requirements for providing services for students with special needs – a tragic hole in the privatization reform that is also laid out in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center against the Louisiana Department of Education.

While the CEA is a step toward better addressing this major flaw, the real life consequences suffered by families and their special needs children over the past 8 years are unimaginable.

And whether or not the RSD and the OPSB do indeed work together to fulfill the promises outlined by the CEA remains to be seen. In a recent interview with OPSB president Nolan Marshall, Jr., Marshall said that RSD leadership and OPSB leadership have not even met for several months.

The CEA also addresses the collaboration between the two to engage chronically absent youth, improve facilities and to “create and implement a common accounting process.”

The Cowen report is highly critical of the politics surrounding education: “Political divisions at both the local and state levels have had a negative impact on public education in New Orleans. Locally, the search for a permanent superintendent has stalled for the second year in a row. Statewide, Governor Jindal’s insistence on dictating Common Core policy has stymied the progress schools have made transitioning to the more rigorous standards.“

University of New Orleans Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership Brian Beabout said that the significant amount of new numerical metrics used as tools of measurement and detailed in the Cowen report signifies to him, a system in which the rules are in a state of flux.

In terms of teacher evaluations and School Performance Scores, “We have to be very careful about making statements of trends over time,” Beabout said.

While it may be politically expedient to point to trends, Beabout noted that those trends are based on new and constantly changing policies and data. “Most of the state data can’t be tracked over multiple years,” he said.

With the latest change to the grading scale (from 200 to 150), Beabout noted “schools are both getting better and worse at the same time.” While the report shows a drop in “F” schools (from 18 to 8), there was also a drop in “A” schools (from 11 to 7).

And, Beabout notes that, for the most part while low-performing schools have been made slightly better, it still is an unmet challenge to turn low-performing schools into excellent schools.

And, when examining the data, Beabout said it is disingenuous to include the schools with selective admission policies.

The selective schools serve a role, but including them in the data is comparing apples to oranges, he said.

“We need more good schools that do a good job at educating everyone,” Beabout said.

On successes to be pulled from the Cowen report, Beabout identifies increased academic performance, and uptick in teacher experience levels, and schools becoming slightly more representative the population of the city.

However, “only two public schools are demographically representative of the youth population in New Orleans,” the report states.

Things that cause Beabout to worry include the decrease in the number of minority teachers. While the levels of teacher experience have increased, the teaching force has also gotten whiter in the past few years, he noted. From 2009 to 2013, the percentage of minority teachers decreased from 60 percent to 54 percent.

In the same time period, the experience level of teachers increased from 9.9 years to 12.8 years.

The relatively low performance of the voucher schools is also cause for concern, he said.

And the jury is still out on the impact of the changing role of the RSD, Beabout said. With a shrinking RSD footprint, there needs to be increased transparency in terms as the two districts continue the process of rebuilding and maintaining facilities, he said.

Beabout said that one of his biggest underlying concerns about the future of public education is whether the system will be able to sustain public support. Schools can achieve a lot more with public support, he said.

Another chasm Beabout identified is the relationship between the schools and the communities. Schools would do better to leverage community support and resources, and foster real, trusting relationships, he said.

“The role of communities has been so marginalized,” he said.

Special education will remain a challenge – and parents, communities, watchdog groups and media must demand of the schools that they provide the resources, Beabout said.

On “looking ahead,” the report concludes, “while debates rightly persist about aspects of the reform movement, academic performance has improved and students have better choices than they did before Hurricane Katrina.”

Beabout stresses caution in analysis:

“The amount of data coming out exceeds our ability to make sense of it or draw conclusions.”

The report lauds the OneApp enrollment system as a step toward increased unity, but also notes “The inclusion of all public schools in a unified application system is a critical step toward ensuring a fair, transparent, and equitable public school system in New Orleans.” Out of 87 schools, 77 currently participate.

Other challenges the report lists include the lack of unified data management and general oversight and transportation costs and access.

And, as leadership in education, both locally and at the state level, is far more divided than united, the report advises that continuing academic growth will require coordination and strong leadership: “Politicians will need to put the needs of students ahead of their own political aims and school leaders must continue to focus on improving the achievement of all students.”

A newly launched website presents all the data, including interactive maps, and along with the full report can be found at www.speno2014.com.

This article originally published in the August 11, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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