The Cooperative Endeavor Agreement (CEA) represents a breakthrough for the relationship between OPSB and RSD that has been marked by a history of tension. Through the CEA, OPSB and RSD formalized their collaborative relationship. By defining responsibilities and expectations, the CEA provides a structure for OPSB and RSD to affirm their commitment to equitably serving the needs of all public school students in New Orleans. Together the districts pledge to support programming to effectively meet the needs of their most at-risk students. A citywide exceptional needs fund was created to support schools with the expenses associated with serving students with high-needs disabilities. In addition, the districts committed to funding a new therapeutic setting for students in need of intensive mental health support. Students at risk of dropping out due to chronic absenteeism and court-related activities will also be better served through the newly created Youth Opportunity Center, which will provide additional and improved services to support youth. The CEA also outlines processes for cooperation in facility improvement and long-term maintenance.
With the implementation of Jump Start Career Education, BESE changed the public school accountability system to acknowledge career credentialing in a high school’s performance score. In the graduation index, which accounts for 25 percent of a high school’s SPS, a school will be equally rewarded for students who graduate in four years with an advanced career-education credential or with a qualifying score on the Advanced Placement exam. In addition, alternative high schools that target students who are over-aged and under-credited will be evaluated for charter renewal or closure based on a specific set of criteria that more closely relates to their mission. Lastly, both OPSB and RSD outlined their expectations for schools by adopting performance metrics. These measures will help ensure that renewal and closure decisions are fair and transparent.
The inclusion of all public school options in a unified application system is a critical step towards ensuring a fair, transparent, and equitable public school system in New Orleans. Of the 87 public schools in New Orleans, 77 schools participated in OneApp; eight OPSB charter schools and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts managed their own application and admissions process. The 2014 OneApp timeline changed from previous years to accommodate schools with selective admissions criteria. The early deadline allowed time for students and families to complete entrance requirements, such as academic testing, prior to placement. In addition, 20 non-public schools in Orleans Parish that receive public vouchers for tuition were included in the unified application process.
The complex and decentralized governance structure of public schools in New Orleans results in unintended consequences. As a result of decentralization, no single entity is responsible for data management and general oversight of all schools. Without a central database, children may not be accounted for, especially when transferring schools, and schools may lack timely access to student records. The decentralization of public school transportation also has important implications. Citywide busing allows students to attend schools in any neighborhood by eliminating the transportation hardships their parents may face, but results in additional costs for schools. On average, public schools in New Orleans spent 21 percent more on transportation than the average Louisiana public school. With multiple bus route and stops, student safety is also at risk. School and CMO leaders recognize this challenge and are working together and with outside organizations and leaders, such as City Councilwoman Cantrell to establish safe, cost-effective solutions.
Public school performance in New Orleans has shown consistent improvement in recent years. Although research has shown that test scores can plateau over time, it is not inevitable. Continuing the trajectory of improvement can be achieved with concerted effort. In Louisiana, the transition to the more rigorous Common Core standards is expected to cause an initial drop in student proficiency rates and impact school performance scores. State Superintendent White has pledged to increase expectations for students and has set Mastery, rather than Basic, as the new expectation. By 2025, an “A” school will be a school where the average student performs at Mastery or higher. This is a lofty goal, considering only 24 percent of students statewide and 42 percent and 12 percent of students in OPSB and RSD schools, respectively, scored Mastery or above in 2013-14. However, it is important to establish high expectations that will adequately prepare students for success after high school.
School choice allows parents to apply to enroll their student in any school in the city regardless of where they live. Since Katrina, low-income families have had greater access to higher performing schools. Yet the quality and diversity of choices available to parents may be limited. Although most students were matched to one of their top three ranked choices on OneApp, the top two schools (Benjamin Franklin Elementary School and Edna Karr High School) received far more applications than they had seats available. Furthermore only two public schools are demographically representative of the youth population in New Orleans. Attracting a diverse student population requires deliberate effort through recruitment, admissions policies, and school design.
In New Orleans, the variation in school design is largely limited to high-stakes standards-based teaching and strict discipline policies. BESE’S policy of authorizing replications or charter schools with evidence of successful operation to takeover a school can potentially restrict the diversity of options available. While there is need and demand for schools with proven track records, a greater array of academic offerings could create more top choices for families. With the ability to authorize charter schools beginning in 2012, OPSB has taken the lead in authorizing schools that are willing to take other approaches to education. As portfolio managers, RSD and OPSB have a responsibility to provide families in New Orleans with ample high-quality options.
Political divisions at both the local and state levels have had a negative impact on public education in New Orleans. The search for a permanent superintendent to lead OPSB has stalled for a second year in a row; critics suggest that unproductive infighting has limited the pool of highly qualified applicants. The board’s failure to find a consensus candidate limits the district’s ability to set strategic direction for the future. Although OPSB has the potential to play the leadership role, as evidenced by its willingness to authorize diverse school models and its collaboration with RSD on the CEA, the lack of unity and purpose presents a challenge for the system of public schools in New Orleans.
Statewide, Governor Jindal’s insistence on dictating Common Core policy has stymied the progress schools have made transitioning to the more rigorous standards. Governor Jindal’s political move to withdraw from the Common Core and halt the purchase of the 2014-15 state assessments from PARCC has placed the state in educational chaos. State Superintendent White has maintained that the state will continue to implement the Common Core standards. Jindal’s attempt to suspend the testing contract for the Common Core-aligned tests resulted in a lawsuit; teachers and students are preparing for a new school year amid the uncertainty. Placing political aspirations above the needs of students has dire consequences; thriving in this environment will be a challenge in the upcoming year.
Educators in New Orleans should be proud of the gains they have made in the classroom. While debates rightly persist about particular aspects of the reform movement, academic performance has improved and students have better choices than they did before Hurricane Katrina. Ensuring continued academic growth and equal opportunities for all students will not be a simple task. It will require strong leadership and much coordination among the diffuse 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. Next year will mark the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina; it is critical that momentum is not lost and New Orleanians and Louisianans work together to continue to progress.