New Orleans has always done things differently from the rest of the country, and nowhere is that more true today than in public education.
City schools were failing even before Hurricane Katrina destroyed critical infrastructure, drove out residents and decimated the tax base. Neighborhood schools no longer held the same logic with entire neighborhoods washed away. Under such extreme circumstances, reinvention was a necessity, not an option.
Mother Nature may not have succeeded in wiping out the city, but she did wipe the slate clean of old assumptions and political constraints. Starting with a blank sheet of paper, New Orleans developed a system of schools unlike anything else in the country.
Today, 90 percent of children attend charter schools governed by dozens of separate school boards answerable to three different government entities. Enrollment is determined by a combination of choice and lottery, not by geography. School management is hyperlocal, and charter operators enjoy extraordinary latitude in making decisions apart from any centralized school board. An underperforming school in New Orleans can be reconstituted in a matter of months, while the process would drag on for years anywhere else.
For anyone who lived through the long, messy process of getting to this point, it might be easy to forget just how groundbreaking all of this really is. But rest assured: Every education leader in America is watching to see how this effort plays out.
Innovation is not without risk, of course. Some of the strategies used in New Orleans will become a model for school districts nationwide, while others will be jettisoned due to poor results. Much of this has never been tried on such a large scale, which only heightens the stakes. After all, the cost of a failed education policy is counted not only in tax dollars but also in lost opportunity and limited achievement that can follow a child throughout life.
The good news is, we find that charter operators in New Orleans “get it,” to a large degree. They may be innovative by their very nature, but they can still make room for approaches that are tried and true.
Take Communities in Schools, for instance. We address the dropout problem by identifying at-risk students and matching them up with existing community support that can help them stay in school and succeed in life. Housing, food, transportation, medical care, mentoring — all of these needs can act as barriers to a good education. We tear down those barriers so students can better focus on learning, and our cost-effective model frees up time and resources for more effective teaching.
Does it work? Our model, dubbed “integrated student supports,” has a 30-year track record and reams of data verified by outside experts. Nationally, of the 1.3 million students we serve each year, 99 percent stay in school, 97 percent are promoted to the next grade and 84 percent meet academic improvement goals.
Those results have gotten the attention of charter operators in New Orleans, where CIS is now active in 15 schools — up from only one site before Katrina. As an organization more accustomed to working in traditional public schools, we’ve been encouraged by these burgeoning partnerships and the opportunity to serve many more at-risk youth.
As an example of this partnership, Communities in Schools is now serving the East Baton Rouge Parish school system through a collaboration with Diplomas Now. And an emerging partnership with Volunteers of America will soon bring the CIS model to students in Shreveport.
Washington might want to take notice. As Republicans and Democrats wrestle with a new education bill, some lawmakers seem to believe that innovation will suffer if the law includes a requirement for evidence-based programs.
But Louisiana shows that simply isn’t true. Even in America’s most innovative school environment, there is plenty of room for programming that is data-driven and evidence-based.
Possibility plus proof: We believe that’s the formula for improving public education, both here in New Orleans and all across the country.
Dan Cardinali is national president of Communities in Schools. Sara Massey heads the group in New Orleans.