The state took over most New Orleans public schools in 2005 after years of rock-bottom test scores and financial crisis. Henderson Lewis Jr. wants them back.
He’s the new superintendent for the Orleans Parish School Board, the local body that used to govern all of the city’s public schools. And in a wide-ranging interview just a week after taking the job, Lewis said he expects public education to be back under local control in New Orleans by the time he’s out of office.
“It’ll be unified,” he said. “That’s one of my goals.”
That does not mean that Lewis, 40, thinks this will happen quickly, or that he wants to go back to the old way of doing things in public education, where decision-making would be centralized in his office.
He’s a proponent of charter schools — having actually founded one in Algiers — and talks about giving the city’s few remaining traditional schools the same type of flexibility that charters have.
He intends to run a “portfolio” district, a popular term nationally for the new paradigm in which a central office exists to authorize new schools and hold them accountable, rather than to manage them day to day.
In fact, he thinks the OPSB central office may need downsizing.
But in an hourlong interview during a tour of schools now under his watch, Lewis made it clear that his overarching aim is create a district that will be ready for the day when the state no longer runs schools in New Orleans.
“That chapter is going to be closed,” he said, sitting in the principal’s office at Edna Karr High School one day last week in a dark pin-striped suit and a gold paisley tie. “It’s going to be up to us to write what happens in the next 10 years.”
Lewis, who was serving as superintendent of schools in East Feliciana Parish before taking the New Orleans job, will face obstacles that were not present in a rural district with just six campuses.
Some three dozen charters in the Recovery School District, the state’s turnaround agency, are performing well enough academically to come back under local control. Under state policy, that decision falls to the nonprofit boards that govern them; few have chosen to make the jump.
There are still plenty of skeptics who say the School Board that Lewis answers to is irredeemable. Just this month, the local U.S. attorney accused board member Ira Thomas of accepting a bribe, recalling the corruption scandals that dogged the School Board pre-Katrina. Thomas has resigned and is expected to plead guilty.
Aside from giving the district a black eye, Thomas’ exit will have an unpredictable effect on the board’s politics, which have been deeply strained. An October election will give the board a permanent replacement representing a district — encompassing New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward — whose voters tend to be skeptical of the state takeover and the charter schools movement.
Advocates of a more traditional approach to schools may be glad to hear that Lewis wants to put the RSD out of business but less keen on the “portfolio” model of public education.
That said, Lewis brings a background that could make him uniquely suited to mediate between competing factions and philosophies.
Despite embracing relatively novel ideas about schools and school districts, he began his career as a teacher at a traditional high school in Chalmette. He grew up in St. Bernard Parish and served as an administrator in New Orleans schools. He’s got a master’s degree and a doctorate in education.
It is the kind of résumé that will sit well with critics who feel schools here rely too heavily on young Teach for America recruits who come from out of state with just a few weeks of training.
His local bona fides probably helped him get the job in the first place. Competing factions on the seven-member School Board went through more than half a dozen other candidates without being able to muster the necessary five votes for any of them. Lewis, with his local roots and depth of experience, was the compromise.
“That really helped him a lot, just the fact that he had a home in the greater New Orleans area,” said OPSB President Seth Bloom, referring to Lewis’ address in St. Bernard Parish.
On the other hand, Lewis is not talking about fighting the RSD or leading a crusade to reverse the state takeover all at once. He seems more interested in luring schools back simply by improving the local district.
Asked about a bill authored by state Rep. Joseph Bouie, D-New Orleans, that would compel eligible schools to come back into the School Board’s district, Lewis said he wasn’t sure yet whether the district would be ready for it.
He pointed out that some of the most important functions of any central office in a charter-dominated school system are still carried out by RSD officials, including the central enrollment system and the hearing office for students facing expulsion.
“My plan,” Lewis said, “is to work with the RSD and begin the process of bringing those functions to OPSB, so we can create a system where if every last school were to come back, we’ll have the infrastructure to do that.”
At the same time, Lewis said, he will be taking a close look at whether the central office has employees who aren’t helping the district reach its goals, meaning there could be layoffs in the near future. Asked whether the office is overstaffed, he said, “My first impression is yes.”
“We have to look at every single position and see it how it impacts student achievement,” he said, adding that in some cases the answer may be, “Let’s eliminate this and get more money to schools.”
Lewis does not see the School Board abandoning traditional schools altogether. Along with more than a dozen charters, the district still runs six so-called “direct-run” campuses, though Lewis said he would like to retire the term, emphasizing that principals at those schools should have the same discretion to make decisions that charters do.
He has already started calling them a part of the OPSB “network,” the way charter schools are referred to under different management groups.
“When you hire a school leader, you give that person a certain set of expectations,” Lewis said. “How am I going to say, ‘These are the expectations that have been set for you’ and also tie your hands behind your back? The principal needs to be given flexibility in making decisions they feel are best for their particular school.”
Edna Karr High School Principal Harold Clay, sitting next to Lewis on a couch in his office, chimed in like a joyful parishioner: “Yes, yes to all of that, yes!”
Lewis also argued there is an urgent need to update School Board policies, some of which, he said, have fallen behind changes in state law.
He pointed, for example, to recent confusion over replacing Thomas. Initially, it was thought the board had only 10 days to act before the decision would fall to Gov. Bobby Jindal, but it turned out state law specifies a 20-day window.
Then, last week, Lewis had a conference call with RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard to discuss the Andrew H. Wilson School in Broadmoor, one of the few schools slated to come back under local control next school year.
Louisiana has half a dozen different types of charter schools, all governed by slightly different laws. But it turns out, opinions differ about which type of charter Wilson will be when it comes back as a part of the InspireNOLA network, which runs Karr and Alice Harte Charter School in Algiers.
Lewis uses a broad, lingering smile to emphasize absurdities.
“We’ll have those growing pains,” he said. “I was a founding principal of a school, so I get it. But if we can anticipate some of the things that will be happening down the line, now is the time to draft policy, so that when things happen, we know what to do.”
Ultimately, Lewis hopes his approach to running the district will convince the city’s charter school leaders to come back into the OPSB fold — that it’s time for the “recovery” phase of public education in New Orleans to be over.
He would not predict exactly when that will be accomplished, but he added, “I plan on being here a long time.”