This coming July marks the beginning of a new era for public schools in New Orleans. For the first time since Katrina, all Recovery School District schools will be back under the oversight of the locally elected Orleans Parish School Board.
Our schools have come a long way since Hurricane Katrina, with 20 percent more public school students graduating from high school and enrolling in college. But the 2017 school letter grades show us there is a long road ahead.
After years of growth, we’ve seen a plateau and decline in state school performance scores. Three out of every four public schools in New Orleans received a C, D or F on the 2017 state report card. Those schools serve nearly exclusively low-income students. This is a stark reminder that too many of our children are not receiving the educational supports and services they need to succeed in school and life.
As superintendent and accountability chair of OPSB, we share the community’s frustration and impatience. However, we won’t solve this problem by making excuses or pointing fingers. Instead, we must move forward with urgency and unity to build on our successes while developing new strategies to achieve better results. These problems did not develop overnight and they will not be fixed quickly or easily.
We know that the best solutions often come from the community. So, we launched a listening campaign over the last year to hear from thousands of people in town hall meetings, public working sessions and surveys.
Based on this community feedback, OPSB has approved "A Unified Path Forward," which lays out the board’s vision and goals for the future, where “every student receives a high-quality education that fosters his or her individual capabilities, while ensuring that they thrive and are prepared for civic, social and economic success.”
OPSB’s role in achieving this vision is different from before. Pre-Katrina, OPSB was both the captain and the crew of the ship, rowing (managing schools) and steering (governing) all at the same time. Now, we empower principals and teachers with the day-to-day management of schools, holding them accountable for results. OPSB sets the vision and goals for all schools, while making sure the people who know our kids best have the power to achieve those goals.
OPSB’s primary role in this new system is to authorize charter schools and hold them accountable, but we cannot rely solely on school closures to address this problem. Now the district’s administration is building a strategic plan for citywide school improvement to help existing schools perform at higher levels.
OPSB will focus long-term on three primary areas — investing deeply in high-quality teaching, deploying additional resources for students with significant challenges and expanding early childhood education programs.
The quality of our schools cannot exceed the quality of our teachers. OPSB will work with charter schools, nonprofits and local universities to recruit and develop top talent for the teaching profession so we can ensure every child gets the best possible learning opportunities.
In addition to well-chosen, well-prepared teachers, the top performing school systems in the world channel more resources to the neediest students. We will continue to increase resources for students who need the most support.
We must also invest in students well before they get to elementary school. Children who attend preschool are twice as likely to be ready for kindergarten, and three times more likely to graduate from college and own a home. Yet, more than 10,000 low-income New Orleans children do not have access to affordable, quality early-learning programs. A central part of our plan will be to secure increased funding from federal, state, local and private sources to significantly expand quality early-learning programs.
Real solutions for the problems we face will take time to fully implement, but we must also maintain urgent attention to the immediate needs of all our children.
2018 marks the start of a new era of local oversight of New Orleans public schools. Join us in embracing our young people and lifting them up like never before. Together and unified, we are well-positioned to take on these tough challenges and do what’s right for the children and families of New Orleans.
Henderson Lewis Jr. is superintendent of Orleans Parish schools. Ben Kleban is a member of the Orleans Parish School Board.