Kayla Francois is a NOLA Public Schools success story. She graduated in 2018 with a TOPS scholarship and just started her second year at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, majoring in Moving Image Arts and dreaming of her first solo film project. Kayla is a first-generation college student and hopes to inspire other kids to take the same path.
Malik Jackson is another 2018 graduate I want you to know about. In 11th grade, he was uncertain about his future. Then one of his teachers introduced him to a carpentry program through the New Orleans Technical Education Program. There, Malik studied carpentry, earning an industry credential. He now has a stable, well-paying job with a local commercial contractor.
These young people are thriving, but I know this isn’t the case yet for every student. So, I want to take a few minutes as the school year begins to be honest about where we have been and where we are today — so we can move forward together on behalf of our city’s children.
By every measure, our schools are dramatically better than they were before Hurricane Katrina. Hands down, no debate. Our literacy and math proficiency rates are up by more than 20 percentage points. Our on-time graduation rate has grown from 54 percent to 78 percent. Because of this improvement, more than 800 families celebrated graduations this past spring than would have in the spring of 2005.
Like Kayla, close to half of them qualified for TOPS. Before Katrina, only one in four of our graduates was TOPS eligible. And like Malik, more than 400 of the Class of 2019 graduated with industry credentials valued by employers. Five years ago, very few students attending NOLA public schools could access technical training. Now, almost every high school offers students these options.
Back in 2005, most of our neighborhood schools were failing schools. In fact, 63 percent — more than 6 out of 10 students — went to F schools. Today, it is down to 8 percent.
Our community can and should take pride in how far our schools have come, the hard work of our more than 3,500 educators, and all that our children have achieved.
I know our system isn’t perfect. It’s no secret that we still struggle to ensure that every one of our 44,000 students masters grade-level standards; or that every student with special needs consistently receives the services they deserve; or, that every adult working in New Orleans public schools aligns their actions with our vision, values and expectations. I know this firsthand, as I meet with and listen to our students, families and community members about their experiences and what they expect of us. We must do better on all fronts.
It's important to remember though that these challenges aren’t unique to us. Other big-city school systems face them too. We are on the front lines working to reverse decades of neglect, the impact of generational poverty and eradicate the effects of racism. Such change does not come overnight.
But we are continuing to improve and provide more opportunities for our students.
Recently we learned that for the second consecutive year, NOLA Public Schools outperformed the state, Jefferson Parish, Caddo and East Baton Rouge Parish — the other large school districts in the state — on the percent of students across sub-groups achieving “top growth.” This means more students in New Orleans schools who are African-American, economically disadvantaged, English language learners and have disabilities are making more progress towards achieving grade-level expectations by 8th and 10th grades than students in these other large systems across Louisiana. This is real, true progress.
NOLA Public Schools now has the largest number of African-American students attending A- and B-rated schools in the state. We do better than the state on the percent of African-American students enrolling in college and scoring a 3 or higher on Advanced Placement exams. We are on track to have more than 20 percent of our graduates in the class of 2020 earn industry credentials. We are helping students like Kayla and Malik — students who represent more than 80 percent of our student population — excel in high school and prepare for college and careers.
I’m proud of what we are accomplishing, and I’m looking ahead, along with our educators, to make continued progress as we strive for excellence across all of our schools.
Now, let’s get back to work. School is in session.
Henderson Lewis, Jr. is superintendent of Orleans Parish Public Schools.