Henderson Lewis, superintendent of the Orleans Parish School Board, recently announced that OPSB will be transitioning or closing five schools at the conclusion of this school year: Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy, Cypress Academy, McDonogh No. 32 Charter School, Medard H. Nelson Charter School, and William J. Fischer Academy.
As the former superintendent of the Recovery School District, I remember moments like these. I remember the sleepless nights. I remember the restlessness and the fear I felt trying to determine if these decisions were the best choices for students and families.
I also remember the clarity I felt as I learned more. My team and I read the data, did the research, and listened to students, parents, teachers, and community members. After all of this, we came to the conclusion that those schools were not serving students at the level needed and we had to transition or close them. I knew it was the right decision.
Last month, Lewis faced similar decisions. I’m sure they were difficult ones. But the easier road — to let students remain in schools where their needs are not being met — is not acceptable.
The children who are currently attending these schools and their families will be supported in enrolling in better schools for next year. New Schools for New Orleans has arranged for EdNavigator — an independent, local nonprofit — to help families explore and apply for higher-performing schools for their children. Each student leaving a transitioning or closing school will also be given top priority in the OneApp lottery for next year. At the end of the 2017-18 school year, 97 percent of children from closing schools who received placements through OneApp’s Main Round were placed in higher-performing schools than the ones they previously attended.
Strong research backs up the district’s decision. The Education Research Alliance for New Orleans examined the data behind school closures and takeovers in New Orleans from 2008 to 2014. They found that after these shifts, the math standardized test scores of New Orleans elementary school students increased by 13 percentile points.
Of course, the superintendent and the Board should continue to listen carefully to the concerns of families, teachers, students and community members affected by these changes. They should do everything in their power to make this process run smoothly for both families and educators.
I feel confident in decisions like these when I look at schools such as Andrew H. Wilson Charter School. In 2014, Wilson was rated an F letter grade by the state’s accountability system. The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education made the decision to not renew the Broadmoor Charter School Board’s charter for Wilson. In 2015, with input from parents, as well as representatives from the Broadmoor Charter School Board and the Broadmoor Improvement Association, the InspireNOLA charter network was chosen to run the school. This is an example of a school transition, where we did not close the school outright but transitioned it to another management group. Today, under the strong leadership of Principal Lee Green and the InspireNOLA network, the school has a C letter grade and one of the highest student growth index scores in the city. The upward trend is undeniable.
Wilson is not the only school that has made progress. Our schools are steadily improving. This is critical, as we cannot accept stagnation when it comes to children’s lives and education. The graduation rate in our city has increased from 54 percent to 73 percent since 2004, and the college entry rate has risen from 37 percent to 61 percent. Things are heading in the right direction, but we cannot stop now. Our goal is for all students to perform at the state’s “Mastery” level or above. Right now, only 29 percent of New Orleans students are achieving Mastery or above in English language arts and math combined. We must always keep the larger goal in mind.
We must also continue with the many other strategies we have for improving schools. School transitions and closures are one small piece of a much larger process — five schools required action from the district, but 74 did not, and we must support those that remain. Across our system, we must continue to push for rigorous, innovative curriculum and supportive environments. We must continue to recruit and retain excellent teachers and school leaders. NSNO supports these efforts through our Instructional Quality Initiative and our recent launch of TeachNewOrleans.net.
Our work is unfinished. We will always push for better, and we will not accept F schools in New Orleans. This moment calls for difficult decisions, but true leadership is doing what is right even when it is difficult. I applaud Superintendent Lewis for showing such leadership and for putting our children first.
Patrick Dobard, former superintendent of the Recovery School District, is the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans.