For a decade after sweeping reforms shook up public education in New Orleans in 2005, moving most of the city's schools under the state-created Recovery School District, few believed the Orleans Parish School Board was ready to take charge once more of educating most of the city's young people. 

The board had stepped up its game, sure, with clean audits and high test scores for its remaining schools. But memories of the bad old days were still fresh in some minds.

About three years ago, that thinking began to change, and now the day many did not expect to see has come.

Sunday launches a new chapter in local public education, one in which a single, elected governing board holds the city’s mass of largely independent charter schools to account.

+7 
NO.cypressacademy.052318.005

Orleans Parish School Board Superintendent Henderson Lewis talks to parents at Cypress Academy in New Orleans on May 22, 2018.

The RSD has left that board a system that has grown by leaps and bounds, under a strategy that closes subpar schools and expands good ones. The days when a high school valedictorian can fail a state exit exam, as Alcee Fortier senior Bridget Green shockingly did in 2003, appear to be over.

But problems persist. The city's test scores, though higher than before the reforms, have flatlined in recent years, lagging behind other Louisiana  school districts that have more quickly adapted to shifts in state expectations.

There are still not enough great schools to go around, leading to long waiting lists at A-rated campuses. And the city is losing teachers at a rate faster than the state as a whole.

Those burdens now rest on the shoulders of OPSB Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. And wrapping up his third year on the job, Lewis, 43, says he's ready for the challenge.

+7 
SchoolUnification008.JPG

Isiah Lee raises his hand to answer a question in Ms. Isaacs' third grade class at Crocker College Prep in New Orleans, La. Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016. 

"At the end of the day, our parents send us their very best," Lewis said. "And so we have to do our very best. We have to make sure that no matter what school they access … they will receive a high-quality education.”

Getting here was no easy feat. Convincing the public that the parish school board could turn over a new leaf, after that body faced a $48 million deficit before Hurricane Katrina and saw a former president, Ellenese Brooks-Sims, sent to prison for taking bribes, took years.

The board had to balance its books and lift its bond rating. Private citizens and groups poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into board elections, to put members in place who wouldn’t use their positions to enrich themselves and who believed in the charter school movement that had caught fire across the city.

Every slip-up, like a dispute over a contract or an angry debate at a board meeting, was a reminder of how things used to be and could be again.

The worst moment came when Ira Thomas in 2015 became the second board president in half a decade to go to jail for corruption, just as talks about unifying the city's two school systems were beginning in earnest.

“Everyone around you is like, ’Yep, we expected this,’ " said Woody Koppel, the board’s longest-serving member.

Still, the work continued, and a reunification bill was passed in the 2016 legislative session after a slew of compromises by state and local leaders. Under it, charter schools would keep their autonomy, but their return to the Orleans Parish School Board's oversight was no longer optional and came with a deadline: July 1, 2018, or 2019 at the latest.

The dozens of schools that the board reclaims Sunday have seen improvements in their graduation rates, college entry rates and eligibility for state scholarships. Across the city, more students are doing better on state tests, and fewer attend failing schools than in 2004.


 By the numbers
Schools that will return July 1 37
Schools OPSB oversaw before July 1 41
 Total  78

But the state has raised its expectations in recent years, demanding that all students move from “basic” competency to “mastery” of content on standard exams. The new Common Core standards for what students should learn and know are tougher than older guidelines.

Those changes have been easier to deal with in school districts with central offices that can tell teachers what to teach, Lewis said. Not so in charter-heavy New Orleans, where both the RSD and OPSB have been hands-off by design, leaving most decisions to individual schools and their boards.

The result: More than 70 percent of the city’s schools saw their scores slide last year. In the past five years, New Orleans has fallen to the 12th percentile in state rankings, down from a peak 48th percentile in 2013.

Doug Harris of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, a group that studies city school reforms, said some of the dip was likely inevitable. “You can only improve at a certain pace for so long, and then you are bound to hit a plateau,” he said.

No matter the reason, the OPSB hopes to stop the decline by offering schools more guidance when they struggle, Lewis said.

The intricacies of a decentralized system aren’t the school board’s only challenge.

The city is losing teachers to other professions or other states at a rate twice that of the state. Factors such as rising housing costs in New Orleans and teacher burnout have been blamed.

In addition, three of every four teachers in the city's schools have less than a decade of experience, according to state data. Younger teachers may leave to start families, because of low pay and high student loan debt, or because they don’t see paths for promotion, said Patrick Dobard, chief of New Schools for New Orleans and formerly the longest-serving superintendent of the Recovery School District.

“We are looking at the research to see what causes” the high attrition rate, he said.

His nonprofit group has poured millions into incentive programs meant to help keep good teachers in classrooms, and it is positioned to help the school board now in ways that, before the reforms, would have been unprecedented, he said.

And yet all of that work isn’t at the forefront of Dawn Reese's mind. 

After her 14-year-old couldn’t get into an Algiers high school this year — even though the family lives in Algiers and has other children at Landry-Walker High — Reese lost faith in the city’s unified enrollment system.

“All of the spots (at nearby schools) are taken from the ones who are living in the school district,” Reese said. 

The city's preschools, linked to the same OneApp enrollment system, aren't any better, she figures. Her 3-year-old has been on a waiting list for two years.

The OneApp is supposed to hold seats at schools for kids who live nearby, or for those who have brothers and sisters enrolled at a school. But at popular or high-performing schools, demand often outpaces supply. And 13 years into the reforms, there aren't top-rated schools in every neighborhood. 

Lewis and Dobard see Reese's plight as an example of the unfinished tasks they face. When struggling schools improve and good schools expand, families will have better options, they said. 

Lewis knows he's on the hook for fulfilling those and other promises. But he hopes Reese and other parents will take comfort in his track record. 

When he stepped into the job in 2015, he vowed that the city's schools would be unified. At the close of his first contract, that dream has become a reality.  

"When we say we’re going to do something, we’re going to go ahead and do it," he said. 

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.