New Orleans schools stage impressive turnaround after Katrina

Brett Michael Dykes

Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans residents would joke that it was hard to determine which local institution was more corrupt and dysfunctional: the Police Department or the public school system. Five years after the storm, however, the city's cash-strapped and underperforming schools are in the midst of a dramatic turnaround. (The Police Department is, well, a much more long-term reclamation project.)

As the city schools have pieced themselves back together in the wake of the storm, they've exceeded the expectations of even the most ardent optimists in the city. Indeed, education reformers are increasingly hailing the once baleful New Orleans school system as a model for  other municipalities looking to turn around their own failing schools.

It's an especially remarkable achievement given the state of the Crescent City's schools before the 2005 storm. From 2000 to 2004, enrollment in the schools declined from 77,610 to 64,920. Two long-familiar trends fueled this exodus: Parents were enrolling kids in better-performing private schools; and an increasing number of  kids in the New Orleans system were dropping out altogether.

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The state of Louisiana deemed 64 percent of the city's schools  "academically unacceptable" in 2005. And their administrative body, the Orleans Parish School Board, was notoriously corrupt, so much so that the FBI initiated an investigation into allegations of fiscal improprieties in 2004.

As a result of that inquiry, the pre-Katrina school board president, Ellenese Brooks-Simms, was sentenced to prison for accepting bribes. Some other former board members have been exposed for rampant fleecing of the system, including stealing school property.

In March 2005, auditors found that the board's shoddy management had bankrupted the system, leading some officials at the state level to begin to push for a private firm to take over the system.

When Katrina hit at the end of August 2005, all of the system's teachers were forced to evacuate. In the weeks after the storm, many families who'd enrolled their kids in the New Orleans schools pulled up stakes and relocated to other cities. In November, the Legislature convened an emergency session to give the state the authority to take over school districts it deemed "academically in crisis." That description fit the post-Katrina New Orleans system to a tee.

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The state instituted what it called a Recovery School District , placing 107 underperforming Orleans Parish public schools under its control.  The schools were, in effect, turned into charter schools, schools run by private organizations. The parish school board remained in control of the 16 schools that performed above the state average standard before Katrina.

Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas recently told Newsweek that "we used Katrina as an opportunity to build — not rebuild, but build — a new school system," a system he described as an "overwhelmingly publicly funded, predominantly privately run school system."

So far, the new system is producing impressive results. The Cowen Institute, an education think tank at Tulane University, recently reported that just 42 percent of New Orleans schools are "academically unacceptable," down from 64 percent before Katrina.  Student performance on standardized tests, which once lagged far behind the state average, has increased dramatically as well (though math and reading comprehension scores still have plenty of room for improvement).

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Total attendance dropped to about 38,000 students in 2009. These students can now attend any school in the district, regardless of what neighborhood they live in. And individual schools now have the autonomy to hire and fire staff without interference from the parish school board's central bureaucracy.

The new setup has become a talent magnet for professional educators: Ambitious teachers have thronged New Orleans to participate in a historic educational experiment and help rebuild one of America's most unique cities.

Cowen Institute Executive Director Shannon Jones hailed the transformation of the last five years.

"Never has a failing urban public school system experienced the near total destruction of resources and responded with such radical change," Jones wrote in the report's introduction. "While significant challenges remain, the new model of delivering education to the city's youth has begun to yield results. Today, the once academically, morally, and financially bankrupt system is nationally recognized as a potential model for urban school system transformation."

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And going forward, it looks as though the system will be able to address its other chronic shortcoming: the lack of resources to attract quality teachers and maintain schools' physical plants. On Thursday, federal officials announced that New Orleans public schools would finally receive $1.8 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to rebuild or renovate 85 schools damaged during Katrina. In announcing the long-awaited lump-sum settlement from the government, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu proclaimed it "a battle worth waging." "While we would have liked to have received the money sooner," Landrieu added, "it was worth the wait."

(Photo of Vallas via AP/Bill Haber)