A Storm of School Reform

By Branden Hentrich

Although wreaking havoc in every other way imaginable, Hurricane Katrina just may have given the New Orleans public school system a much-needed revitalization – but is the revitalization complete yet?

Historically, New Orleans has struggled in its upkeep of the public-school system. It has faced issues regarding just about everything a school district can face issues with: debt, performance scores, governance corruption, staff turnover, segregation and integration, and infrastructure problems, to list a few.

Schools in New Orleans stayed segregated until 1960 despite the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in favor of public school integration, as the Louisiana state government fought tirelessly to keep schools segregated. However, after a slew of legal battles, in 1960 Judge Skelly Wright implemented a plan to totally integrate the public schools in New Orleans, leading to a slow, but steady white flight from public schools in New Orleans. In 1960, black students made up 58% of the student population; by 2005, they would make up 94% of the student population within New Orleans’ public schools.

The Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) faced an extreme period of dysfunction from 1998 up until Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. During this time, the OPSB had eight superintendents, each lasting an average of 11 months on the job. In addition, the OPSB faced FBI investigations due to severe financial mismanagement. These investigations prompted criminal indictments of the president of the school board as well as several other key administrators who left the OPSB $265 million in debt in 2005.

During this same period, many buildings were left deteriorating, as administrators either ignored schools’ physical conditions or simply could not afford any improvements at the time, mainly as a result of the aforementioned financial crisis that plagued the district.  

Amidst this time of turmoil in the public-school system, the Recovery School District (RSD) was created by the Louisiana state government to aid in the process of reviving several failing school districts in Louisiana, especially in New Orleans. Prior to Katrina, five OPSB schools were chartered by the RSD. The public schools in New Orleans maintained a district performance score (DPS) of 56.9; compared to the Louisiana state average of 86.3, this was abysmal. OPSB schools were ranked 67th out of 68 school districts in Louisiana in the years prior to Katrina.

Further serious issues within the OPSB schools stemmed from high teacher turnover and little to no access to support services.

“There was not a lot of support, and a lot of teacher turnover … people stayed a year then left,” explains Joann Moinet, the current librarian of the New Orleans Charter Mathematics and Science High School (Sci High) in Uptown, adding that at her first job back in the 1970s that she “might have only seen the principal once or twice.”

Staff commitment to schools was undoubtedly one of the most serious issues facing the OPSB. Following the 2004-2005 school year, the teacher turnover rate was at 29%. Without consistent staff, students were left in a constant state of transition and were forced to constantly readapt to new classroom settings. “It’s really hard to do things when you don’t feel supported by someone in the building,” explains Joann Moinet.

Clearly, New Orleans’ public-school system was in a desperate need of reform.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, leaving the city in a state of ruin.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the OPSB relinquished control of 102 of its remaining 126 schools to the State of Louisiana, which then fired 7,000 staff members in the public-school system, including every teacher in the district. The State of Louisiana then relinquished control over the schools to the already-operating RSD. The RSD then began the process of converting the schools into charter schools. By September of 2007, the RSD had opened fifty-eight privately run, publicly funded charter schools across the city. As charter schools’ test scores began to improve and meet Louisiana state standards, the RSD would begin transitioning such schools back to the authority of the OPSB.

Upon reopening schools post-Katrina, attendance zones were virtually abolished and students were no longer attending their neighborhood schools. In nearly all of these new charter schools, students now had to join a lottery as well as take an entrance exam to figure out which school they could attend. With this new school system came new teachers as well as a new student body. Teachers and students alike had to adapt to entirely new educational situations, as the entire charter school system was simply an experiment at this point.

With the new charter system, schools faced an influx of students from various areas across the city, many of whom had serious educational deficits.

“There were kids in the eleventh grade that had never written an essay before … these were kids who couldn’t write a paragraph, and they had made it to the eleventh grade,” Joann Moinet adds.

Many schools across the city, such as Sci High, began to offer resources to students that were not previously available in public schools, such as success coaching and academic advising.

Joann Moinet describes Sci High’s resources, stating that “the idea here was that we take kids, totally open enrollment, and we surround them with services. That’s everything from counselling to medical to academic stuff.”

Additional availability of resources in the schools was vital to the improvement of students’ test scores. Within a few years following Hurricane Katrina, performance levels within the OPSB schools were noticeably improving. Per the Education Research Alliance (ERA) of New Orleans, the effect of the charter school reforms was noticeable within the first seven years, improving the district’s DPS by fifteen percentage points by 2012, and increasing the graduation rate, from 54% in 2005 to 74% in 2015. The district was certainly improving academically.

Another new addition to the public-school system was the “Turn Around Art Schools” program. Schools that are Turn Around Art Schools incorporate art into nearly everything they teach in an effort to improve students’ academics and creativity.

“You can sing songs about what you’re learning, make an art project about what you’re learning; [teachers] are trained to incorporate art into everything we teach,” describes Jessica Gersh, a current second grade teacher at the Dolores T. Aaron School in New Orleans East, one of many Turn Around Art Schools across the country.

Meanwhile, at Lusher Charter School in Uptown, one of the city’s top charter schools, students are mandated to take a certain number of art classes.

“The school focused on this artsy style. They required you to take so many art credits to graduate … By enforcing everyone to do this and by keeping a strict dress code, they were trying to make it so that everyone was in a uniform, but also not in a uniform,” explains John Clarke, a Lusher Charter School alumni.

New resources and programs were not the sole factors in the system’s academic improvement, however. After Katrina, the schools had to hire an entirely new teaching staff. This led to many young teachers joining the district, adding a refreshing energy to the schools across the city. Many of these young teachers understood the importance of successful, healthy teacher-student relationships, providing students with a positive and responsive adult figure to look up to and learn from.

“I just feel so invested in my kids’ lives and their families, and I think that there is nothing more positive in a kid’s life than making a good relationship with a teacher and have them there for you throughout the rest of their [educational] career,” says Jessica Gersh. “It is so good for my students to see me working in a big school, and be able to pop-in and visit until they leave; it’s great.”

In other areas, however, the public schools continue to struggle.

Teacher turnover following Hurricane Katrina increased, from 29% in the 2004-2005 school year to nearly 38% in the 2013-2014 school year. Although teachers may have become more responsive and excited to teach, the OPSB could use some improvement in the retention rate of its teachers. According to the ERA, high teacher turnover rates indicate low teacher experience, weak leadership, and low administrative support.

Another issue the schools continue to face is diversity. Most public schools in New Orleans still do not reflect the diverse make-up of the city whatsoever. Public schools in New Orleans have predominantly served black students for decades, and this issue has carried over even through Katrina; more than 75% of public schools in New Orleans serve populations that are composed of at least 95% black students. While schools have seen a slight increase in the white population in New Orleans public schools since Katrina, these white students tend to be concentrated in schools with rigorous entrance exams and lower acceptance rates, such as Ben Franklin High School in Gentilly, Lusher Charter School in Uptown, or Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans School in Uptown.

When asked if he thought it might be more difficult for lower-class students to do well on the Lusher Charter School entrance exam, John Clarke responded, “it was like a pre-SAT … from my standpoint, yes, lower-class children might have a harder time getting in.”

This goes to show that although the OPSB has done an astounding job offering new and functional educational opportunities for low- and middle-class families in some areas, it still has many improvements to make before it sees many upper-class students rejoining the public-school system. Furthermore, the OPSB will need to recognize the likelihood that it is harder to get into top-tier charter schools as a lower-class student who hasn’t had as many educational opportunities as their upper-class counterparts.

When asked whether she thought the implementation of a charter-school system was an effective response following Hurricane Katrina, Joann Moinet says, “there were some positives before, and there’s some positives now … I think it’s still a little bit of an experiment ten years down the line, so I don’t know whether they responded appropriately or well; the jury’s still out.”

Branden Hentrich is a sophomore at Tulane University, pursuing degrees in English and Psychology.