Georgia looks to New Orleans model for rescuing schools

ByJaime Sarrio

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Inside the crisp, brick walls of Arthur Ashe Charter, students study math independently in state-of-the-art computer labs, blow off steam with in-class exercise breaks and take cooking lessons using vegetables grown in the school garden.

Ashe is a public school with mostly poor students in a neighborhood swallowed and spit out by the floods of Hurricane Katrina. But its emphasis on technology, exercise and nutrition doesn’t look or feel like what you’d expect to find in a traditional public school.

Kindergarten teacher Rebekah Mills (background left) leads instant recess at Arthur Ashe Charter School in New Orleans. Arthur Ashe Charter School … read more

Ashe leaders say its unique approach helped produce some of the biggest academic gains in the city. And it’s those gains, combined with others from charter schools across the post-storm district, that has Georgia looking to New Orleans for lessons on how to improve a failing school.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal wants voters to create a state-run district to take over struggling schools. The idea is modeled after the Recovery School District in Louisiana, where 10 years ago the state snatched more than 100 of New Orleans’ worst schools in a Hail Mary attempt to revamp the district. Georgia’s “Opportunity District,” if approved, would be Deal’s signature piece of education policy and a drastic departure from the state’s current, more passive approach to failing schools.

Advocates of the model say Ashe and schools like it show what’s possible when elected school boards, unions and poorly run school systems get out of the way and let school leaders decide how to educate students.

“Everything we try doesn’t work the first time, but (we have) the autonomy to be very thoughtful and collaborative with other thinkers, not only in the city, but in other states who are making academic improvements,” said Ashe Principal Sivi Domango.

Since Katrina, more New Orleans students are graduating on time, testing on grade level and qualifying for college scholarships. But critics say what’s happening is far from a miracle. The Recovery District still trails the state average on test scores, is confusing to parents and disruptive for students.

Both sides agree New Orleans offers valuable lessons for other states: Bring parents and the community into decisions. Pick high-quality charter providers to run schools. And don’t be afraid of changes if something doesn’t work.


Patrick Dobard, superintendent of the Recovery School District, speaks at Arthur Ashe Charter School. Dobard said of the takeover of many … read more

“I don’t want to oversell this. It’s not like we have a silver bullet,” said Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard. “We went from awful to pretty good. We’re not great … This is going to take decades to create all of the great schools I know we can have.”

‘We can do better’

Georgia has identified almost 150 schools that for years have logged low report-card scores. About 60 of these are in metro Atlanta.

Rahn Broady, lead garden educator, sows seeds in the garden at Arthur Ashe Charter School in New Orleans. Their cooking class … read more

Efforts to address at least 40 failing schools over the past few years included investing more than $100 million into “transformation” plans. An analysis the state released last year showed that most of the schools were no better off and some performed even worse than before.

Even before Katrina hit in 2005, there was a growing consensus that something had to be done about New Orleans Public Schools, among the worst in Louisiana and believed to be some of the lowest performing in the nation.

In 2003, New Orleans high school senior Bridget Green’s story became a call to action for state education leaders. Green, her class valedictorian, couldn’t pass the state graduation exam.

Sivi Domango, co-director of Arthur Ashe Charter School, holds a hand of kindergarten student Demi Doby, 6, as she guides her … read more

School-intervention efforts were led by Leslie Jacobs, a state school board member and a former elected New Orleans Parish board member. She and other policy makers pushed legislation creating the Recovery School District, meaning “recovery” from academic failure. The core belief: Elected school boards don’t have the political will to make dramatic changes. Give school leaders more control over who they hire, what they teach and how they spend money. If they don’t improve, shut them down and give someone else a chance.

“The philosophy behind the recovery school district is very simple: Take the same kids, the same building, the same amount of money, give it to someone else to operate to prove we can do better,” Jacobs said. They wanted to make “the risk of doing nothing in the face of failure more painful than the risk of trying something that doesn’t work.”

The idea was to take over failing schools as qualified charter operators came forward. At the start of the 2005 school year, five New Orleans schools were under control of the Recovery District. Three weeks later, Katrina hit and the levees broke.

Fifth-grade math teacher Katy Janik helps her student Tricell Steptore, 10, at KIPP Central City Academy in New Orleans. Louisiana took … read more

The district, the data and the drawbacks

Enrollment dropped from 65,000 before the storm to around 25,600 in 2006. The elected school board was left to oversee about 16 higher performing schools while the state system took over the rest. Attendance zones were washed away so students could attend any school in the city.

Georgia lawmakers acknowledge the unique set of circumstances that made the New Orleans takeover possible, including the massive disruption and structural damage Katrina brought.

But some Georgia leaders believe a couple of key policies are transferable to the Peach State: the idea that changing a school’s governance can change its results and that students should have a chance to attend a quality school.

“You have to have people who believe all kids can learn regardless of where they come from, and we believe that,” said Erin Hames, education policy advisor for Gov. Nathan Deal.

New Orleans shows progress. Since the storm, its four-year graduation rate went from 54 percent in 2004 to 73 percent in 2013. The percentage of students eligible for the state’s TOPS merit scholarship – Louisiana’s version of the HOPE grant – went from 24 percent in 2004 to 36 percent in 2014. And the number of students scoring on grade level or above on state exams grew from 31 percent in 2004 to 63 percent in 2014.

At KIPP Central City Academy in New Orleans, school leaders say autonomy was crucial to recent improvements.

They found a way to give students more feedback on writing, though teachers didn’t have enough time, for example. The school gave each kid a computer and recruited college students as “digital writing buddies.” Instead of needing layers of administrators to sign off on the idea, Principal Alex Jarrell said the school was able to get the program running in just a couple of months.

“We can see what the problems are, what our kids need to get and problem-solve around that,” Jarrell said. “There isn’t any red tape that’s going to prevent us from going out and getting our kids what they need.”

But not everyone is convinced things are better, and there have been bumps in the road.

The Recovery District has faced repeated complaints related to its discipline policies and treatment of special education students. The problems suggest states can cut too much red tape when trying to innovate in schools.

Some claimed charters were unevenly expelling or threatening to expel problem students in an attempt to inflate test scores. The district has made changes to address these concerns.

A lawsuit against the two New Orleans districts and the state alleged that children with disabilities were being turned away by schools or denied assistance attending class. A settlement in that case was approved this month, and the districts will be monitored by a third party to make sure they’re following federal guidelines.

Georgia’s proposed law says schools in the opportunity district will not be able to waive any rules related to civil rights or student safety. But the state will have to decide how to prevent similar concerns if it creates the special district.

Karran Harper Royal is the parent of a New Orleans graduate and education advocate for those trying to navigate the school systems. Harper Royal and other critics say it’s hard to get a handle on whether the Recovery District is improving because the roster of schools is constantly changing. She and others point out that it is still one of the lowest performing districts in the state.

“There’s a smarter way to improve academic performance as opposed to this game we’re playing with school roulette, closing schools and opening schools,” she said.

Several of Georgia’s failing schools are scattered throughout the state. Rather than focusing mostly on one district, Georgia will have to figure out how to build a patchwork of schools that could span from Atlanta to Savannah.

After Katrina, the Recovery School District expanded its reach into other parts of the state, taking over low-performing schools in Baton Rouge and other parishes. Those efforts have not been as successful, partly because the state moved too fast and allowed low-quality charter providers to run the schools, said Leslie Jacobs.

“The initial results of RSD Louisiana are not good,” Jacobs said. “They did it without a plan, they took them over whether or not there was a charter operator, they got into trying to run schools and they did a crappy job. They were in a rush and they weren’t rigorous as to who they gave a charter to.”

Lessons learned for Georgia

Two other states — Michigan and Tennessee — have launched similar districts designed to revamp the most troubled schools. Georgia’s plan is to allow the district to run schools, close them, partner with local school districts to manage them or convert them into charter schools.

Georgia’s plan defines “persistently failing schools” as those scoring below 60 for three years in a row on the College and Career Performance Index, the state’s annual report card for school performance. Annual enrollment in the program would be capped at 20 schools a year.

A recovery-style school district isn’t a good fit for every state, but Georgia could make it work, said former Louisiana state superintendent Paul Pastorek, a consultant for states wanting to develop similar systems.

Georgia has a strong accountability system, he said, meaning the state routinely gathers academic information on schools identified as low performers. Pastorek, who has not been hired to advise Georgia, said the governor making this a priority is another key factor.

Louisiana education leaders say Georgia should be prepared to grow its own school leaders to run charter schools — since talent could be limited by more states adopting this approach. And it should include the community in any decisions about schools.

Erika McConduit-Diggs, president of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, said the speed of the changes and the dismissal of almost 7,000 Orleans Parish teachers, which courts later ruled unlawful, left a scar on the community that hasn’t healed. The Louisiana Supreme Court later dismissed the suit; lawyers for the employees said they plan to appeal the case in March to the U.S. Supreme Court.

McConduit-Diggs said many believe the teacher firings nearly decimated the city’s black middle class.

“I don’t think the architects of the reform movement at the time recognized the magnitude of the change and how it would be vastly different than what most people ever experienced growing up.” said McConduit-Diggs.

But she said the district is winning some parents over with marked academic improvements.

Recovery Superintendent Dobard said the district has been able to influence change to other low-performing schools without taking them over. In one rural Louisiana community, the state persuaded a district to close a failing school and merge students with a nearby one that was doing better. The state didn’t have that kind of muscle before the Recovery District, he said.

In Georgia, Deal hopes to persuade lawmakers to pass a constitutional amendment so voters can decide on the issue in 2016. The Republican will need bipartisan support for his proposal, which requires a two-thirds majority of votes in both chambers. Democrats say they are skeptical and plan to release an alternative plan this week.

“I might be more open to the idea of some kind of system of reviewing schools if you could tell me we were going to invest in children, invest in those schools and make sure that child has wraparound services,” said State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta.

Wednesday, lawmakers from the House and Senate heard from officials in Tennessee and Louisiana about how similar state-run districts are playing out. Lawmakers from both parties peppered officials with questions from logistics (How do you deal with transportation?) to funding (How much additional money are you getting from nonprofits or outside aid?).

Deal has asked a handful of legislators to travel with him to Louisiana to see for themselves. That trip is scheduled next week.