Broken Promises in New Orleans

There has been a lot of hype about the transformation to charter schools of almost all of the public schools in New Orleans.  The transformation began with the destruction of the city by Hurricane Katrina just as the school year had begun in 2005.  Powerful forces in Louisiana assisted by Margaret Spellings, then U.S. Secretary of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation made enormous grants; the state seized almost all of New Orleans’ public schools into a state-managed Recovery School District that permanently laid off all of New Orleans’ teachers; and a mass of charter operators came to the city to bid for building sites where they would participate in what was seen by many as a grand experiment.

As school opens this fall—nine years later, all of the remaining traditional public schools in what has become the Recovery School District are opening as charter schools, authorized and operated by different appointed boards.  The promoters of all this have made the numbers look as though the mass charterization has raised achievement, though this blog recently covered evidence that statistics can be made to show what those who present the data want the numbers to show.

What is clear is that many parents and others in the community have felt left out of a process which, although it features parental market choice, has sidestepped democracy and too often responded authentically neither to particular parents nor to the broader community.  A new series by Danielle Dreilinger in the New Orleans Times-Picayune here and here (and also reprinted at the Hechinger Report here and here) traces just how administrators in the New Orleans Recovery School District forgot about their promise to save Paul L. Dunbar Elementary School by opening Layfayette Academy, operated by the local Choice Foundation and chosen after a thoughtful process involving many community organizations in the tiny but very engaged Hollygrove neighborhood.

One school building among 82 New Orleans sites to be assigned a charter operator—an agreement signed in 2010 between the Choice Foundation and then Superintendent Paul Vallas—a change of staff in the Recovery School District—the signed agreement misplaced during a nine year “siting”process—and a Knowledge Is Power (KIPP) charter operator instead granted control of the new building soon to be completed and opened in Hollygrove.

Dreilinger explains: “After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians had to rebuild.  There were neighborhoods to reknit. There were schools to reinvent…. In Hollygrove, the two efforts aligned.  Here in a small and depressed quadrant bound by highways, fences, and overflowing drainage canals, neighbors worked with the state Recovery School District for four years to restore the Paul L. Dunbar Elementary campus, and to install the charter school, Lafayette Academy, that Hollygrove wanted.  The superintendent even signed off on the agreement, demonstrating that Recovery system officials could listen to a community and make a promise.  Four years later, neighbors say, they took it back.  They decided to install a KIPP school in the Dunbar campus, and Hollygrove is aghast.”

“But at the Recovery school system offices, Dunbar had melted into the background  It was a small campus in a small neighborhood, and school system officials had bigger arguments to settle, over buildings on St. Claude Avenue, on Esplanade Avenue and in Algiers.  The Recovery system had seized control of more than 100 schools from the Orleans Parish system after Hurricane Katrina, of which 70-plus were open, and its superintendency had changed hands twice in less than a year, from Vallas to White to Patrick Dobard.”

“We were promised that Choice Foundation would run the school and were excited because of our enduring relationship with them,” commented local minister, Rev. Kevin Brown, “a school that was responsive to the needs of the community and a community willing to serve the school.”

If you are wondering why the assignment of a  charter operator matters so much, you may want to take a look at a new piece posted at Jacobin, “No Excuses” in New Orleans.  One of the reporters, Beth Sondel  visited two of New Orleans’ so called “no excuses” charter schools, where she describes, “specific expectations about where students should put their hands, which direction they should turn their heads, how they should stand, and how they should sit—practices referred to at one school as SLANT (Sit up, Listen, Ask and Answer Questions, Nod, and Track the Speaker) [the expected regimen at all KIPP schools] and at the other as SPARK (Sit up straight, Pay attention, Ask and answer questions, React to show I’m following along, Keep tracking the speaker).  Students were kept silent or what teachers called ‘level zero,’ through most of the day.  Silence seemed to be especially important in the hallways.  At the sound of each bell… students were expected to line up at ‘level zero’ with their faces forward and hands behind their backs, and when given permission, step into the hallway and onto strips of black duct tape.  There they waited for the command of the administrator….”

Dreilinger in the Times-Picayune describes a very different culture described by Mickey Landry, director of the Choice Foundation, the operator of the now displaced Lafayette Academy.  Landry is quoted: “‘They make such a big deal out of community input, and then they ignore it,’ he said.  ‘We have been serving the families of Hollygrove since 2006.  They have chosen us to run that building, in partnership, as a neighborhood school, where the community can be involved… As far as we’re concerned we have a promise.'”