Back to the Future: NOLA Public Schools Return to Orleans Parish School Board

As school staff prepare for the start of the 2018-2019 school year and parents shop for the endless list of uniforms and school supplies, most residents may not have realized that state legislation passed May 2016 went into effect July 1, 2018, marking the Orleans Parish School Board’s comeback. It will now oversee the unification of the city’s public schools that had primarily been managed by the Recovery School District following hurricane Katrina.   

Admittedly, I’m feeling really unsettled as I write about the politics associated with management systems.

This comes after having my own negative experience with the city’s centralized school enrollment application, One-App where for the second year in a row my son did not receive placement in the schools I selected (all with a B performance grade or better) furthering my disdain for the enrollment system reminding me of the limited availability of quality schools. Additionally, I was able to finally view the 2014 post-Katrina documentary Big Charity: The Death of America’s Oldest Hospital, which for me, highlighted the grisly reality that those with their boots on the ground, along with those served, will never matter to and as much as those who hold power.

Parallels have always existed as health care and education are the most critical to childhood (lifespan) development, but receive the harshest blows where budgeting and funding are concerned.  I frequently hear my stepmother preach time and time again that “Your health is your wealth!”

And in conjunction to her proclamation, so is education or at least that’s what society preaches, especially to our poorest.

The parallels continue. There were discussions prior to the levees’ breach, to have a new medical system built to replace the historical, but arguably outdated Charity Hospital. Discussions took place to implement improvements to the academically and financially failing New Orleans public school system through the introduction of charter schools.  

While devastating to both New Orleans residents and those who experienced the trauma vicariously, systemic changes made after the storm proved to be beneficial in this sense.

New and safe school buildings, school bus transportation and the ability to attend school of choice despite residence to name a few.

So essentially, both in favor of a new state of the art medical center and a financially responsible and academically improved school system consisting predominantly of charter schools won.  And essentially, the students enrolled in schools beyond 2005 won as well. According to data from The Cowen Institute:

The academic performance of New Orleans’ schools has improved remarkably over the past ten years. Numerous data points mark this progress:

  • In 2005, based on academic performance, only one other parish was worse than Orleans Parish. It is now outperforming 25 parishes.
  • In 2004, just 16.5 percent of New Orleans’ students were in schools that performed above the state average performance score; in 2014, that number had nearly doubled to 31.1 percent.
  • In 2005, 62 percent of students in the city attended a failing school. That number is now down to seven percent.
  • In 2005, 56 percent of New Orleans students graduated on time. In 2014, 73 percent did.

But concerns arise regarding the cost it took to receive the outcomes, begging the question,

“Do the ends justify the means?”  For those who sought out to improve the city’s public school performance rankings in comparison both state and nationwide, sure! But for many who value academics as important as community involvement, nostalgia and culture over politics, they don’t.

So while many will argue that improved academic performance and graduation rates are most important and should trump any gripes and grievances from complaining families and community members, the harsh reality is that they don’t. There was a sense of familiarity and trust that was washed away with those receding waters we can’t ignore. With the loss of lives, homes and history compounded by the transition of a black-led school system to mainly white leaders and teachers who relocated to the city after the storm, harsher discipline practices and inefficient management of special education programming, perhaps these documented academic gains, while remarkable, may have come at the expense of many students and families slipping through the cracks. Thus making the unification an opportunity to not only continue the city’s’ streak of reinventing itself to identify the best strategy to serve a demographic that unfortunately remains negatively impacted by generational poverty, but to build a bridge between the old and the new, re-establishing trust from community members and a stronger partnership with the current leaders and educators.


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