July 13, 2020

Autonomy and speed in NOLA

By all accounts, last year’s school enrollment season was hell for many parents in New Orleans. The shortcomings were celebrated by critics and described this way by the Times-Picayune:

New Orleans public school enrollment faltered badly Wednesday when hundreds of parents arrived at the lone resource center to sign up their children — only to be turned away for lack of staff to help them. It was an embarrassing fiasco for an enrollment process that has received national praise and aims to make life easier for families.

A year later even the critics (and the media) must admit the process went far smoother for parents:

After a disastrous summer enrollment session a year ago, EnrollNOLA transformed the process for families still trying to find a spot in New Orleans public schools. The late enrollment period opened Wednesday, and parents were able to quickly get their children matched to a school. Unlike last year, they didn’t have to stand in the sun for hours on end. The enrollment center this year was set up at Dillard University, which allowed families to wait in an air-conditioned auditorium.

This is one elegant example of how a de-bureaucratized system can be more responsive to parents. As I spend more time in New Orleans I see signs of how it’s easier here to put pressure on the system and get improvements for kids. It says something about the competence of their workers and the speed of their remedies, two things that frustrate efforts to fix inequities in public education nationally.

It’s the autonomy that schools have here to control what happens at their sites that make the difference. Unlike school leaders in other cities who often have control over less than 20% of their budget and even less control over the development of policies and procedures, NOLA schools are empowered to resolve critical challenges much faster.

Having served as a school board member in an urban district with many equity challenges I’m amazed when anything important gets fixed quickly

Improvements for exceptional kids

Consider the Southern Poverty Law Center’s charges against the New Orleans public schools for failing to live up to statutory requirements protecting students with disabilities.

Their organization said:

Despite this federal law, some students with disabilities in New Orleans public schools have been completely denied enrollment as a result of their disability, forced to attend schools lacking the resources necessary to serve them and punished with suspensions in record numbers. Still, other students’ disabilities are being completely overlooked due to a failure to identify them.

That’s a serious problem found in many schools districts (including mine back in Minneapolis). Yet, in record time the flexible governance system of New Orleans charter schools addressed the longstanding issues (problems that go back before hurricane Katrina).

Education reporter Danielle Drellinger detailed some of the changes:

These changes improve access and funding, but even more importantly, schools have improved the quality of services provided to special needs students. One of the advantages of charter schools is the autonomy to innovate and respond to needs quicker and better.

ReNEW Schools offers a program for students with moderate to intensive emotional disturbance and related disabilities.  Collegiate Academies has a Special Education Transition Program to support job-skill development for students with intellectual disabilities.

FirstLine Schools offer a therapeutic gardening program for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. The winner of NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune’s education entrepreneur contest, Vera Triplett, is starting Noble Minds Charter School,which will work with children who struggle with emotional and behavioral challenges.

And more innovation is in the works. Next fall, in collaboration with OPSB and Tulane Medical School, the RSD will open a therapeutic program for students with mental and behavioral health needs that affect their ability to succeed in a traditional school setting.

To be fair, critics will say being sued goes a long toward helping school districts find religion on equity. These big changes to special education might had never happened were it not for community activism and loyal opposition.

Still, in my experience, a district can be sued time and again over several decades and still not respond with adequate resources or  an implementation of workable remedies. Being fair to the leaders of NOLA schools means admitting they put their money, talent, and time where it matters most, into solutions for exceptional children.

Making student discipline fairer

Examples of responsiveness to community pressure don’t end with special education. Some of New Orleans’ best performing open enrollment schools came under attack two years ago for what activists called “out of control” discipline practices. In the context of Louisiana where black students are disciplined at disproportionate rates the charges in NOLA were particularly disturbing.

After healthy portions of humble pie school leaders returned with $1 million in investments to switch gears from a “no excuses” student discipline scheme to a restorative justice model. I’m on the hunt for actual numbers but I’m told that schools like Sci Academy halved their suspension rates without compromising the learning environment that makes them one of the top performing NOLA schools.

That contrasts my district in Minnesota where long standing issues with race, student discipline and special education warehousing has led community organizers (including me) to call some of the schools “starter prisons.” Social justice activists have been fighting this battle in Minneapolis for more than a decade.

But, don’t misunderstand me. None of this is to say schools or the leaders in New Orleans are getting everything right. To the contrary, these examples are about what they do when they get things really wrong. There is a tension here between them and the community they want to serve. Community members rightfully point out the inequities within the system and the leaders reflect, then respond with resources and new plans.

If only all government worked that way.

With the coming anniversary of hurricane Katrina in August there will be disputes about whether or not school reform has cured everything for low test scores to economic justice to rectal cancer. In all of the crossfire one thing might get lost that goes beyond higher test scores. For those of us who care about justice there appears to be great advantage to having an education system flexible enough to self-correct  major issues within months rather than years.

Community activism, school autonomy, and administrative speed get the job done.

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