New Leadership Vows to Make New Orleans Schools a Model

May 22, 2007

NEW ORLEANS, LA – May 9, 2007 – Days after being tapped to head this city’s state-run schools, Paul G. Vallas pledged here at an elite national gathering of education leaders, funders, and entrepreneurs to help spearhead an effort to make the hurricane-ravaged system a model of both choice and accountability.

Neither Mr. Vallas nor newly named Louisiana schools chief Paul G. Pastorek downplayed the daunting day-to-day obstacles they faced in a district that had been deeply troubled long before Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. They outlined their ideas for coping with problems that include a serious shortage of educators and a lack of acceptable facilities.

But Mr. Vallas, the outgoing Philadelphia schools chief, also said the effort to reinvent “a whole new system from the ground up” would be nationally significant, in part because it would be done without the usual “institutional limitations” in big-city school districts and in “an environment of limited finances.”

“This will be the greatest experiment in choice, in charters, and in creating not only a school system, but also a system of schools,” Mr. Vallas said at a “national education summit” hosted by the NewSchools Venture Fund, a San Francisco philanthropy, and New Leaders for New Schools, a New York City-based principal-training organization. “If we can create a dynamic school system here, that means it can be done anywhere, and there will no longer be any excuses for why it can’t be done.”

Mr. Vallas was named May 4 to lead the Recovery School District, the state-run system created before the storm but greatly expanded afterward to include most of the schools that had been run by the local school board. His appointment came just a month after Mr. Pastorek, a prominent lawyer and former state school board member, agreed to become state schools superintendent following the death of Cecil Picard.

Together, the “two Pauls,” as they have taken to calling themselves, are aiming to bring cohesion to a fractured governance structure that Mr. Pastorek acknowledged is as “confusing and confounding” for those inside Louisiana as it is for those outside.

Of the 58 public schools now open in the city, 22 are directly operated by the Recovery School District, or RSD. Another 17 are run as charter schools that were authorized by the RSD, while two are charter schools that were authorized by the state before the recovery district was created. Twelve more charter schools are operating under charters granted by the local school board, which also runs five magnet schools directly.

Altogether, an estimated 27,000 students are being served, with roughly 100 enrolling each week, according to Mr. Pastorek, as residents trickle back to a city experiencing a halting reconstruction effort. One of the first tasks, the state chief said, is to help residents make sense of the school landscape, given projections that 20 new schools will need to open this fall to serve from 9,000 to 13,000 more students.

“We have to create a level of transparency on how we operate, so the public at large is not confounded and confused,” Mr. Pastorek said.

Future of Charters

Complicated as it may be, the New Orleans system holds great interest for those engaged in school reform around the country, including many in the 15-year-old charter sector. Some leaders have seen the post-Katrina city as a proving ground for the idea that charters, with their mix of autonomy and close-them-down-if-they-fail accountability, can serve as the dominant form of delivering public education in an urban district.

Some charter leaders at the May 5-8 summit raised questions about the selection of Mr. Vallas, who is known nationally for his muscular leadership of the mayorally controlled Chicago system from 1995-2001 and the Philadelphia system under a board appointed after a state takeover of the 179,000-student district.

“He’s much more a command-and-control kind of guy,” said Todd Zeibarth, a policy analyst with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “I’m very curious about what this means for the direction of the district. Does this mean a move away from the use of charters to transform the system?”

One prominent local charter operator here in New Orleans said he was not worried that charters would be pushed aside once Mr. Vallas took the reins of the RSD.

“If one way Paul gains trust is to create better RSD schools that compete with charter schools, then it’s up to the charter system to rise to the occasion,” said Anthony Recasner, the president of the Louisiana Charter Schools Association and the principal of the Samuel L. Green Charter School, which President Bush visited March 1.

Mr. Vallas, for his part, told those at the largely charter-friendly gathering that he envisioned charters continuing to play a strong role in the city. But he said he would work to make sure that the state granted charters only to high-quality operators and closely monitored the performance of the largely independent but publicly funded schools.

“My job is to restructure the RSD schools into schools that are second to none, while holding the charters accountable,” he said.

At the same time, Mr. Vallas said, “I think the majority of the schools in this district will be charters.” But he added that, “ultimately, what determines the structure of the RSD will be how the schools perform.”

Initial Priorities

Appearing together as the keynoters of a May 8 luncheon at the summit, Mr. Vallas and Mr. Pastorek discussed their plans for tackling problems ranging from a serious shortage of teachers and principals to securing acceptable classroom space.

To help bring order to the process of absorbing returning students, for example, Mr. Pastorek said state officials were considering developing a “welcome school” where youngsters would be screened not only for their academic circumstances but their mental-health needs as well.

Mr. Vallas said the trauma that students continued to suffer in the hurricane’s aftermath compounded the challenges similar to those faced by many other urban districts, including insufficient financial resources to meet the needs of overwhelmingly disadvantaged students.

For example, he said, the problem of overage, undercredited high school students was especially acute in New Orleans, in part because of the disruption and learning gaps so many of them have experienced.

As for ways to overcome the shortage of talented educators, Mr. Vallas cited initiatives he had launched in Philadelphia to greatly expand the number of student-teachers in city schools, who later became a reliable pool of recruits. State officials estimate they will need 800 new teachers by fall.

Both Mr. Vallas and Mr. Pastorek saw the many attendees involved with New Leaders for New Schools as another source of new talent. “Come on down, and come on down in big numbers,” Mr. Pastorek urged them.

Mr. Vallas said he was “really energized” by his new position and confident that the challenges, however daunting, were surmountable, especially given his track record in running two much larger districts with many more schools.

“The fact that we’re not dealing with a large number of schools by big-city definitions makes the challenge manageable,” he said.

Jon Schnur, the chief executive officer of New Leaders for New Schools, which agreed in February to train 40 new principals for New Orleans over the next four years, said he thought Mr. Vallas’ decision to come to the city would help in what has been a tough task of attracting talented educators.

“He’s one of the nation’s greatest superintendents who has made the decision to come to New Orleans, and that’s huge,” said Mr. Schnur.

As for the task ahead of the new schools chief, said Mr. Schnur, “He’s going to have to listen more closely than he’s ever listened in his life.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.