The New Orleans school system is in crisis, its survival dependent on a school board that has yet to earn public confidence. Chaos permeates the system, from the actions of administrators and the board on down. Parents, school employees, government leaders and the public are hard-pressed to have faith that things will improve when confusion seems to be the only constant.
The system's notorious financial morass is but one example of this turmoil. Consider this timeline: last school year ended with some students not knowing if they could attend their graduations. During the summer break, the board chose Ora Watson as interim superintendent, despite well-publicized differences between Watson and some board members and a last-minute scramble to replace her. The decision to hire New York restructuring firm Alvarez & Marsal to take over district finances failed to go smoothly after the board sued its president, Torin Sanders, because he refused to honor the will of the majority vote he opposed. Not surprisingly, initial reports from Alvarez & Marsal are painting a bleak picture. And now, shortly before the new academic year, many students from closed schools and canceled school expansions still don't know where to report for classes.
This atmosphere of confusion and distrust may drive even more parents away from public schools -- a result the system can't afford. "The key to the success of any school is its leadership," Watson told the board last week. Yet, parents complain that veteran principals are being excluded from staffing decisions in their own schools. In the worst cases, assistant principals are simply being assigned to schools to replace others who have been bounced. When the system gives strong, long-term principals little or no control over how to build and maintain their teams, it's setting them up to fail.
The board has yet to articulate a coherent vision for educating students in New Orleans. The board has put forth some goals -- Watson says the K-4 student-teacher ratio should be 20:1 -- but singular goals, however impressive, do not constitute a comprehensive program or vision.
In the absence of an overall vision and effective leadership, Watson and the board have rolled back some initiatives that former Superintendent Anthony Amato once introduced with fanfare. Other Amato programs will continue, such as small learning communities and the Direct Instruction and Success for All reading curriculums. Last week, newly released gains in LEAP test scores by New Orleans students underscored the need to maintain programs that are working. To do otherwise would bring more chaos.
The school board should commit to strong instruction at both ends of the academic spectrum, from special education to Gifted and Talented programs. The original budget had eliminated a large number of instructors for Gifted and Talented programs; at the last minute, the positions were saved. Programs for exceptional students should never have been on the chopping block -- despite Sanders' unfortunate and divisive rhetoric that some district students are eating dessert before others get a meal. The district should be in the business of nourishing ALL its children. Federal guidelines mandate Gifted and Talented programs, making it illegal to gut them out of expediency. At the same time, at-risk kids must be able to obtain comprehensive special-education services. Such programs are lifelines.
The board likewise should ensure that arts education will remain in public schools as a vital part of the curriculum. As Gambit Weekly has reported numerous times, research shows that children need arts as a valuable learning tool -- as well as for the vision and hope that the arts bring to young lives. The board also should keep doors open to innovative funding for after-school programs and community partnerships. In the past year, the board dashed hopes for such partnerships at the recently shuttered Hoffman Elementary School. Local schools will not survive without generous community involvement. Partners must be able to trust the district enough -- and to feel that their assistance is welcome -- to become involved.
The new budget effectively eliminates the district's communications department, which presumably would end the televising of school board meetings. It is tempting to pull the plug on what too often degenerates into a cable-access circus. But now more than ever, the meetings need to be televised -- with stricter attention paid to maintaining decorum.
This new school year represents the board's last chance to show that it can function at a level approaching basic. The Alvarez & Marsal turnaround team will manage the system's finances, but the board still controls academics. Piecemeal goals and divisive rhetoric from board members will only add to a community-wide sense of despair. Alvarez & Marsal and the board must work together to solve two huge problems at once: getting the system's finances in order, and boosting the quality of education for all public-school students. If they do not succeed, Alvarez & Marsal will return to New York. The board and the rest of us, however, must live with the consequences of failure. The stakes have never been higher.