Reflecting on 2015

Looking Back: 2015

2015 was a pivotal year for public education in New Orleans. In retrospect, it will mark a turning point in creating a more united system of public schools and blurring the difference between OPSB and RSD schools in New Orleans.

Unifying our system of schools

In 2015, OPSB and the state addressed some core issues that had created schisms. Resolving these issues will create a more stable, equitable, and shared foundation for the city’s system of schools going forward.

OPSB turns a new page

In January 2015, Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) finally selected a superintendent, Dr. Henderson Lewis. In March, Ira Thomas resigned from OPSB and subsequently pled guilty to taking bribes. With Thomas’ departure and a new superintendent, the OPSB quit fighting and supported Dr. Lewis’ efforts to reorganize its central office to better oversee a system of autonomous charter schools.

OPSB adopts key policies
  • OneApp and Transportation: OPSB passed policy HA, which created clear and consistent policies for all OPSB charters, including the requirement that all OPSB charters participate in OneApp (as their charters renew) and provide transportation.
  • Fund balance (reserves): OPSB made another, equally important policy change that received a lot less attention. It limited how it can spend its fund balance going forward, restricting more than 90% of the current fund balance ($45 million+) to emergencies and other “unforeseen, exceptional circumstances” and for the needs of the system as a whole (all public schools in Orleans Parish).

OPSB and RSD begin migrating to a single funding formula

The Legislature passed Senator Claitor’s bill, which required all OPSB charter schools to be funded using state weights for the 2015-16 school year and for BESE to approve one formula for both OPSB and RSD schools beginning with the 2016-17 school year. Adopting a citywide, weighted student funding formula addresses two key needs: It recognizes that some students, e.g., students with disabilities, require higher levels of funding; and, for the first time, the same amount of money will follow a particular student, whether that student attends an RSD or an OPSB school.

High School performance shines

For decades, the academic performance of most New Orleans open-admission public high schools was just dismal, and after Katrina, high school performance continued to lag K-8 performance. In 2015, the city’s open-admission high schools demonstrated strong academic gains. Educate Now! can’t help but highlight again that:

  • Our expulsion rate is lower than the state’s.
  • Our 5-year graduation rate of 76% exceeds the state’s rate of 75%.
  • Citywide, our ACT composite score rose to 18.8. Our black students’ ACT composite score of 17.8 exceeded the national composite score for black students of 16.9 by almost a point.
  • Of the schools across the state where 75% or more of students are economically disadvantaged, New Orleans has the top 5 performing high schools.

Saying goodbye to Katrina

August marked the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Karina, and the coverage of New Orleans’ education model was extensive (and exhausting). Post anniversary, it is fair to say that most are ready to move on. The standard is no longer are we better than we were a decade ago. It is how will we keep improving our schools and the opportunities for our students.

Looking Forward: 2016

A changing political landscape

John Bel Edwards was elected governor and takes office with a very different educational philosophy than soon-to-be-former governor Jindal. Expect attempts, either led by the governor-elect, the school board association and/or the teachers’ unions, to undo or roll back some of the current educational laws (e.g., teacher evaluation, school letter grades, the RSD, BESE’s chartering authority, and voucher eligibility). It remains to be seen if these efforts will be successful.

On the flip side, the proponents of recent educational reforms won 7 of 8 elected seats on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). While the governor gets to appoint three members, Superintendent John White’s position seems secure as it takes eight votes to replace him.

Expect to see some changes in how School Performance Scores are calculated as a result of ESSA (Every Child Succeeds Act), which replaces No Child Left Behind, along with the need for a new baseline for school accountability and the influence of the new governor.

Finally, 2015 saw a Common Core compromise and the likely end of the strife that has surrounded the adoption of new state standards. Hopefully, 2016 will bring stability to the new test as well, as the state develops a replacement for PARCC.

Challenges Remain

In 2015, no school lost its charter for either academic or nonacademic reasons – a first since Katrina. The performance of New Orleans schools ranks us around 40th in the state (out of 69), and New Orleans is one of the higher performing districts given the percentage of poor students our schools serve.

But, K-8 results have been flat the past two years, as schools are being challenged with new, more rigorous standards. Schools are working to implement a new curriculum and find better ways to bring students up to grade level. Expect to hear more discussion around expansion of Pre-Kindergarten.

In addition, despite the tremendous improvement in our high schools, one in four entering freshmen are still not graduating, and too many of our graduates are not prepared for the next phase in their life, whether post-secondary education or employment. The New Orleans region (including surrounding parishes) is in the top 10 regions in the country in the percentage of its young adults (16-24) not in school or not working, and the majority of these “disconnected youth” are high school graduates. Educate Now! is hopeful that YouthForce NOLA will help address this issue by better preparing and connecting our high school students with careers in high wage, high demand fields.

The reforms of the past decade, along with the hard working, committed educators across the city, have shown we can create some exceptional schools, especially when evaluated by their impact on catching up students who enter kindergarten already far behind. Our challenge going forward will be to continue to improve our academic performance with the same sense of energy and purpose we have shown in the past decade. I have confidence, working together, we can do it.

Best wishes for a healthy and happy 2016.

Educate Now!

Leslie Jacobs