Will New Orleans Become Known for Academic Excellence?
Black Enterprise Magazine January-March 2019 Issue

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(Image: ThinkStock)

Although New Orleans is outperforming the state of Louisiana in some measures, the state itself is not a standout performer compared with other states. On the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress exams, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, Louisiana’s fourth-graders ranked 50th of the 50 states in math. Its eighth-graders ranked 49th. Overall, Louisiana earned a grade of D-, a full letter grade lower than the nation as a whole, which admittedly wasn’t that great either: C-.

But Dobard thinks the reforms are working and he offers four reasons why:

  1. A quality charter authorizing process. “Organizations have to go through a rigorous process to get their charter applications approved. There’s a very rigorous screening process.”
  2. Very strong accountability measures coupled with lots of autonomy. “They have an initial five-year contract by when they have to meet academic benchmarks. In five years you have to move a school from an F to a D, then in the next five years from a D to a C. With the accountability, we give school leaders flexibility and autonomy to run their schools like their own individual school district, so they can set their own curriculum. They can set their own time of day for school, they can hire or fire a teacher, they can set their own salaries and pay scale.”
  3. Great, high-quality teachers and leaders. “We have very good leaders and strong teachers. About 54% of our teaching workforce is minority. The teacher quality and leader quality is a huge piece.”
  4. Nimbleness of our system in response to policy. “We created an enrollment system called OneApp to replace the former, very complicated process. Parents now have one application that lists all their choices. We use an algorithm that assigns students to schools based on parents’ preference. Charter schools serve special education students at a much higher rate than the city schools, as well as the state average. We don’t distribute money equally, we distribute it equitably. We’ve worked with schools that had high expulsion rates and put some restorative justice practices in place. This year, those schools have had no expulsions.”

Dobard, who has been in education for 25 years and spent 10 years in the classroom, is convinced that the improvements are real. The challenges might daunt someone who didn’t believe. There are large numbers of children with post-traumatic stress disorder, “not from Katrina but from living in violent urban areas. New Orleans has a very high murder rate and crime rate. The stress of living in these neighborhoods is daunting.” He describes wrap-around services that are being developed and expanded to meet the social and emotional needs of affected children and teens.

He also battles low expectations on the part of some school personnel, children who are two and three grade levels behind, and cuts in mental health services. But he seems to have the support of the community.

“We are overseeing a $1.8 billion school reconstruction project. We’re still rebuilding schools after the destruction of Katrina. This may be the largest school reconstruction project in the nation’s history. We recently went to the taxpayers to seek an extension of an existing millage that we wanted to repurpose to allow for the creation of a fund that would be used for maintenance of these new buildings. Every millage increase has been shot down–people look at them as a new tax. Ours passed with an over 60% approval rating by the voters. They believe in what we’re doing.”

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