Schooled Reporting on education

Big change in the Big Easy

Education | Survey of New Orleans charter school graduates shows big gains in educational achievement
by Leigh Jones
Posted 8/15/18, 05:13 pm

New Orleans became the biggest charter school experiment in the country in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina washed out the city’s traditional public school system. Rather than rebuild a district already plagued with underperforming schools, state lawmakers turned over almost every campus to non-profit charter school groups. Governed by local boards, each school had the autonomy to adopt a unique curriculum, emphasis, and education strategy. Parents had the freedom to choose the school that best fit their children’s needs.

Thirteen years later, 45 charter boards oversee 85 schools. More than 98 percent of students in New Orleans head to charter campuses. And students just entering kindergarten when Katrina made landfall are starting their first years in college or the workforce.

So how well did their experimental education serve them?

Better than traditional public schools have served the rest of Louisiana’s students, according to a study released last month by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans. Researchers from Tulane University looked at student achievement during school as well as post-graduation outcomes. In every metric, New Orleans students outperformed their peers in the rest of the state.

Charter schools had higher graduation rates, by as much as 9 percent, and their graduates had higher rates of college enrollment, by as much as 15 percent. Perhaps more importantly, charter graduates had a 7 percent higher likelihood of staying in college and a 5 percent better chance of graduating.

Sam Duell, a charter school expert with the Foundation for Excellence in Education, hailed the New Orleans outcomes as a win for local control.

“I think the story of New Orleans is that when you allow school leaders to direct the curriculum and the school day and the hiring and firing of teachers, whether that’s in a charter school or whether that’s in a traditional local school where a lot of the decisions are decentralized, it can work out very well,” Duell told me, “especially when you’re managing those school leaders based on their performance and the outcomes that kids get.”

While the New Orleans experience offers lessons for the broader charter school movement, the study’s authors caution that other cities attempting similar school reforms might not see the same results.

“Nevertheless,” said Duell, “the fact that New Orleans improved so much, in such a short period, on so many measures means that the city’s experiences are worthy of attention.”

He noted that when talking about charter schools and their benefits, advocates must clearly define their terms: “I think it’s just absolutely critical that when we talk about charter schools, remember we’re talking about a policy mechanism that has dozens of different applications in society. … We’re talking about so many different types of schools grouped under one name, which is charter school.”

An analysis done in 2015 found 13 different types of specialized charter schools, in addition to more traditional school models. That shows the charter school mechanism works, according to Duell, because campuses are responding to a variety of community and student needs. And while the New Orleans model might not be replicable in other cities, it has shown the charter approach can work on a large scale.

Associated Press/Photo by Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel Associated Press/Photo by Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on the first day of classes Wednesday

Parkland students go back to school

Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., returned to school Wednesday—without a single big safety measure planned after a former student killed 17 people on the campus in February.

Broward County Public Schools trustees initially pledged to have the metal detectors in place by the start of this school year. Last week, Superintendent Robert Runcie admitted in a letter to parents that wouldn’t happen. Logistics are a key problem: Administrators are trying to figure out how to move 3,000 students through the security checks quickly and efficiently. Although it doesn’t have metal detectors, the school did get fitted with new security cameras and locks for classroom doors.

The metal detector conundrum is part of a statewide trend. Schools are struggling to meet new safety standards passed by Florida lawmakers after the Parkland massacre. Fulfilling the mandate to have armed guards at every campus has proved especially difficult. According to an Associated Press investigation, about one-third of the state’s 67 school districts are meeting that requirement by using civilians, including school staffers.

Cost is one challenge. But officer availability is a bigger problem. Before state lawmakers passed the post-Parkland security bill, Florida police and sheriff’s departments already had several thousand vacancies. Kathy Burstein, a spokeswoman for the schools in Palm Beach, summed it up this way: “There simply are not enough officers to go around.”

Florida’s struggles should serve as a warning to other states. Lawmakers faced tremendous pressure after the Parkland shooting to do something. But it looks like the something they did in a rush, without thinking through the consequences, created more problems than it solved. —L.J.

Associated Press/Photo by Chris Knight Associated Press/Photo by Chris Knight Joseph Ems (left) at the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte, Pa., on June 12

Another guilty plea

A second former Penn State fraternity member has pleaded guilty to charges related to his role in a pledge event that left a 19-year-old student dead. Joseph G. Ems Jr., 22, pleaded guilty to hazing and an alcohol offense. He will learn what his sentence is next month.

Timothy Piazza, 19, died after suffering severe head and abdominal injuries during a party at the Beta Theta Pi house. Prosecutors claimed the fraternity members did nothing to help Piazza, despite his obvious medical distress. More than a dozen men initially faced charges stemming from the incident, but a Pennsylvania judge threw out the most serious counts. Ryan Burke, the first member of the now-shuttered fraternity to plead guilty, got house arrest and probation last month for four counts of hazing and five alcohol-related violations. —L.J.

Public embarrassment

This story is too egregious to ignore, although I feel compelled to apologize for mentioning it. A superintendent in New Jersey caught—ahem—defecating on a high school track during his morning runs, resigned earlier this year. This week, the district revealed he will walk away with more than $100,000 in severance pay. Public school critics can certainly hold this up as an example of what’s wrong with government-run education. If pooping in public isn’t enough to get someone cut off from the public purse, what is? —L.J.

Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is the news editor for The World and Everything in It and reports on education for WORLD Digital.

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