Rhyme and reason: Georgia should not adopt New Orleans state takeover model

Atlanta parent and education advocate Michelle Constantinides has followed the schools in New Orleans and reviewed the state takeover efforts there. She's studied the progress reports on the schools from the Cowen Institute.

Here is her analysis of the efficacy of the state takeover, which Gov. Nathan Deal is proposing to duplicate here in Georgia. The Senate passed the governor's bill this week.

By Michelle Constantinides

Here the State Comes To Save The Day

That means that Governor Deal is on his way. 

Yes sir, when there is a wrong to right the OSD will join the fight. 

On the CCRPI our schools will land,

As the Governor thinks he’ll get the situation well in hand!

Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District proposal to help failing schools is modeled on the state Recovery School District in Louisiana. Michigan and Tennessee have recently implemented a similar state takeover reform model.

083005 hurkat gc 20--New Orleans, LA--Stranded people make their way along Canal Street looking south as flooding keeps on invading the city Tuesday, August 30, 2005, New Orleans, LA. Hurricane Katrina pounded the New Orleans Monday causing widespread damage and flooding. Staff Photo by Gary Coronado/The Palm Beach Post NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION OUTSIDE COX PAPERS. OUT PALM BEACH, BROWARD, MARTIN, ST.LUCIE, INDIAN RIVER AND OKEECHOBEE COUNTIES IN FLORIDA. OUT ORLANDO. OUT TV, OUT MAGAZINES, OUT TABLOIDS, OUT WIDE WORLD, OUT INTERNET USE. NO SALES. Is the state takeover in New Orleans a workable model for Georgia? (AJC File Photo)

Credit: Maureen Downey

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Credit: Maureen Downey

But let’s take a closer look at the model the governor wants Georgia to adopt.

The RSD, established in 2003 (pre-Katrina) in Louisiana, now has schools in New Orleans, Caddo and Baton Rouge and, up until this past school year, in East Baton Rouge, St. Helena, and Pointe Coupee Parishes.  It is one of the largest school districts in Louisiana.

Although the RSD is its own district, its performance scores and grades are broken down by its locations and even those groupings have varied over the years in the Department of Education’s districts/Local Education Authorities (LEA).  Also noteworthy is the formulas for scoring and rankings from stars to grades developed by the Louisiana DOE have changed a few times over the years.

And while we can argue we should not use data alone to make decisions on the performance of schools, it is the very foundation of why the RSD exists.

Taking a look at the St. Helena Parish school district located on the west side of I-55 and north of I-10 on the border of Mississippi, we find a rural school system with more than a 90 percent free and reduced lunch population. At the time the RSD took control of the middle school in 2009, St. Helena had one elementary, one middle and one high school.

Over the course of its five years (a state law requires the RSD to manage a school for at least five years once it is taken over), the middle school never scored above an F. Both the elementary and high school also received Fs, but their School Performance Scores (SPS) were always above the SPS of the middle school.

There was much debate between the local school officials and the state. The St. Helena Parish superintendent, hired in 2011, said the heart of the school district was gone without its middle school population, and the school board argued the need for the local district’s control to maintain a consistent educational model.

St. Helena spent $14.7 million on two new school buildings creating a Pre-K-through-6 elementary and 7-through-12 high school, which began this school year and reached an agreement with the RSD to keep its hands off the schools through the 2017-18 school year.

St. Helena agreed to a third party consulting organization which the RSD has the final say in hiring. At the beginning of February 2015, the St. Helena school system held its first Parent Academy, a community effort to help parents become full partners in their children’s education.

The Pointe Coupee Parish had a tough time with the RSD, too (which took over its Central High, grades 6-12, in 2008).  Located outside Baton Rouge Central High, an all African-American and more than 90 percent free and reduced lunch school reopened the next school year with roughly 550 students under the management of the now defunct non-profit charter Advance Baton Rouge (which at one point ran several RSD schools in Baton Rouge).

Within its first year standardized test scores plummeted, reports of disorderly conduct grew, enrollment declined and churning followed with the administration.  Even after the RSD took operational control in 2012 nothing improved. By 2013, Pointe Coupee Central High had an F from the state with less than 240 students.

After six years of control, the RSD recommended the school close and be merged with Livonia High for the 2014-15 school year --  a decision forced upon the community by a U.S. District judge.

In East Baton Rouge, the RSD began taking over schools in 2008 and had similar issues as those described above. The state superintendent began a new phase of RSD in 2011 and by 2012 approached the East Baton Rouge superintendent about creating a Baton Rouge Achievement Zone with a partnership similar to the one the RSD enjoys in New Orleans.

The talks failed and the East Baton Rouge superintendent worked aggressively to protect about a dozen of his schools lifting them from their F rankings to foil the RSD’s plan. He believes the state’s reform model has not proven itself successful and knows there are more effective ways to improve public education.

For the 2013-14 DOE’s grades for RSD-LA and RSD-Baton Rouge, each one had one school under its title, both received Ds. At the end of the 2013-14 school year, the RSD schools closed in St. Helena and Pointe Coupee.

In Baton Rouge, two RSD schools closed and five RSD schools were given to charter organizations. The last five traditional schools under the RSD in New Orleans closed this past year to make all the RSD schools in New Orleans charter schools.

Not one of these closed schools has its scores posted for the 2013-14 school year. It is ironic the RSD is not held accountable for its poor performance, but at least it recognized it should not be in the business of running schools and will now be an overseer to its charter schools.

When you look at New Orleans in the 2013-14 DOE’s report, the local Orleans Parish School Boards (OPSB) grades for its (18) schools are as follows:  two received a C, one received an F and the rest were all As and Bs -- only six are traditional or non-charter.  The RSD schools, which are mostly charters, garnered six in transition with no grade, six with Bs, 21 with Cs, 16 with Ds and seven with Fs.

And while that may look like these school are no longer failures, the proof for college and career readiness came out last month when a public schoolteacher in New Orleans, Mercedes Schneider, took a look at ACT scores for RSD schools and discovered this:

Out of a total of 1151 RSD New Orleans class of 2014 ACT test takers, only 141 students (12.3 percent) met the Regents requirement. Eighty-nine of these 141 attended a single high school (OP Walker, ACT site code 192113).

By far, OP Walker had the highest number of Regents 18-English-19-math-ACT-subscore-qualifying class of 2014 test takers (89 out of 311, or 28.6 percent).

Also noteworthy is that the RSD consistently ranks near the very bottom on national tests like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), well known as the nation’s report card.

Furthermore in 2015, special education advocates won a landmark case for special education students in New Orleans. This casts further light on the need for oversight on reform models. The settlement puts in place an independent monitor to make sure New Orleans schools are following the law.

There is an abundance of information about school performance in New Orleans and the work of New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO), a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting students in New Orleans, and its work to support the RSD and charter schools. It is important to note that this school year, the RSD and its charters have 36 schools that are eligible to return to the OSPB, but not one has returned.

Last year there were 17 schools that qualified and not a one went back.  Since 2010 RSD schools have had a choice to return to local control, but word on the street is these autonomous entities have issues with the very structure of a locally elected school board because elected officials have the potential of being anti or pro-charter based on their electorate.

And let’s be clear, charter boards are not chosen by the public. More often than not, they are chosen from fellow board members with little to no recruitment from parents or community members.

Furthermore in 2012 and 2013 New Orleans erasures on standardized testing were higher than the rest of the state. Does that sound familiar? In 2012 it was three times higher and, in 2013, twice as high.

And if we are to look at the day-to-day lives of the students in New Orleans, to date there is the “One App” process which has completely disenfranchised neighborhood schools, as the OPSB joined the program this past year. At the last registration date in July before school started, an expected 300 families were due for final enrollment. The next couple of days over 2,000 came.

Over the course of several days, over 7,000 families showed up to have students assigned or reassigned (due to discontent with the lottery’s match) to new seats. If you miss the registration dates, students lose their seats and are then added to schools which need to be filled.  Siblings are not guaranteed admittance into the same school under any “choice” in this process.

Then consider the very costly -- both financial and quality of life --  transportation needed to have students reach their assigned schools.  Many reports indicate that even though there are fewer students to transport today than before Katrina, the cost has gone from $18 million to $30 million with the miles traveled going from 1.9 to 3.4.  In the 2011-12 school year over 85 percent of students did not attend the school closest to their homes. There are students that hop on a bus at 6am to ride an hour and 45 minutes just to get to school and the same amount of time to get home - 3.5 hours.  Exactly, how does this serve the hardest to serve, underperforming students? All this while even pre-Katrina, New Orleans remains one of the largest areas for students attending private and parochial schools of any large city.

With over a decade in existence and over six years of data, the RSD in the state of Louisiana is not a reform model Georgia should be implementing. A state recovery school district under any title is nothing more than a parody for the real help needed in our lowest performing schools in any state.

By June of this year, Georgia is requiring one of three models for school districts to select and implement by the 2016-17 school year. The state must allow school districts the “opportunity” to raise performance in schools based on these models.

Should the state wish to create a platform to truly turn-around low performing schools, it should focus on funding for community and school-centered services including but not limited to:

-     Recognizing that Public Education is a Responsibility

-     Recognizing that Communities Matter

-     Providing Medical Care and Access for all Children

-     Investing in Quality Pre-Kindergarten for all Children

-     Supporting a Balanced Curriculum in All Schools rich in the arts, languages and physical education

-     Reducing Class Sizes

-     Providing Tutoring as needed

-     Providing Social Services for the Children who need it

-     Requiring that Superintendents, Principals and Teachers be Professional Educators with reputable backgrounds

There is no simple solution or one mighty plan to turning around schools as each community has its own unique traits and challenges.

It can and should be the responsibility of the state to recognize when a district needs help with a school or schools and work to uncover the underlying issues causing the lack of performance.

That work should be collaborative and support the district in order to deliver the resources needed to create the real opportunity that every child deserves, which will have a lasting positive impact on our schools, and save the day for the future of our state.

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