The Aftermath Series: The New Orleans Recipe for Charter School Success

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Prior to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was home to one of the worst education systems in the country. The city’s school system ranked second to last in the state and more than half of its students were attending failing schools. Most students scored below grade level on statewide standardized tests.

Finally fed up with failure, state officials launched a serious reform effort with the creation of the Recovery School District (RSD) in 2003. The RSD would take the city’s most chronically failing schools and put them under state control in order to better monitor practices and student performance. After Katrina, officials kicked their efforts into high gear. The RSD soon converted the majority of its schools into charter schools, combining autonomy and accountability to raise student achievement, reduce drop-out rates, and send more kids to college.

This educational renaissance took place in dire conditions. Deep-seated racial inequalities had spilled over into the education system. Corruption consumed the educational bureaucracy. Post-Katrina, some students showed signs of post-traumatic stress.

While there is still much more work to do, the rapid improvement of New Orleans’ schools in such conditions has been nothing short of wondrous. With nearly all of its schools operating as charter schools, New Orleans has taken a novel approach to reform – combining school-level autonomy with citywide policies in certain areas to raise academic achievement and ensure educational equity. Principals are empowered to make most key decisions about how their students are taught and the culture that prevails in the school, including choosing the staff that’s best suited to their school. This has allowed a wide variety of educational models to flourish. At the same time, the city centralized the application and enrollment process to give students from every neighborhood access to the best schools. Discipline policies are also centralized to make sure no student is marginalized for behavioral issues.

This level of success doesn’t go unnoticed, and cities and states across America are taking a close look to see what ingredients from the New Orleans turnaround can be incorporated into their own school systems. To read more about New Orleans, the city’s perseverance, and how the community made history by way of education reform, click here.

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