On this 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the storm that ravaged the great city of New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast leaving millions stranded, resulting in 1,800 fatalities and causing $108 billion in damages, education reform has been an empowering step towards rebuilding communities.
As a result of that fateful time in August 2005, countless residents were displaced leaving communities shattered and families separated, making worse the racial and economic inequities that had existed then and now (evident, for example, in then-president George W. Bush’s delay in dispensing aid while Black Lives That Didn’t Matter drowned and starved).
But local officials have made a big push to restore some semblance of normalcy for high school students who’ve suffered from mental and emotional issues related to Katrina; and charter schools have been a beacon of hope on that effort. Of late, failing public schools have been transformed; and consequently, the rate of student success has improved dramatically.
This year’s milestones include the following quick facts: 2,500 students graduated in June; $75 million in scholarships has been offered to students; New Orleans has a Black male graduation rate of 65%; last year, 1,360 students enrolled in college compared to 675 who enrolled in 2005; a Black female student has been accepted into 21 colleges and offered $400,000 in scholarships; and a Black male student was offered $500,000 in scholarships.
In addition, school administrators have taken a closer look at curriculums, have taken a personal interest in students, and students are energized.
Here, TNJ.com talks to Dana Peterson who is the deputy superintendent of external affairs for the Recovery School District, a special district of the Louisiana Department of Education charged with an unprecedented challenge and opportunity to tackle and transform chronically underperforming schools in Louisiana. Prior to his current role, he served as chairman of the board of directors of FirstLine Schools. While there, he built community support for the transformation of Joseph C. Clark High School in the historic Treme community in New Orleans.
One of the founding members and chairman of the Charter Board Council of New Orleans, Peterson holds a bachelor’s of science degree in economics from the University of Houston.
TNJ.com: What is your role as deputy superintendent?
Dana Peterson: My role is to facilitate bringing people to the table to move the educational process forward in a way that is effective. We take an opportunity to engage and create opportunities for community input to outreach decision-making processes. The strategy we take depends on each specific school and community since they’re all very different.
TNJ.com: What are the challenges that come along with working for the New Orleans school district?
D.P.: One challenge we face is getting all interested stakeholders on the same page about what it is we are trying to accomplish. We have parents, educators, community members and different stakeholders who all have a different vision about what it is we should be doing.
TNJ.com: What is the shared goal?
D.P.: The goal is to ensure that all our kids finish high school on time and get ready for college or a career. The strategy is to create an independent system of high quality schools. Most people want the same thing for the kids, which is to get them ready for the world. But we devise different strategies in getting them there. I really engage people around the vision and the goals. We are able to have more success that way and reduce the amount of disagreements we have.
TNJ.com: Tell us about the new charter school system created to help the city’s failing public school system.
D.P.: To get a charter school up and running, there is a contract with the state to run a school for five years.
When a school comes up for an assessment, we determine how much growth it has made, the performance scores, the letter grades…there must be certain benchmarks in order for the school to continue running. If it does not meet the benchmarks, we find someone else to run the school. It’s a privilege to educate our kids. Not a God-given right.
If it doesn’t work out, at the renewal process we terminate the contract and enlist a higher performing school operator to take on the school. In that process, we have weigh in on the decision and incorporate feedback on what people want to see happen and what we care about the most.
In some cases, if we don’t have a qualified person to run the school, we have to close it down.
When we needed someone to run the Andrew Johnson Charter School, we engaged community members, parents and went through the process of defining what we wanted to see happen. We put out a request for applications for interested charter school members. Several operators running other schools applied and then we evaluated feedback. In considering who was best suited to run the school, it was decided InspireNOLA, a nonprofit that runs schools, would take over; Jamar McKneely would be the new operator. They were selected based on our ability to engage stakeholders in that work. We are growing and maturing in how we can meet the challenge.
Four years ago, we were in the beginning stages of charter school development. We went before the state board seeking the approval of a charter high school. At this same meeting were alumni from Clark High School, a school that has a rich history of educating black kids; many civic leaders attended and received a great education there. The alumni were there inquiring about charter schools and someone mentioned that Clark had been suffering from long periods of struggles and was now in bad shape – one of the worst performing schools in the state. There was some synergy in the room, so we talked and after 10 months, we agreed to work together to turn the school around.
Now in its fourth year as a charter school, it’s making progress. It will take time, but we made the right move. There are people committed to making these schools a success. In the years to come, the school will do for the kids what it did for the group of alumni: provide for kids today what it provided for them in the past. People were there to open a school, and ended up saving one at the same time.
That approach, that we can build partnerships to improve school outcomes, is the approach I brought to my current role – trying to figure out an opportunity for all parties to create better schools for kids. We can get there when people work together. People come to the table with different perspectives and goals to create structures where everyone’s side can be heard.
TNJ.com: Any additional goals?
D.P.: We have to ensure that in our system of schools, there is equity for the hardest served kids – kids who have exceptional abilities and challenges in and out of the justice system and mental health and behavioral challenges. We have to be sure that all schools meet the needs of the kids…that there are equitable playing fields, that there is centralized enrollment and schools that are governed by the local school district. We have a significant number of kids who have special needs and suffer from additional challenges and obstacles. We want to be sure that schools are prepared to deal with these issues.
*The Louisiana Department of Education has released the following academic outcomes on school performance scores and letter grades, high school performance and New Orleans’ district ranking:
The percentage of all public school students enrolled in failing schools in New Orleans dropped from 62 percent prior to Hurricane Katrina, to 6 percent in the fall of 2014. At the same time, the percentage of students enrolled in A and B rated schools increased from 13 percent to 37 percent.
The percentage of students in grades 9–12 enrolled in failing schools in New Orleans dropped from 66 percent prior to Hurricane Katrina, to 10 percent in the fall of 2014. Likewise, 53 percent of high school students now attend an A or B rated school, up from 20 percent in 2004.
Since 2004–05, New Orleans has moved up in Louisiana’s district rankings, from 67 out of 68 districts to 41 out of 69 districts.