Kevin McGill / The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS -- Hurricane Katrina cleared the way for changes in New Orleans public schools that were widely heralded nationwide as innovative but were often painful locally -- including the firing of thousands of teachers and school workers, the takeover of most schools by state government and the proliferation of independently run charter schools.
It made for hard feelings. Some saw the takeover by the Louisiana Recovery School District as high-handed and disrespectful, said state Sen. J.P. Morrell, a frequent early critic of the RSD.
Targets of the criticism included Robin Jarvis, the state Department of Education official first tapped to run the RSD amid the post-Katrina chaos, then Paul Vallas, the former Chicago schools chief who followed Jarvis and drew critics for his sometimes brusque manner.
Another outsider succeeded Vallas when John White arrived in spring 2011 from New York, where he had worked for the city school system. One of his first moves was to tap Patrick Dobard as a deputy. Dobard was another state education department executive but he also was born, reared and educated in New Orleans. With his arrival, the working atmosphere began to change, Morrell said.
"Until Dobard came down with White, there was no community input whatsoever. The RSD did things to neighborhoods. They didn't do things with neighborhoods," Morrell said.
Now, White is the state's new superintendent of education and Dobard was named in January to head the RSD. Morrell is hopeful a positive trend will continue.
"What excites a lot of us is, with the elevation of Patrick to the head of the RSD, there is a real promise that change might continue, where you really see people legitimately being engaged, to try and get that community buy-in that's been lacking so far."
Dobard told The Associated Press he brings more than New Orleans roots to the job. His experience includes teaching in his hometown early in his career, but also a stint at a public high school in rural Tensas Parish in north Louisiana.
"It was like culture shock for me, because I had never, like, been away from New Orleans," Dobard said.
It also helped shape his ideas about education.
The similarities among schools in urban and rural settings where he worked -- New Orleans, Tensas, Baton Rouge -- were strong, he said.
"One of the biggest things we had in common is the poverty and the background these kids come from. It wasn't so much about race as much as poverty," said Dobard, an African-American.
He also noted a lack of high expectations among many of his students. Dobard said his parents -- a housewife married to a self-taught electrician who also worked as a movie projectionist -- saw all seven of their children go to college. In Tensas, he said, "I stressed to those kids that you can go to college. There's a thing called a Pell Grant if you can't afford it. "
Dobard also noted a sometimes uneven quality to public education.
"To really just get around the state, to see what was going on in schools. I can just always remember -- that, yep, there were even some great teachers in that small, rural environment but there were also teachers who quite weren't making the mark and it frustrated me that kids didn't get what they really deserved."
He has firm ideas about where education needs to go in Louisiana. And, although he may be more accepted than his predecessors at the RSD, that doesn't mean he is less committed to the controversial changes taking hold in that city or elsewhere in the state.
Those include state takeovers of schools foundering in the hands of traditional local school boards (the RSD also now runs some schools in Baton Rouge, Caddo, Pointe Coupee and St. Helena parishes) and growing dependence on publicly funded but privately run charter schools. The changes often mean less power for local elected officials and less job security for teachers.
"One of the biggest things for me is for folks to understand that I believe personally and professionally in the things we've been doing as far as reform," Dobard said. "And I'm looking for ways that, yes, we can work closer with folks who may not have strongly believed in it. But I'm not going to compromise in what I believe."
Dobard's ascension comes as attitudes toward the RSD in New Orleans appear to be improving. The district has shown measureable progress -- though sometimes slow and uneven -- over the past six years. In January, the Cowen Institute at Tulane University released a survey of parents of Orleans Parish public school students. Of those surveyed in 2011, 66 percent felt schools are better after Hurricane Katrina, compared with 31 percent of parents surveyed in 2009.
There remains a debate about when, whether and how schools should be placed back in the hands of the Orleans Parish School Board. The board, with all new members since Katrina, maintained control of a handful of high performing schools after the storm and state evaluations show continued strong performance.
Dissension remains evident, meanwhile, over the RSD. Pickets showed up at a Dobard news conference last month as the latest plans for charter schools were announced. Disputes over which private organizations should govern which schools continue.
"I don't really see him making much of a difference," said Sandra Ewell, long active in the community surrounding John McDonogh school and strongly critical of the RSD and of recent decisions involving the chartering of the school. She said White knew nothing of the community but added: "Perhaps there is a little hope with Dobard, because he is local."
Dobard doesn't play up his role as a local, but he hopes it might make people more amenable to accepting the sometimes hard changes being made.
"If we can use me being from New Orleans as a way to get more people to start looking at solutions rather than just pointing out some of the things they feel have been wrong with the RSD," Dobard said, "then if that's going to help that discussion get to a better place for kids, then I'm excited about it."