-- Opinion --

Patrick M. Dobard / Contributing opinion writer

Thinking back to New Orleans' public schools before the current reform efforts began, brings to mind a system where most students were languishing in schools with low academic standards and little-to-no accountability for the adults in charge. As a result of decades of systemic neglect, by 2005, 77 percent of public school students attended a failing school and less than 25 percent of students were performing at grade level on state assessments.

New Orleanians, even before Hurricane Katrina, had already adopted a pioneering attitude toward improving public education. Despite the challenges they faced, innovative educators and parents embraced the creation of the first charter schools in the city. In the face of a system perceived as one of the worst in the nation, educators, administrators, and policy-makers had no choice but to try a new approach to stem the tide of indifference, neglect, and corruption.

In response to the need and desire for change in New Orleans and across the state, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) created the Recovery School District (RSD) to transform failing schools and provide families with high-quality school options. Together, the LDOE and the RSD supported education pioneers as they built an autonomous system of charter schools in New Orleans, the state's greatest area of need. This was a radical, systemic change, one that up-ended the traditional school district model that had proven itself broken and irreparable.

The RSD's theory of action was to create a foundation of choice, autonomy, and accountability for thec

new system. We allowed educators autonomy to operate their schools as they felt was best. We gave parents unprecedented options for making choices about their children's education. And we held schools accountable for raising student achievement, closing those who failed to meet a continuously rising bar for achievement.

This has been a transformative process that has required the effort of the entire community and the RSD, as we continuously learn, adapt, and improve public education for New Orleans' students. To further support our families, educators, and community, as we embark on this process together, the RSD launched a number of new initiatives in 2012.

In January, we launched the Office of School Performance (OSP) and tasked it with improving student outcomes by holding charter schools accountable for their performance while respecting the autonomy that allows them to succeed. The OSP created an improved Issue Resolution Process to ensure that parent concerns are heard and addressed in an effective and timely.

In February of 2012, we released the first Equity Report, which compiled and published school and student performance according to a number of important metrics above and beyond test scores, making it easier for parents to compare options when choosing a school. That same month, we launched OneApp, the streamlined New Orleans public school enrollment system, where parents use one application to apply to any RSD school.

Additionally, we've created an office to assist Disadvantage Business Enterprises (DBE) in participating in RSD's construction projects. We've also revised language in our school facility building contracts requiring that contractors make efforts to ensure that 25 percent of all construction work is provided by DBEs. We believe strongly that our schools can only succeed in a community where entire families are thriving.

Though we have a long way to go in ensuring all of our students are college and career ready when they graduate from high school, our students' and schools' progress has been astounding. Now, with more than 87 percent of RSD students in New Orleans enrolled in charter schools, we are rapidly closing the achievement gap with the state.

  • We have doubled the percentage of students performing at grade level on state assessment tests since 2007.
  • RSD students showed growth on the ACT college entrance exam with average composite scores rising from 15.8 points for the class of 2011 to 17.9 points for the class of 2012
  • African-American students from New Orleans have closed the achievement gap and are outperforming their counterparts from around the state.
  • The Brookings Institute ranked the RSD the number one school district nationally for parent choice and gave the RSD the first and only 'A' for its competitive environment.

Education reform has been a game-changer for the city of New Orleans. Our successes serve as validation that we are on the right track but also as a reminder that there are still too many of our students not yet equipped for the opportunities of tomorrow. An unacceptable number of RSD students, nearly half, still perform below grade level on state assessments.

The process of transformation is a marathon, not a sprint. We have poured the foundation, built the framework, and now must continue to shape the structure of an equitable, autonomous, and sustainable system of schools for our students.

Patrick M. Dobard serves as the Superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD). A 22-year career educator, Mr. Dobard most recently served as the Deputy Superintendent of the office of Community and Policy for the RSD. Prior to that, he was the Deputy Director of Governmental Affairs for the Louisiana Department of Education.

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