A Singular Search for a Singular Superintendent: New Orleans’ All-Charter School District Kicks Off Hunt for a New Leader
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When searching for a new superintendent, school board members often express their desire for a visionary leader. They seek someone who is charismatic and has bold ideas. However, in large urban districts that face historic inequities and declining enrollment, the result is often a compromise.
As the Orleans Parish School Board begins the search for a replacement for Henderson Lewis, who announced his retirement for next June, they are indeed in need of someone with a vision. The incoming superintendent will take charge of a completely new type of school system.
This superintendent will be the chief executive of the first-ever all-charter district in the United States. New Orleans has witnessed the fastest school improvement effort in the country, yet one-third of its public school students were still attending failing schools before the pandemic. Even before the setbacks caused by COVID-19 and Hurricane Ida, expanding access to high-quality schools and creating more seats was a challenging task.
In essence, the new superintendent will require an entirely new approach. The school board has allotted a full school year to find an individual with the necessary skills and mindset.
Ethan Ashley, the board president, states, "Apart from the current superintendent, there is no other person in the country who has ever run a district like ours."
Due to the unique and clearly-defined legal structure of NOLA Public Schools, the next leader will have minimal authority to enforce changes at individual schools. However, they will face pressure to enhance student achievement throughout the entire system. The new superintendent will need to establish strong relationships within a community that has called for an end to white control of the schools, especially since a significant portion of the community is Black. Additionally, they will be expected to make and defend unpopular decisions while helping families with children in the schools understand the nature of the all-charter district.
Paul Hill, the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, who has extensively written about school governance, says, "When boards search for a new superintendent, they often discuss the person committing to change and more. The real challenge will be finding someone who is acceptable to the community, understands the distinctiveness of the district, and is committed to making it successful."
After a one-month delay caused by Hurricane Ida, the school board officially initiated the comprehensive search process in late September by requesting proposals from search firms that meet the criteria agreed upon in July. The board is particularly interested in recruiting nontraditional candidates rather than solely focusing on superintendents with experience in conventional school districts. They are also keen on considering local leaders and individuals who have had previous experience with New Orleans schools but have since moved on.
Kate Mehok, the head of Crescent City Schools, mentions that it is still too early to predict potential candidates. She states, "We have been playfully suggesting names but I believe there will be an intriguing pool of candidates."
"A Remarkable System"
Before the pandemic, the district reached a crucial turning point.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina brought about intense changes that shifted New Orleans schools from a failing state to a passing one. The flood in 2005 severely damaged nearly every school in what was considered one of the nation’s lowest-performing and most corrupt districts. Louisiana took control of almost all the schools, leaving only a few. The state-run Recovery School District invited organizations with promising proposals to transform these schools into public charter schools.
Ultimately, the schools that failed to meet the requirements set forth in their performance contracts lost their charters, closed down, and were replaced by operators who achieved higher levels of success. This strategy was unpopular but effective. Researchers from Tulane University examined data on student academic performance, high school graduation rates, and college outcomes during the first decade after the state took over and concluded that it was the primary driving force behind the improvements in New Orleans. However, progress began to stall by 2014.
As the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approached, the community expressed frustration that mostly white outsiders were still in control of a predominantly Black school system. In response to calls from Lewis, former Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard, and others, the Louisiana lawmakers passed Act 91 in 2016, which returned the schools to the Orleans Parish School Board.
In preparation for this transition, education leaders addressed various injustices. They implemented a unified computerized enrollment system to prevent schools from selectively admitting students and established a universal discipline system to ensure that challenging students were not pushed out. Agreements were also made regarding transportation and funding.
Education experts and policymakers across the nation observed with apprehension, wondering if the experiment would persist or falter under the supervision of the district. Many claimed that transforming the system from a C to an A would require formidable changes.
The law clearly defined the division of authority. Decisions concerning staffing, academic focus, and the duration of the academic year or day are made by the schools themselves. NOLA Public Schools serves as the authorizer for the district’s 79 individual schools, some of which belong to independent networks. The primary responsibility of the district is to continuously assess whether a school’s performance justifies the renewal of its charter, and if not, determine appropriate alternatives.
Accountability for school performance often poses a challenge for elected boards, who face resistance. Acknowledging this, Act 91 safeguards the superintendent of NOLA Public Schools and outlines criteria for charter renewal or termination. This arrangement is favored by most state and local leaders.
Mehok states, "We have a distinct system in New Orleans, but it’s more manageable than it appears from the outside. The responsibilities of the schools and the central office are clearly defined and easily written on paper."
However, while the autonomy-for-accountability law was being developed, academic progress within the entire system had stagnated, causing policymakers to worry about the district’s capacity to continue improving. Schools remained highly segregated, and their ability to serve students with disabilities and English learners was inconsistent at best.
One significant issue was the insufficient number of high-quality options available to families. The superintendent must find ways to support successful school networks’ growth without compromising their quality and attract new leaders.
There are also concerns that the pandemic may weaken the district leaders’ commitment to accountability. Six schools are at risk of losing their charters this autumn, but the superintendent’s ability to make recommendations regarding their fate has been impaired for two years due to COVID-19 disruptions.
In the absence of complete data, the district is conducting a comprehensive review of each school, considering various factors. While this subjectivity may be necessary during a pandemic, some worry it could lead to permanent relaxation of regulations.
NOLA Public Schools requires approximately 900 new teachers each year, as well as new leaders. Even before COVID-19 and the recent hurricane, mental health support for children dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was sorely needed.
Another challenge is that despite the widespread interest in New Orleans’ innovative system among education experts nationwide, families with children in these schools may not fully comprehend how the system operates, or which issues should be addressed by the superintendent and board rather than their individual schools.
Scott Benson, a board member of New Schools for New Orleans and a managing partner at the NewSchools Venture Fund, emphasizes the need for the incoming superintendent to establish a clear vision for the system with the input of the community.
According to Holly Reid, the chief of policy and portfolio at New Schools for New Orleans, the city’s school leaders identified the ability to make difficult decisions and effectively communicate the rationale as crucial traits for the new superintendent. Additionally, they emphasized the importance of attracting talent and reducing turnover in the central office to maintain institutional knowledge.
Most importantly, the chosen candidate should value collaboration and see themselves as a partner. Olin Parker, formerly a state charter school regulator and now a member of the Orleans Parish board, states, "Every charter school leader highlights the significance of collaboration, not just within the district but also among school leaders."
School administrators at the individual level regularly meet to address common challenges and inform NOLA Public Schools about their specific support needs. This fosters an exceptionally agile system, according to Parker and others.
In a more recent occurrence, Frederick A. Douglass High School, part of the KIPP network, suffered significant damage from Hurricane Ida, rendering it unfit for reopening. In a display of neighborly support, Lusher Charter School offered their building as an alternative. The community rallied together, with 300 volunteers answering the call for help. They painted, rearranged furniture, and set up bulletin boards. In just one week, the space transformed from dull to fabulous.
Despite the limitations on the new superintendent’s authority, there is still space for creativity and a community-driven approach to problem-solving. Benson highlights that the story is still unfolding, with chapters on governance and leadership yet to be written. The ending is uncertain and not predetermined.
Please note that financial support to New Schools for New Orleans and is provided by The City Fund.