How are New Orleans’ Littlest Learners Faring?

A decade after Hurricane Katrina led to a fundamental restructuring of New Orleans’ public school system, numerous articles and reports have documented and debated the impact of the changes on the city’s K-12 students. But how are younger children in New Orleans faring?

There’s a lot less evidence on this question–in large part due to the fragmented nature of early childhood systems, both in Louisiana and nationally. Because two of the clients I work with at Bellwether are involved in early childhood work in New Orleans, I’ve had opportunities to visit and learn about preschool programs in the city over the past two years, but I still feel perplexed by the early childhood landscape there. That said, three issues related to early childhood in New Orleans deserve particular attention: 

Pre-k in the urban school system of the future: Louisiana has offered state-funded preschool since the 1980s, and its existing state-funded preschool programs–which provide a full-school-day of pre-k for low-income 4-year-olds–serve a relatively high percentage of at-risk 4-year-olds in the state. State data suggest that most low-income 4-year-olds in New Orleans have access to preschool, either through state-funded preschool, Head Start, or state childcare subsidies. But the transition to a largely charter system of schools has actually created some challenges in pre-k access in the Crescent City. Louisiana has three different state-funded preschool programs (along with childcare subsidies and the federal Head Start program). Unlike many state pre-k programs that were designed to incorporate diverse providers, including both community-based programs and public schools, Louisiana’s state pre-k programs, which pre-date Katrina, were originally designed primarily for schools–both traditional school districts and private schools. While charter schools are able to participate in these programs, many have chosen not to, because state-funded pre-k provides far less funding per-child than charter schools receive for K-12 students. As a result, charter schools that do choose to offer pre-k often lose money doing so–which may not be sustainable long-term. As charters have come to educate an increasing share of the city’s students, this has created challenges for pre-k access. Some charter schools have found innovative ways to serve preschoolers. FirstLine Charter Schools, for example, have formed partnerships with community-based childcare providers to enable children to attend preschool in the community-based setting and then advance to FirstLine for kindergarten. But New Orleans’ experience illustrates the mismatch that exists between the urban school system of the future and many state preschool programs. Although most state preschool programs are designed to incorporate diverse providers, they are often designed with the assumption that traditional districts and community-based childcare centers are the only types of providers that exist. In an increasingly diverse K-12 delivery system, some schools may not fit into either of these templates. If new federal, state, or local preschool programs and policies do not take into account the ways in which the K-12 system is evolving, this could actually undermine efforts to expand children’s access to quality early learning.

Applying New Orleans principles to building the early childhood system: In 2012, the Louisiana legislature enacted ambitious legislation to fundamentally overhaul the state’s fragmented early childhood education system, moving early childhood programs, which had previously been based in multiple agencies, into the Department of Education. The ultimate goal is to create an integrated system in which families have one point of access to all programs for which they are eligible, common standards for quality are used across all programs and providers, and local “early care and education networks” support quality across all providers and direct funds to high-quality providers–regardless of provider type. While the state has made significant progress towards creating a more integrated early childhood system–and this progress was rewarded recently by a federal Preschool Expansion Grant–it still faces significant challenges, not the least of which is the low funding level for early childhood programs in the State. The important takeaway for national audiences interested in the lessons of New Orleans, however, is that Louisiana is pursuing an approach to integrating its early childhood system that incorporates similar principles to the overhaul of New Orleans schools: incorporate diverse providers, set and measure common standards for quality and outcomes, and support families to make good choices in a diverse-provider system. Notably, while most of the lead agencies implementing the local early care and education networks are school districts, New Orleans is one of just 5 communities in the state where a non-district entity leads the network.

The effect of trauma on young children: In the past decade, new research has demonstrated the significant and lasting effects of early exposure to trauma on young children’s health, cognitive, and social-emotional development. In New Orleans, many young children experienced significant trauma as a result of the Hurricane, and even today, the city’s infants, toddlers, and preschoolers continue to experience the long-term effects of both past and current traumas. All this makes New Orleans a case in point for the importance of developing strategies for preventing and mitigating the impact of trauma on young children’s development, as well as of giving educators and schools tools to support behavior and healthy development for children struggling with the effects of trauma. High-quality preschool programs are a crucial part of this, but strategies to prevent and address the impacts of early trauma are equally crucial throughout the K-12 continuum.

In an ideal world, the next 10 years would bring about a reinvention of early childhood education in New Orleans similar to the transformation that has occurred in the city’s K-12 schools: Resulting in a dynamic diverse delivery system that includes multiple, high-quality providers (including charters, community-based organizations, and private schools); offers expanded access not only to low-income four-year-olds, but also to at-risk infants, toddlers, and middle-income preschoolers;  and includes mental health consultation for preschool teachers and improved access to home-based behavioral health services that can prevent or mitigate the effects of trauma on young children’s development. That would mean a radically different future for New Orleans’ young children and their families–one that looks just as different from today as the future of today is from the New Orleans of 10 years ago.