Tag Archives: New Orleans

Lessons in Managing the Gut-Wrenching Process of School Closures

“I’ve never felt that way before, walking into a room and just being in total knots and also knowing the right thing to do.” That’s how former Denver Public Schools board member Mary Seawell recalls the night she and the majority of the board voted to close Montbello, an academically failing but popular neighborhood high school. As we interviewed district and community leaders for our Eight Cities project, the subject of school closures elicited a nearly universal response: emotionally draining and gut-wrenching angst.

photo of Mary Seawell, former Denver Public Schools board member, by Alexander Drecun — from EightCities.org

Photo of Mary Seawell by Alexander Drecun, via EightCities.org

While the superintendents and community leaders we spoke to acknowledged school closure as a painful but necessary tool, our interviews also reflected a culture shift: Some districts are no longer forcing closures of low-performing schools in the absence of quality alternatives. Instead many districts have started more carefully planning closures to minimize disruption and prioritize student success. Two recently released reports reinforce the need for districts to mitigate the pain of school closures by ensuring better alternatives already exist.

New Orleans’ improvement trajectory, profiled on our Eight Cities site, reflects this evolution of thought around closures, from a “ruthless accountability” strategy to a more pragmatic, community-centered approach. A recent report from EdNavigator proposes the “Upgrade Rule,” which says “that no school should be closed unless students have a real opportunity to ‘upgrade’ to a better school as a result of the closure.”

For seven schools closed within NOLA Public Schools between 2017 and 2019, EdNavigator helped affected families work with the district to create an accommodating timeline, grant enrollment preferences to displaced students, and invest in communications about alternatives and next steps.

The results of these efforts were impressive: nearly all of the 1,636 students displaced by closure found a new school rated at least one “grade” better, based on the A through F grading system in Louisiana. A full two-thirds of the students found seats in a school rated two letter grades better.

Newark, another city we profiled, is an example of how school closures can result in improved student outcomes. A 2017 Harvard study found “state and district leaders facilitated the movement of students from less effective schools toward schools with faster rates of achievement growth.” Shifting enrollment toward higher-achievement growth schools accounted for nearly two-thirds of the gains in English achievement, and math achievement would have declined without a shift to higher-growth schools.

In a report released last month, Marcus Winters of the Manhattan Institute concludes that districts should close failing schools and that students generally benefit from these closures, particularly when more effective school alternatives exist. Winters finds that the benefits for students remain even after accounting for the disruption associated with moving to a new school environment. He even addresses the idea that more funding can turnaround a failing school: “The evidence strongly suggests that it is better for school systems to close persistently ineffective schools than to continue providing them with an unending supply of resources.”

While school closures can benefit students, Chicago serves as a cautionary tale. After Chicago Public Schools (CPS) closed 49 low-performing and/or low-enrollment schools in 2013, impacting nearly 12,000 students, the district designated “welcoming schools” of equal or better performance. CPS also provided additional resources, technology, and programs to improve the transition process for students.

Unfortunately, these efforts fell short. Despite the school designations, many Chicago students chose to attend a school with a “lower performance policy level” than the one CPS designated as their “welcoming school.” For students who did enroll at the CPS-recommended “welcoming school,” the transitional supports were not as robust as those provided by EdNavigator in New Orleans. School leaders and families believe longer embedded supports, beyond the initial transition year, would have enhanced this process.

School closures can be incredibly disruptive for students and communities. But as our Eight Cities profiles and these recent reports illustrate, this process can be less painful for families if they have access to high-quality school options and district-provided resources to navigate the transition process.

This piece was inspired by Eight Cities, Bellwether’s 2018 multimedia exploration of large, urban districts achieving significant academic improvements.

How Bellwether Transformed Agencies Supporting Youth in Utah, California, and Louisiana, Part 3: The Orleans Parish School Board’s Youth Opportunity Center

Last week, you read about Bellwether’s work in Utah, where we helped a team at the State Board of Education develop a shared vision of quality for all their schools serving students in juvenile courts or the foster care system. Today I’ll provide more information about our work in New Orleans, where we supported the Youth Opportunity Center, part of the Orleans Parish School Board, to create an 18-month strategy to evolve from being a direct services provider to becoming a community leader.

Social workers employed by the Youth Opportunity Center provide intensive case management services for some of the highest need youth and families in the city of New Orleans. While the Youth Opportunity Center has historically provided direct service work, their goal is to build the capacity of other city partners and ultimately become a strong community voice, magnifying their reach and impact by positioning other agencies, nonprofits, and community-based organizations to provide aligned supports for young people in a coherent way.

In New Orleans, the poverty rate is twice the national average, and in the last school year, 25 percent of students were chronically absent — up from 21 percent the year before. Staff at the Youth Opportunity Center see that students and families struggle to re-engage in their education because of significant barriers to accessing social services (e.g., transportation, illiteracy, and/or negative prior experiences with government or law enforcement). Because of New Orleans’ decentralized education system, schools vary in their capacity to support the highest need students without resorting to exclusionary disciplinary practices that lead students to further disengage.

The video below is from Buffy, a lifetime New Orleans resident who struggled to succeed in school herself and who is now trying to ensure that her child has a better experience than she did.

The work that the Youth Opportunity Center did with Bellwether resulted in the creation of an 18-month plan focused on three goals: Continue reading

How Bellwether Transformed Agencies Supporting Youth in Utah, California, and Louisiana, Part 1

Quote from Atila in El Dorado County, CA saying "I just always felt behind/I never felt smart" and ""as far as learning went, there wasn't a whole lot of that. i never was able to stay in one spot for one full school year, until 7th grade. really didn't even learn to read until about 6th, 7th grade."

Atila in El Dorado County, CA (from a series of Bellwether visuals)

Young people served by multiple agencies — like schools, mental health providers, child welfare agencies, and community nonprofits — experience a fragmented network of care. In fact, as Bellwether has pointed out again and again, fragmentation across care agencies results in uncoordinated, poorly communicated, and insufficient supports for some of our nation’s most vulnerable young people. And this means they are not getting the education they need and deserve.

We’ve been working on these issues, both as researchers and consultants on the ground, for more than two years. We’ve developed a unique approach to supporting local leaders as they streamline the educational supports for high-need students and break down the silos that exist between care agencies at the state and local levels.

Our approach places the education system at the center of all services, acting as the through-line for students. We do this because schools are the places where every kid shows up — education can be the one constant in the midst of chaos. Continue reading

Time to Change the “Outsider” Narrative in Education

The Outsiders

via http://www.angelfire.com/hi/SEHTheOutsiders/

Like many of you, I’ve been reading a lot about the radical changes in New Orleans’ education system since  Hurricane Katrina made landfall ten years ago. A subplot of nearly all of the stories is the “outsider” narrative. The narrative consists of two parts: 1) an influx of mostly young, white, and educated outsiders are largely responsible for the rapid academic progress that the new all-charter system produced and 2) the mostly-black native New Orleanian educators who weren’t thrust aside in a massive firing are routinely deprived of the recognition they deserve.  

There’s little to dispute on the facts underpinning this narrative.  In general, the number of young, white, educated professionals increased in New Orleans from 2000 to 2010, and the profile of the teaching workforce changed dramatically following the storm from a stable corps of experienced black locals to transient young white transplants. Additionally, thousands of Orleans Parish teachers were controversially dismissed following Katrina as a result of a scattered student population and transition to a decentralized system.

But, as Andy Rotherham points out, the reality is much more complex than a story of naive white interlopers descending upon a city to save schools from recalcitrant locals. There’s nuance in broad middle ground where most school reform actually takes place, where people debate productively, work collaboratively, and tackle new challenges that don’t have solutions.  Even so, this kind of rhetoric is pervasive in places like Newark and Memphis where dramatic interventions are being put in place. When the reality is portrayed as a simplistic outsider narrative, the “cities don’t need outsiders” response it often elicits is counterproductive to genuine efforts to ameliorate poverty and increase education opportunities for urban students.

Millions of American students are trapped in underperforming schools and the outsider narrative does nothing to help them. It’s time to change it.

Chief among the reasons to change the outsiders narrative is that young and educated professionals have been flocking to city centers nationwide for the last ten years, a trend that will likely continue. Depending on how we respond, these professionals can either be a force for good or contribute to gentrification, concentrated poverty, and inequitable economic benefits.

I wrote about this in a three part series and still believe that smart and proactive policies can take advantage of swelling numbers of young educated professionals in ways that protect local cultures, history, and jobs. The outside narrative does nothing toward this end.

Let’s move beyond the damaging dichotomy of “locals vs. outsiders”, acknowledge the demographic forces impacting our cities, and figure out ways that any willing person can contribute to improving schools.

What Bellwether’s Been Writing About Hurricane Katrina

Updated 9/2/2015, 2:50 p.m.: Members of our team have been reflecting on what Hurricane Katrina meant for students, teachers, and community members: