Sunday, April 17, 2011

New Orleans now leads US in charter schools

Vallas bowing out with solid marks 
Even his critics recognize strides in N.O. schools 

By Cindy Chang 
Times-Picayune Staff writer 

When Paul Vallas arrived in New Orleans in July 2007, the schools were still in crisis mode. Thousands of children had yet to return to the city as families rebuilt homes and lives shattered by Hurricane Katrina. Delivering the basics -- textbooks, hot lunches, a teacher for every classroom -- to those who were back was a daily struggle. 

Adding to the challenge, the old school system, considered one of the worst in the country, had been scrapped in favor of a free-market model never before attempted on so extensive a scale. As head of the state-run Recovery School District, Vallas took charge of all but the city's highest- performing schools, with free rein to do whatever he needed to improve them. 

Nearly four years later, Vallas is leaving to remake schools in earthquake-damaged Haiti and Chile, having become something of a disaster recovery expert as well as a reputed turnaround specialist for urban school districts. His successor, John White, starts next month. 

A sometimes polarizing figure, Vallas navigated New Orleans' treacherous racial politics as he closed traditional schools, opened charter schools and extolled the virtues of school choice. Among other things, he was criticized for a lack of transparency, inattention to the most disadvantaged students, and slow progress at the schools he directly controlled. 

But in the final accounting, even his critics acknowledge that Vallas, 57, has accomplished what he set out to do. Nearly three-quarters of New Orleans public schools are now independently run charters, "a system of schools, not a school system," as Vallas is fond of saying. Test scores have improved rapidly during his tenure, and he was among the prime movers in obtaining a $1.8 billion FEMA settlement to fund a sweeping school reconstruction plan. 

All but the most committed nostalgists agree that, despite the growing pains, the schools have risen above their abysmal pre-Katrina state. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other national figures have praised New Orleans as a model for school reform. 

"I do think he was the right person at the right time," said Nash Molpus Crews, associate director of Tulane's Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, who has pinpointed problem areas, such as high schools, where Vallas is underachieving. "He really was able to rebuild a system of schools from the bottom up and lay the groundwork for all of our schools to have academic success ... Vallas started us on the right path, and we just need to continue to make the academic gains that have already been started." 

'Rock star' superintendent

Vallas' status as one of the country's few "rock star" superintendents was already cemented by his work in Chicago and Philadelphia, where he became a darling of the pro-charter reform movement. He is credited with attracting national talent, as well as national philanthropic money, to post- Katrina New Orleans. 

Margaret Raymond, a Stanford University researcher who analyzes charter school effectiveness, recently called New Orleans the country's "second strongest charter sector" after New York. She pointed to the city's diverse range of charter operators, which includes national brands like KIPP as well as homegrown entities. 

One of Vallas' most vocal critics, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Louella Givens, said the superintendent's outsized energy and ambitions have inspired everyone, including his foes, to raise the level of their games. Overall, Givens said, "Paul brought a lot of excitement to New Orleans. 

"He had a positive effect on the education community. Even the people who didn't like him, they
 were energized to make sure their programs were working better," Givens said. 

Charter school leaders have consistently praised Vallas for leaving them to their own devices, an autonomy they believe is a condition for achieving superior academic results. Under Vallas' watch, the proportion of failing schools in New Orleans dropped from 65 percent in 2007-08 to about 35 percent last year. 

Late last year, after state education officials approved a plan to gradually return the New Orleans schools to the control of a local school board, many charter schools expressed reluctance to leave the Recovery School District. 

He's done a fantastic job in empowering good people who are doing what's right for kids, who truly have the best interests of kids in mind," said Gary Robichaux, executive director of the ReNEW charter school network and a former RSD administrator under Vallas. "Being supportive and progressive-minded about the charter system -- a majority of superintendents fight that." 

hile the general direction of reform was already set by state officials, Vallas was charged with executing that vision, creating something the nation had never seen before: a majority-charter school district. In the remaining schools under his control, Vallas introduced a longer school day and longer school year, as well as programs such as "response to intervention," which provides individualized attention to low-performing students. 

"I think he's accomplished, frankly, the unthinkable. I don't think anybody thought that New Orleans would make the achievement gains we've made," said Vallas' boss, State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek.

"Any time you've got a risk-taker like Paul, you're going to have
 some dropped passes. But I think those pale in comparison to the immense accomplishments." 

Paul Hill, director of the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education, praised Vallas for getting the schools up and running after Katrina, attracting good talent both local and national, and creating a flexible structure that can adapt to changing circumstances. 

"Five years from now, the schools might be different, but the attitude, the striving to do something different -- that's what his real legacy is," Hill said. 
Student gains uneven 

As more and more schools converted to charters, Vallas dealt with an unprecedented set of side effects that were to some extent inevitable. Citywide enrollment, where students could theoretically attend almost any school in the city, created opportunities for some, but also meant that the most vulnerable students fell further behind. 

"I don't care who you are, if you decentralize that rapidly and that extensively, there are going to be communication problems, there are going to be, obviously, enrollment issues and lack ofoverall parental awareness around how the system works. Those things take time," said Andre Perry, associate dean of the University of New Orleans' education school and CEO of the UNO- Capital One charter school network. 

Vallas sometimes did not help matters when he reacted to criticism with shrill defensiveness, rattling off his achievements as an answer. 

With no locally elected school board to answer to, the two Pauls -- Vallas and Pastorek -- made executive decisions that sometimes drew surprise and anger. An idea man who talks a mile a minute, Vallas sometimes forgot, or neglected to follow through on, his statements. 

"He has on a regular basis promised the same thing to two different people," said parent advocate Karran Harper Royal. "He's caused a lot of dissension within the community." 

The unevenness of student educational gains is perhaps Vallas' most troubling legacy -- and one he is leaving for his successor to fully remedy. In a decentralized system where each charter school controls its own enrollment, special-needs students have had difficulty finding schools equipped to serve them. Students whose families lack the savvy to take advantage of school choice, or who sign up late, end up at the worst schools. The RSD directly run schools, particularly the high schools, continue to lag far behind in academic performance as they wait to be converted to charters. 

A plan to centralize the enrollment process is under development.

Superintendent Vallas did what he came here to do. He was a turnaround agent," said Luis Miron, director of Loyola University's Institute for Quality and Equity in Public Education. "On balance, he improved student achievement and he used resources to maximum advantage. But equity issues are still out there. The lower one-third of students are not achieving, especially at the high school level. Special needs is still kind of the Achilles heel of the whole reform initiative." 

Saw himself as catalyst

From the beginning, Vallas was clear that he would move to a new challenge once the situation in New Orleans had stabilized. While RSD superintendent, he twice flirted with running for political office in his native Illinois. 

His place will be taken by the 35-year-old White, a philosophically aligned but much younger education executive who was a deputy chancellor in the New York City schools. 

"I've always viewed my role here as a catalyst, because the school reform ingredients were here," Vallas said. "It was my job to take full advantage of them ... to remove the obstacles and to allow the talent that existed within the city, as well as the talent that was coming in from outside the city, to really blossom." 
. . . . . . . 
Cindy Chang can be reached at or 504.826.3386. 
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