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Hot Lunch: Leslie Jacobs on New Orleans reforms

Posted by May 14th, 2011.

New Orleans post-Katrina is “ground zero” for education reform, so it’s little wonder opponents of the current reform agenda cast an anxious eye toward the Crescent City, a leading Louisiana education advocate said in Denver Friday.

Leslie Jacobs, a former member of both the New Orleans school board and the Louisiana state board, now runs Educate Now! a non-profit “dedicated to effective and sustainable reform of New Orleans public schools.”

“I call them the discounters,” Jacobs said of those who criticize New Orleans’ radical move to a nearly all-charter district. They discount or explain away the gains by making a series of claims not supported by facts, she said. The truth, Jacobs said, is that the district is as poor as it was before the storm and the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder in schoolchildren poses an added layer of challenge. Despite this, she said, achievement has been on the upswing since 2007.

Podcast and PowerPoint
New Orleans school reformer Leslie Jacobs discusses radical changes to her city’s schools post-Katrina

Jacobs has been in the middle of the reform battles that began in 2003, two years before Hurricane Katrina nearly drowned New Orleans, when the state legislature created the Recovery School District to transform underperforming schools.

Once Katrina hit, destroying many schools, New Orleans created its own recovery district and assumed control of all but the city’s 16 highest-performing schools. Since 2007, when most schools finally reopened, the recovery district has been steadily moving toward making New Orleans virtually an all-charter district. And the city’s students have made marked gains in achievement.

“Everyone talks about New Orleans being the epicenter of charter schools and in many ways we are,” Jacobs said. “But this did not happen overnight. It has been a gradual conversion.” By next school year, 75 percent of the city’s 40,000-plus public school students will be attending charter schools.

Jacobs displayed a quote from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who hailed the progress New Orleans schools have made since Katrina. He called New orleans the “most improved school district in the country” and described the progress as “remarkable” and “stunning.”

Among some of the data points Jacobs shared:

  • In 2005, 62 percent of New Orleans students attended failing schools; today 17 percent attend such schools
  • In 2007, 32 percent of black students at all grade levels and tested subjects were proficient or above; today 49 percent meet that standard
  • Since 2005, the city’s dropout rate has been cut in half, to 5.7 percent in 2009-2010

Jacobs was in Denver as part of the monthly Hot Lunch speaker series, now on hiatus until the fall. The series is sponsored by the Donnell-Kay and Piton foundations, both of which are also funders of Education News Colorado.

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One Response to “Hot Lunch: Leslie Jacobs on New Orleans reforms”

  1. Jeffrey Miller says:

    I have a hard time believing anyone is taking this seriously. It is simply intellectually dishonest to attempt a before and after comparison of schools in New Orleans and not take into consideration tectonic dislocations of people and institutions. And besides, it wasn’t the schools that were failing, per se; it was more the peculiar institution of Louisiana politics that made it impossible for teachers and schools to do their job. http://edutalknola.com/2011/03/25/the-myth-of-“choice”-in-new-orleans-how-the-recovery-school-district-through-the-charter-school-movement-has-cheated-nearly-5000-new-orleans-students-out-of-access-to-real-“/

    Maybe the charter movement is moving faster than research can accommodate a changing landscape http://columbia.news21.com/2009/index01b5.html?p=2303

    I read the powerpoint above. It’s interesting that it admits for-profits and even charters are not a panacea, despite their success. Despite the continuing issues I link to above, it is indeed fascinating to see the improvement that can be made in schools when spending is vastly increased, new schools are built and almost the entire media-political system is focused with national attention on just education. Oh, and all of it precipitated not by any act of people but by a massive hurricane made all the worse by the same self-serving, corrupt, political machinations that made New Orleans’ schools so awful in the first place.

    All I would like to read is for the champions of the RSD, not to mention Arne Duncan, admit that their data and conclusions must be interpreted in the light of the sociopolitical dislocations of the disaster and that no clear conclusions about the efficacy of charter education can be drawn.

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