In The News › A fresh start for New Orleans schools: Editorial

Jan 25, 2015

Source: | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Schools

A fresh start for New Orleans schools: Editorial

The Editorial Board, | The Times-Picayune

January 25, 2015

Henderson Lewis Jr., the new superintendent hired Tuesday by the Orleans Parish School Board, has a strong resume: three years as superintendent of East Feliciana Parish schools; elected to three terms on the St. Bernard Parish School Board; founding principal post-Katrina of the Algiers Technology Academy.

His first leadership post came a few years into his teaching career, when he was named chairman of the mathematics department at Andrew Jackson High School in Chalmette.

East Feliciana doesn’t have a large school system, but neither does the Orleans Parish School Board at this point. It only operates six traditional schools and oversees 14 independent charter schools. The other 63 public schools in the city are charter schools under the oversight of the state’s Recovery School District.

But the traditional Orleans Parish system still has a vital role to play, if its leaders can get their act together. The system owns all the public school buildings in the city and is the taxing agency that revenues flow through. Its board is elected to represent the best interests of every child in city schools — including those currently operating under the recovery district.

The state recovery district wasn’t meant to be a long-term fixture in New Orleans when lawmakers gave it control over the vast majority of city schools after Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches in 2005. There is a process for schools to return to the city School Board, but most charters have been reluctant to do that.

They have good reasons.

The search that finally led to the hiring of Mr. Lewis is Exhibit A. Board members waited a year after the previous superintendent departed in 2012 to begin looking for a search firm. They finally brought in three finalists for interviews last May. But despite saying that all three were good options, board members couldn’t stop feuding to come to agreement on one.

At that point the search started over. Fortunately, there was a better result this time.

Mr. Lewis and Debbra Lindo, a school superintendent in northern California, were the finalists. Board President Seth Bloom said both had impressive qualifications, but Mr. Lewis’ local ties gave him an advantage. ““We need someone who can hit the ground running,” Mr. Bloom said.

Mr. Lewis, a New Orleans native, has dealt with post-Katrina recovery of schools in St. Bernard Parish and the Algiers Charter School Association, which is part of the Recovery School District. Those insights will be invaluable.

The solidarity in the School Board vote Tuesday night was almost miraculous given the board’s fractious history. We hope it is a sign that members will be able to work together going forward.

In the 180-day plan Mr. Lewis put together as part of the interview process, he noted the difficult work needed to restore the public’s faith in the school system.

He is right about the challenges. In addition to the ongoing recovery post-Katrina, the school system essentially has been in limbo for 2 ½ years. An interim superintendent is typically on the job no more than a few months. Stan Smith, who was hired as the system’s finance director in 2006, has been de facto superintendent since May 2012.

He has worked to improve the system’s finances but little else. The schools under the system’s umbrella are some of the highest-performing in the city — and were before Katrina. They have continued to function well during Mr. Smith’s tenure. But any broader aspirations for the school system have been on hold.

Mr. Lewis’ plan for his first 180 days on the job laid out high academic goals for a “world-class educational system.” He pledged to maximize resources for classrooms and embraced “choice for all students.” He acknowledged the need to keep communication lines open with the School Board and to build working relationships with state and city leaders and the community as a whole.

He broke down each priority in detail, including a promise to attend meetings of charter school boards, meet with the district attorney on pending litigation and figure out how to remedy concerns about the system’s tax accounting system raised in a 2013 Bureau of Governmental Research report.

Because of the fragmented nature of public education in New Orleans post-Katrina, some people have wondered whether it mattered who was in charge of the remnants of the old school system. Certainly it does, if the city is going to have the strongest possible schools.

Brian Riedlinger, who helped launch the Algiers Charter School Association to get schools open post-Katrina, put the question in perspective after the first superintendent search fell apart last summer.
“What’s the potential if we brought in someone who was really an extraordinary leader? I think we could realize things we can’t even imagine now,” he said.

Let’s hope Mr. Lewis proves to be that kind of leader.

Jan 25, 2015

Source: | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Schools

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