NOLA Schools Went From F To C Post-Katrina. Here’s What The Hard Work Of Going From C To A Looks Like

NOLA Schools Went From F to C Post-Katrina. Here’s What the Hard Work of Going From C to A Looks Like

Correction issued on October 2nd.

Numerous statistics highlight the remarkable progress made by New Orleans public schools in the 12 years since Hurricane Katrina. According to David Osborne in his new book, Reinventing America’s Schools, it is considered the most impressive effort to improve schools in U.S. history.

In 2005, when the storm compelled the closure of all public schools in the city, only 35 percent of students passed state math and reading exams. By 2014, this percentage had increased to 62.

Previously, 62 percent of students in New Orleans attended schools that were classified as failing by the state. However, by 2016, this number had dropped to 6 percent, despite the higher standards set by the state in subsequent years. As a collective, the city’s public schools climbed from receiving equivalent grades of Es and Fs to achieving a C on state report cards.

Due to the $1.8 billion invested in new infrastructure after the storm, some of the poorest children in the country now attend schools with pristine, sunlit classrooms rather than deteriorating buildings plagued by decay and infestations.

Educators and policymakers across the nation have been closely monitoring this extraordinary initiative in the hopes of replicating its success in other struggling school systems. Lessons learned from this endeavor are being implemented in classrooms thousands of miles away.

However, despite the astonishing turnaround achieved by educators and policymakers in New Orleans, it still falls short. A quarter of the city’s children, including a majority of white children, now attend private schools, making it the metro area with the highest rate of private school attendance in the country. Researchers at Tulane University have also discovered that schools remain as segregated as they were before.

Furthermore, a C grade is not something to be proud of. In 2017, only a quarter of New Orleans students scored at the "mastery" level on Louisiana’s state assessments. Additionally, only 14 schools surpassed the state average.

Out of all the schools assessed, only seven received an A on state report cards. However, three of these schools are "selective admissions" schools, which means they are not obligated to accept struggling students. Conversely, six schools received an F and 15 received a D.

Despite being the fastest-growing system in the country for many years, growth has now stagnated. Since the 2013-2014 school year, the system has been unable to improve beyond a C rating.

Ben Kleban, the founder of the New Orleans College Prep network of schools and a member of the Orleans Parish School Board, is actively involved in the process of taking control of the city’s schools back from the state Recovery School District, which has been managing the majority of schools since Hurricane Katrina. The elected school board now oversees a district that was previously plagued by corruption and incompetence a decade ago. Although some fear that the board will not hold underperforming schools accountable as strictly as state overseers, Kleban has been advocating for reunification.

To make further progress, Kleban and other supporters argue that New Orleans needs to undergo two major changes. Firstly, in order to achieve equity, the public schools must attract students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, which includes achieving racial integration. This goal is challenging to attain, particularly in the South. Secondly, schools need to adopt a radically different approach to education in order to graduate students with critical thinking skills, creativity, a drive for innovation, and tenacity. Simply adhering to the traditional "command and control" model that led the system from failure to mediocrity will not suffice.

Kleban emphasizes the need for a fundamental reconsideration of school improvement. He believes that student outcomes have reached a plateau and even declined, and as the school board with authority over all schools, they cannot continue with the same approaches as before.

In conclusion, the architects of this effort recognize that progressing from a C to an A will be significantly more difficult. The real test lies in the next decade, and Kleban expresses concern that they may not be able to achieve the desired outcomes, as the stakes are incredibly high.

‘Ghosts in the classroom’

It is Day 11 of the new school year at Bricolage Academy of New Orleans. In one of the newly painted, well-lit classrooms, fourth-grade students are participating in a morning meeting, where they engage in a show-and-tell variation.

One boy observes anxiously as his grandmother’s stuffed toy makes its way around the circle, fearing that his classmates might mishandle his prized possession.

His seatmate pulls out a CD of Prince’s 1999 and, with the utmost sincerity that only a child can express, addresses it directly, saying, "I simply love listening to you."

In its fourth year, Bricolage serves as a testing ground for new educational ideas. The founders believe that true educational equity can only be achieved when students from diverse backgrounds learn together. As a result, the school intentionally maintains a diverse student body through its enrollment policies.

Within the school, educators are developing strategies that have the potential to transform the city’s education system. Teachers focus on tailoring instruction to each individual student, emphasizing their agency and creativity. Bricolage consistently achieves high test scores, making it the top-performing open-enrollment school in the city. The demand to attend this school is high, with five applicants for every available spot.

Even something as seemingly insignificant as a hot sauce exchange holds great importance. High-performing schools understand the significance of smooth transitions between activities and classes, as they contribute to maintaining a focused and well-managed learning environment. Creating an orderly and calm classroom culture is a top priority for parents when choosing a school, often more important than test scores.

Bricolage aims to cultivate such a culture by empowering students to manage their own behavior. This approach aligns with their personalized teaching philosophy: by giving students autonomy and holding them accountable, they will achieve more than they would under strict adult control. Founder and CEO Josh Densen criticizes the common approach of overly controlling children, emphasizing the importance of setting high expectations and trusting students to meet them.

Elementary School Principal Michele Murphey adds that Bricolage takes an organic approach to fostering a positive student culture. They prioritize building social-emotional skills, trusting their students’ ability to manage themselves, their emotions, and their tools effectively.

Creating such a culture is challenging for any school, but even more so in an integrated setting like Bricolage. The "ghosts in the classroom," unconscious biases resulting from teachers’ and parents’ own experiences in parenting and education, influence the numerous daily interactions. Addressing implicit bias is important, but it is also crucial to consider how the school day is discussed at home.

As Bricolage grew from its initial class of 76 kindergartners in 2013 to 445 students in grades K-4, maintaining consistency across classrooms became increasingly difficult. The school faculty met regularly to develop strategies that would ensure consistent expectations for adult language and student behavior throughout the school, regardless of individual biases. They sought a system that all teachers could implement and focused on natural consequences rather than rewards and demerits to help students understand the implications of their choices.

They ultimately chose Responsive Classroom, an approach that connects social and emotional learning with academic achievement. This approach fosters a sense of belonging and encourages children to take risks. Consistent language is used to reinforce positive choices and acknowledge students’ strengths. While Responsive Classroom is not new and has a solid research foundation, its effectiveness relies on teachers wholeheartedly embracing the approach. The results are even stronger when the entire staff is fully committed.

One core principle of Responsive Classroom is giving students choices in how they meet specific learning goals, aligning perfectly with Bricolage’s emphasis on customized instruction.

Bricolage boasts a low staff-to-student ratio, with 45 staffers attending to around 445 students. This allows teachers to address each student’s unique needs. Kindergarten classrooms have the added benefit of a second teacher throughout the day, in addition to extra teachers during morning meetings and times when co-curricular activities are not taking place. These co-teachers, while new to Bricolage, not only assist with customizing lessons but also have an entire year to fully grasp the school’s approach.

As part of the unified enrollment system, Bricolage is required to accept new students when seats become available. Often, these incoming students are behind in their education. Teacher "interventionists" are dedicated to working with these students individually or in small groups to help them catch up and acquire any missing skills.

Founder Josh Densen views behavior plans for certain students as interventions rather than punitive measures, recognizing the importance of addressing the underlying issues causing the behavior.

Indeed, as the Tabasco sauce and the compact disc are being passed around the sharing circle of fourth-grade students, four children are engaging in their own individual activities. Three of them are completing projects or reading books that they had chosen earlier in the morning to help ease into the school day.

The fourth child, however, is making a commendable decision regarding their behavior. Despite being seated next to a classmate who is intent on distracting them, this child has chosen to get up and move to the other side of the circle. Not too long ago, this child had a tendency to become easily distracted themselves, so this is a significant triumph in self-regulation.

Bricolage: A More Diverse Approach to Education in New Orleans

Like many other teachers and leaders in the field of education, Densen came to New Orleans with a desire to contribute to the rebuilding of its schools. He started his career as a Teach for America corps member in Oakland and taught in KIPP schools. In 2009, he relocated to Louisiana to oversee the local office of the Achievement Network.

However, when he and his wife began searching for a kindergarten for their daughter, they realized that the school they envisioned for their family did not exist. Densen explains, "There was no school that offered socio-economic diversity while maintaining academic excellence."

Densen’s realization was not unique among educators in New Orleans. His neighbor, Matt Candler, moved to the city in 2006 to become the first CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, an organization focused on advocating for high-quality schools.

Unfortunately, the available alternatives were equally unappealing to white parents who did not want to enroll their children in racially homogeneous private schools or the few traditional schools under the Orleans Parish School Board that had rigorous admission requirements. This led to an acknowledgement by many white education reformers that they were promising these families a school that would cater to their children’s needs, but when it came to their own children, they faced a similar dilemma.

Candler bluntly states, "I came to New Orleans to improve the education system in New Orleans. We need to let go of the notion that solutions can only come from outside of the city. In order to go from a C grade to an A grade, we need to involve and empower the local community."

In 2010, Candler established 4.0 Schools, an incubator for educational ideas, with the goal of providing support to individuals who wish to test unconventional ideas and develop those that prove to be effective. Densen was one of the first fellows of 4.0 Schools, taking engaging teaching tools known as manipulatives to parks and festivals to interact with parents and children.

Densen reflects, "We introduced the Thinker Linkers, and children would approach us to learn. From these conversations, it became evident that people desired a school that was diverse and different from their own educational experiences."

Two years later, Bricolage Academy was founded. The word "bricolage" encompasses various meanings, one of which refers to the creation that arises from a tinkering individual, known as a "bricoleur", combining different elements. This name aptly captures the essence of a school that seeks to evoke possibilities.

Like other charter schools, enrollment at Bricolage is determined through a lottery system. However, the school has implemented a set of rules to maintain racial and socio-economic balance. Siblings of current students, children of staff members, economically disadvantaged children, and residents of the school’s designated zone are given priority.

Bricolage Academy places great emphasis on achieving racial and socio-economic diversity. In the 2015-16 academic year, 54 percent of students were white, which is significantly higher than the white population percentage of New Orleans, which stands at 31 percent. Black enrollment accounted for 39 percent, trailing behind the city’s population by approximately 28 points. Nearly half of the students were living in poverty, and 10 percent qualified for special education, with this number continuing to rise. While the percentage of students in New Orleans public schools receiving special education services varied throughout the system, it stood at 11 percent in the 2015-16 academic year.

Returning to the intentional cultivation of a culture that recognizes children as independent learners, Bricolage has achieved success. Although it is still too early for the school to have received Louisiana state report card ratings, it is anticipated that it will earn an A or B grade this year. However, the school does face an internal achievement gap. Densen explains that all demographic groups of students at the school are outperforming state averages on end-of-year exams.

However, there is still a discrepancy. While 75 percent of white children achieved mastery or above on both tests (a significantly higher percentage than the statewide rate of 45 percent), only 30 percent of black students did, compared to the state rate of 19 percent. In comparison, 38 percent of economically disadvantaged students at Bricolage were proficient, higher than the statewide rate of 25 percent, while 69 percent of their more privileged students scored at mastery or above, compared to 52 percent of their peers statewide.

Teachers and administrators have planned a number of detailed interventions in the classroom to work towards the goal of achieving 75 percent proficiency throughout the school in the near future. Another step is to ensure that 50 percent of staff, teachers, and board members are people of color. Additionally, engaging parents in conversations about bias and culture is also important.

In the meantime, the school recognizes that there is still much work to be done to address the differences in perception between classrooms and different households. To address this, Bricolage recently hosted a two-day Racial Equity Institute.

Murphey emphasizes the importance of developing empathy and addressing bullying. They believe that it is crucial to gain parent support in this area, as it would be limited in its impact without their involvement.

As Bricolage succeeds, so does the city of New Orleans. Next year, when the first cohort of kindergarteners graduate from fourth grade, Bricolage will open a middle school starting with fifth grade. Both programs will be located in the former John McDonogh High School building, which is currently undergoing a $40 million renovation.

It is interesting that an intentionally integrated school like Bricolage is housed in the former John McDonogh High School. McDonogh, a slave owner who died in 1850, tried to make amends for owning slaves by funding the education of freed blacks and establishing school systems in New Orleans and Baltimore specifically for poor white and freed black children.

However, McDonogh’s actions were not entirely benevolent. While he offered his slaves the opportunity to buy their freedom, he still profited from their labor until they saved enough money. He also used his wealth to pay for freed slaves to move to Liberia as he believed assimilation was not preferable.

Despite its complex history, McDonogh’s bequest funded the construction of over 30 schools, many of which still bear his name. Eight of these schools were still in operation during the time of the hurricane. The decision to change the names of these schools is difficult as they hold a beloved legacy despite the shameful aspects.

New Orleans’s rich racial history has been shaped by its black population and has contributed to social change. Towana Pierre-Floyd, founder and school leader of KIPP Renaissance Early College Academy, highlights the importance of Reconstruction after the Civil War in paving the way for the civil rights movement. The city witnessed protests against streetcar segregation and fights for voting rights. Additionally, the city had a significant population of black politicians who played a crucial role in shifting policies. At one point, New Orleans had the largest population of free people of color in the country.

The success of the city’s schools is closely tied to the overall well-being of the community. Due to the challenges of crime, poverty, and homelessness in New Orleans, students who were born years after Hurricane Katrina often face the effects of trauma when they come to school.

Jamar McKneely, CEO of InspireNOLA, one of the city’s most successful school networks, highlights that 30 percent of students in New Orleans live in poverty. The median income for African-American families is $25,000, and the city still faces high levels of gun violence. However, the hope is that by providing these students with transformative educational outcomes, they can become outstanding citizens in the community.

Transitioning from an "F" system to a "C" system has shown that poverty is not an inevitable destiny, according to Kleban. However, the city cannot thrive if there are two separate systems, one for the privileged and one for the less fortunate.

The goal of establishing innovative and integrated schools extends beyond racial diversity, according to the speaker. It aims to build a school system that all residents of New Orleans are invested in and willing to contribute their tax dollars and community resources to.

The speaker, Kleban, believes that if the entire public is engaged in the education system, it would lead to a higher level of investment and benefit all children. This would shift the perception of public schools from being seen as a charitable cause to being important for one’s own children and future generations.

The Louisiana state Superintendent of Education, John White, emphasizes that complacency is the biggest threat to sustained progress. He mentions the presence of a silent majority that hinders progress and highlights the necessity of maintaining honesty about the educational challenges in New Orleans.

White suggests that being creative is essential and that there is a readiness among the community to find solutions to problems without waiting for guidance from higher authorities. He mentions the issues of homelessness, transience, unemployment, and violence in New Orleans, calling for action from the local community instead of waiting for outside programs or policies to solve these problems.

Correction: It should be noted that while Bricolage Academy of New Orleans prioritizes customized instruction, it does not offer a personalized learning plan for every student. Additionally, the school has recently eliminated the second teacher for its first-grade classes.


  • adamlewis

    Adam Lewis is a 34-year-old school teacher and blogger who focuses on education. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education from the University of Central Florida and a Master of Arts degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of South Florida. Lewis has been teaching since 2004 and has taught in both public and private schools. He is currently a teacher at a private Christian school in Florida.