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March 1, 2008
Vol. 50
No. 3

Rebuilding Schools in the Big Easy

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      The urge to look for a silver lining in a storm cloud is a uniquely human trait, and nowhere is that characteristic more evident than in New Orleans, La., where residents are working together to rebuild the city. ASCD is returning to New Orleans, March 15–17, for our 2008 Annual Conference and Exhibit Show. This year's conference, "Reinventing Schools: Courageous Leadership for Positive Change," marks a new beginning for not just New Orleans, but all schools across the nation.
      In New Orleans, there is certainly hope for the future. Despite the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans educators expect to fully restore their schools and help students achieve at levels greater than those attained before the hurricane.
      Paul Vallas, the superintendent of the New Orleans Recovery School District, is leading the effort to rebuild and revitalize schools. Credited with turning around the Chicago and Philadelphia school districts, Vallas is determined to add New Orleans to his list of successes. The children, he states, deserve no less.
      Q: You became superintendent of the New Orleans Recovery School District in June 2007. What achievements have been made?
      A: We've been busy, and we're pleased with our progress. We've opened 22 new schools in the district, including our approved charter schools, with space for about 10,000 kids. This was a facilities challenge because we were determined to modernize all the classrooms in each of our schools. We passed the test: We painted all of the classrooms and outfitted them with modern furniture and Promethean boards (interactive whiteboards).
      We then provided resources that would bolster student learning. We supplied students with new textbooks, and teachers received research-based curriculum instructional models and guides. Additionally, every high school student and each teacher was issued a laptop computer.
      Of course, we know that kids can't learn if they don't feel safe, so we revamped safety and security, tapping into local communities for support. For example, we are hiring several former police officers who have deep roots in our community to serve as school resource officers. In doing so, we're dramatically expanding the number of people who can counsel students and organize clubs and school-based events.
      Our goal is to help students establish trusting relationships with persons in authority, like our resource officers. If students look up to these officers, they won't want to disappoint them by behaving inappropriately—whether at school or in the community.
      Q: You instituted a smaller student-teacher ratio. Why is this a crucial part of the recovery plan in New Orleans?
      A: That's another success story. Our teacher-student ratio is less than 1 to 20 at the elementary level and less than 1 to 25 at the high school level. Why is this important? Well, in a district in which 80 percent of the students perform at a below-basic level, teachers can become overwhelmed if we don't maintain that smaller ratio.
      Still, even if we have small class sizes, we must also have superior instructional models. Toward that end, we're restructuring what we're doing during the day. Our instructional interventions are directly tied to a student's achievement category. So, an underachieving student may receive an intervention designed to help him master a basic skill; a high-achieving student, likewise, may receive accelerated activities.
      We're convinced that this approach will produce results. Next year, in addition to differentiating the instruction, our focus during the first 10 weeks of the school year will be on strengthening language arts and mathematics proficiency. We're going to hit the ground running with intensive interventions in these basic skills.
      Q: What other changes are on the horizon?
      A: Next year, we want to increase instructional time by 250 hours a year. That means we'll have to lengthen the school day. I believe that the only way to address the needs of students that perform at a below-basic achievement level is to build more instructional time into the day.
      We also plan to make a long-term investment in early education. The best time in a child's life to address literacy is before she even gets to school—when she's 0- to 3-years-old. If we truly want to make a difference, we have to reach kids before they become Head Start eligible. We must also address the environments in which kids live. We must train new and future parents on basic parenting skills, and explain why it's important to expose children to music and vocabulary, for instance. We need to help these parents understand the link between good nutrition and learning—if families can't afford to adequately nourish their children, we need to help them find the assistance they need.
      We're also trying to build a cadre of what I call "Navy SEAL parents." These are the parents who are already involved in the education of their children. So, we're hiring them to be our crossing guards and truant aides. These parents will staff the parent-community centers we plan to establish in all of our schools. Most importantly, these Navy SEAL parents will reach out to those less-engaged families. They'll make visits to homes when parents haven't responded to calls from their children's teachers, for example.
      Q: When you entered education, did you expect to become a crusader for reform in troubled school districts?
      A: No. Although, I was a teacher in the '70s, I envisioned myself working for the State Department, becoming a foreign diplomat. Still, in the public service jobs I held prior to becoming the superintendent for the Chicago Public School District, I always had an opportunity to weigh in on public policy, which included education policy. Throughout my career, I'd always hoped to make a difference as a public servant—and I hope to continue making a difference.

      What is the New Orleans Recovery School District?

      The New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD) is a special state school district administered by the Louisiana Department of Education. Created in 2003, the RSD is dedicated to turning underperforming schools into successful schools. Five schools in New Orleans were transferred to the RSD before Hurricane Katrina. As a result of legislation passed in November 2005, another 107 low-performing schools in New Orleans were transferred to the RSD. For more information, visitwww.whyyouteach.org.

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