The coronavirus pandemic has necessitated a dramatic shift in public education that could finally force New Orleans leaders to address the myriad inequities that have robbed our most vulnerable children of reaching their full potential. It will take outside-the-box forward thinkers to build a post-COVID educational system that focuses on what will become the new normal — personalized learning beyond the traditional school classroom.
Our elected and charter officials as well as parents and civic and business leaders must come together with a clear vision to meet these expanded education goals. School systems without fund reserves could be armed with fewer financial resources as budgets take a hit from projected virus-related reductions in sales and ad valorem taxes, which currently make up a large portion of education funding.
During this pandemic one group of New Orleans learners have faced the greatest challenges — the 35,000-plus students from disadvantaged households who make up 83% of charter school students in Orleans Parish.
While the lucky few are enrolled in prestigious schools like Lusher and Ben Franklin, the vast majority attend schools that have consistently been rated below average. These students were already getting an inferior education before COVID-19, and it’s only gotten worse. These are the same students who heavily depend on the free breakfast and lunch schools provide.
When NOLA Public Schools suddenly closed, anxiety gripped parents — especially those who are essential workers barely eking out a living. They voiced concerns about how their children would receive nourishment without the school-provided meals. How they would they learn without a computer, home internet or tech-savvy family members to help them connect with the online learning platforms. How would they adapt to the unusual classroom environment without a teacher they could physically touch. How they as overworked parents could give their children extra educational support.
While NOLA Schools quickly dedicated million to acquire 10,000 laptops and 8,000 hot spots, additional equipment is probably still needed. It also took a month to get the laptops programmed and everything delivered. Teachers, too, had to figure out how to make online classes meaningful. More than 500,000 meals have already been made available to qualifying students, with more expected in coming weeks.
Yet many students from disadvantaged households are grieving the loss of friends and the sense of community their schools provided. For one reason or another, they do not participate in the online classes and are probably not prepared to advance to the next grade. They need mental health services, which the Orleans Parish School Board wants to provide. It is too early to tell whether summer school would be an option, if the next school year would start earlier than normal or even when old-school classroom learning might return.
While the school year will technically be over in a few weeks, planning for the future must move at a fast pace. The Orleans Parish School Board hired Dr. Henderson Lewis as superintendent because they wanted to transition to an all-charter school system. At that time most parents supported an all-charter system because they wanted more control over their children’s education. Some charters have done an excellent job of educating students; others clearly have not. Actually, the OPSB should consider taking over the worst-performing schools until student achievement is back on track.
Dr. Lewis built a large central office staff that includes many younger professionals who earned academic degrees from prestigious institutions but have less hands-on experience. Together they should be able to produce a prospective framework for the future that includes the latest post-COVID thinking.
It would then be the responsibility of the OPSB members working in concert with their charter school operators to seek real public input through a series of Zoom presentations and small group meetings around the city. Each School Board member could create a district council made up of the charter schools management and parents. Appropriately scaled in-person meetings as well as surveys could be used to communicate important information.
Beyond the monthly board meetings, which are now virtual, there must be a stronger relationship among parents, charter schools and their elected board leaders. At a time when the schools are in such crisis, it is disappointing that many parents are currently not better able to participate in the board meeting process and that charter school operators also feel locked out.
The post-COVID public school model may eventually rely primarily on distance learning. To succeed in life, many of our most academically vulnerable students will still need the one-on-one assistance that either a teacher, aide or tutor could provide. While physical school buildings might still exist, schools could become the center of their communities where people of all ages can meet and learn together.
From this shared environment, community-based tutors could naturally emerge to donate their time, knowledge and experience. COVID-19 is bringing all of us closer together. It should do that for our schools as well.
The Orleans Parish School Board was correct in not renewing Dr. Lewis’ contract almost a year earlier than its expiration. Does Dr. Lewis deserve a renewal? He has already served longer than the average superintendent. While Lewis’ upcoming performance evaluation will provide important information on his successes and failures, his ultimate test still lies ahead. What will New Orleans schools look like in the fall and how will NOLA Schools successfully educate those students now pushed even further behind?
Some political observers believe that former Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard is waiting in the wings to replace Lewis. Currently the CEO of New School for New Orleans, Dobard recently penned a guest column in Education Week where he laid out his thoughts on lessons learned post-Katrina that are relevant now. What some might remember best about Dobard’s RSD tenure is that academic achievement of New Orleans students generally did not improve. The low-performing schools the RSD took over after Katrina were mostly the same low-performing schools that returned to the OPSB.
As School Board members prepare to re-evaluate Dr. Lewis, perhaps they should consider their own re-evaluation. Public sentiment has been turning against charter schools even before COVID-19 brought traditional learning to an abrupt halt.
School Board elections will be held this fall. Because the new board will not only select a new superintendent but execute a largely unknown post-COVID model for future learning, this will be the most important election in decades. With a potential lack of traditional campaigning and tough fundraising in a period of economic downturn, as well as a possible fall COVID-19 return, it will be easier for incumbents to get re-elected.
That doesn’t mean well-positioned grassroots neighborhood leaders or previous legislative candidates with a few dollars to spend shouldn’t qualify. Tough times like these require extraordinary leaders because all our students deserve the best education possible.
In full disclosure, I began my career as a public school teacher and later provided consulting services to the Orleans Parish School Board.
Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Councilman Jared Brossett, City Councilwoman-at-large Helena Moreno, Foster Campbell, former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former City Councilwomen Stacy Head and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. She is a member of the Democratic Parish Executive Committee. Columbus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.