Paul Vallas could have settled for a peaceful retirement. After all, the 53-year-old superintendent has earned it, having successfully managed and improved large urban school districts such as Chicago and Philadelphia. Instead, he’s taking on his toughest challenge yet, having agreed to lead New Orleans’ beleaguered, state-run Recovery School District.

In making the move, Vallas will oversee a school district that was considered one of the worst in the nation even before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the population and wreaked havoc on its schools.

Now the head of Philadelphia’s public schools, Vallas will take over as superintendent of the Recovery School District on or after July 1, Louisiana state Superintendent Paul Pastorek said.

Vallas began leading the Philadelphia district in July 2002 after holding the same position in Chicago from 1995 to 2001.

Pastorek said he chose Vallas because of his achievements in those cities, citing improvement of more than 20 percent in math and reading scores in Philadelphia between 2002 and 2006 and a program to recruit and retain teachers that resulted in fewer than a dozen vacancies in the past two years.

“Everyone I spoke to said he is in the top tier of superintendents in this country,” Pastorek said.

Vallas guaranteed he would succeed in a city that has had four school superintendents since 1997.

“I welcome the challenge of helping you all down here, because you have an opportunity to create a major school system,” Vallas said. “This isn’t patchwork. This is creating a school system from the ground up. No one has ever had quite that opportunity, and I want to be a part of it.”

Vallas brings strong leadership in building 21st-century facilities and integrating technology into instruction to a district that was decimated by the 2005 storms. As the Philadelphia schools chief, he oversaw construction of a $63 million, state-of-the-art School of the Future, which opened its doors last fall, in partnership with Microsoft Corp. He also sought to replicate that school’s model for interactive learning by creating “classrooms of the future” throughout the city’s schools.

Pastorek introduced Vallas at the Martin Luther King Jr. charter school on May 4, a freshly renovated school that’s a symbol of hope in the Lower 9th Ward. Around the neighborhood is ample evidence of Katrina’s flooding, with debris piles; sagging, abandoned homes; and vacant, overgrown lots where houses used to be.

Standing in an auditorium, a rendering of King taking up much of the wall behind him, Pastorek spoke about the racial distrust he has encountered while overseeing the Recovery School District.

“White folks tell me that the black community will reject my efforts because I’m white. Black folks tell me that the white community doesn’t care,” Pastorek said. “Most folks think it’s hopeless.”

Vallas said his biggest challenge will be improving conditions in a city where schools that survived Hurricane Katrina intact are sometimes hard to distinguish from those damaged by the storm.

“These buildings have been neglected for a long, long time,” he said.

“The [Recovery School District] must succeed in its mission to create a school system we can be proud of, and ultimately, to return these schools to local control,” said Pastorek. “Equally important, however, is the need to attract a team of outstanding people to support and enhance the talent that already exists [here]. We not only need a dynamic leader, but also greater capacity. We … need individuals who know this community, who have been living and working in this community and know education intimately. All of their efforts are going to be crucially important.”

The Recovery School District runs 22 of New Orleans’ public schools.

There are a total of 58 public schools in New Orleans now, 31 of them charter schools. Only five schools, mostly magnet schools that performed well historically, are still under control of the Orleans Parish School Board, which once ran all the city’s public schools.

New Orleans’ public school enrollment is about 26,000. The Recovery School District has struggled to open new schools and hire more teachers as students returned to New Orleans.

About 900 new students have registered in the past few months, and its 22nd school just reopened in April.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who attended Vallas’ introduction, praised Pastorek for speaking frankly about “difficult truths that we all need to think about in a profound fashion–about how we should be working together instead of dissecting each other.”

“Our schools can and will attract people back to the city, but they must be better than they were before the storms. I continue to pledge my support to the Recovery School District, and I am confident Mr. Vallas’ wisdom and experience will help to improve the educational environment for all students in the city,” Blanco said.

Katrina’s flooding hit many poor, black neighborhoods the hardest. Those areas have been slowest to rebuild, fueling anger among many blacks who fear a plot to make New Orleans more of a white city–even though some heavily flooded neighborhoods where white residents lived also have been slow to recover.

For several decades, the overwhelming majority of white students have attended private and church-run schools. That has left public schools with predominantly black enrollment from poor neighborhoods.

Students from those schools have posted some of the worst standardized test scores in the state, buildings have suffered from neglect, and audits of the school system have in recent years found financial controls lacking.

Vallas said he intends to move back to Chicago with his wife and commute to New Orleans. He said he would work on a year-to-year basis, but stay as long as he believes he is needed.

“We need real leadership at the helm of the Recovery School District,” said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La. “Paul Vallas has set school systems in Chicago and Philadelphia on the right path, and we are very lucky that he is headed to New Orleans to do the same for us. I will work with him to ensure every child in our great city has a fighting chance at an excellent education.”

Vallas replaces Robin Jarvis, who announced her resignation earlier the same week. Prior to Jarvis, a series of superintendents hired before Hurricane Katrina left in disgrace or in dissension with the city’s school board.

Morris Holmes, hired from Fort Worth, Texas, was bought out in 1997 after reports that test scores might have been inflated. Alphonse Davis resigned in 2002, and an audit shortly thereafter found the system $31 million in the red–with paychecks sent to people who had been fired, or possibly even deceased. Davis was replaced by Anthony Amato, a former leader in Hartford, Conn., who quit after two stormy years. Amato was replaced a year later by Ora Watson, who had been acting superintendent.