New Orleans schools chief Paul Vallas recently passed his first major test when fourth and eighth graders in the city’s public schools posted significantly higher scores on the state exam–and his plans for using technology to help spur achievement might lead to even further gains.
The superintendent of a 33-school district that includes many of New Orleans’ historically worst-performing schools has received mostly positive reviews after his first year on the job, but many challenges remain. Too many students continue to fail or not show up for classes, there is limited funding for dilapidated buildings, and the district needs to retain high-quality teachers.
Vallas, 54, was known as a hard-driving reformer in Chicago and Philadelphia. After a year as superintendent of the Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans, Vallas has lengthened school days, made class sizes smaller, and boosted students’ access to classroom technology. He’s also helping to create schools that revolve around themes such as the arts and technology.
RSD offers open enrollment at all schools, a district spokeswoman said–meaning students can attend any school in the district.
This fall, RSD is introducing six "career" academies as part of a high school redesign initiative. The academies will open with the freshman class and then grow by a grade level each year.
One such career academy is New Tech New Orleans at Joseph S. Clark High School, which will introduce students to careers in software and game design, database administration, and desktop publishing.
RSD also is launching the Academy of Engineering, Math, Science, and Technology at Sarah T. Reed High School. This school will be turned into a "multiplex" of distinct, small learning communities focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
In addition, two National Academy Foundation programs are in the works: an Academy of Information Technology and an Academy of Engineering. Over time, students in those programs will take elective courses in science, engineering, information technology, and web development.
High school students throughout the district are getting laptop computers to encourage working at home. During the 2007-08 school year, RSD piloted a program using laptop appliances from Epic Learning to deliver supplemental curriculum.
Students used the machines to study on their own, and district officials say feedback on the program generally was positive. The program will be expanded to all high school classrooms this fall.
The district also will issue Epic laptops to its eighth graders, and if they qualify, they could begin taking high school courses for credit.
The Epic laptops and supplemental curriculum were part of Vallas’ classroom modernization initiative, which included the installation of school networks, 496 Promethean interactive whiteboards in core subject classrooms in grades 4-12, and approximately 1,500 teacher laptops.
Vallas dismisses the suggestion that his district is a "last resort," seeing it instead as an incubator for innovation.
Vallas and Paul Pastorek, the state’s superintendent of education, see the Recovery School District "as the research and development arm of the Louisiana Department of Education," said Siona LaFrance, RSD’s communications director.
RSD was created in 2003 to help improve underperforming schools, and legislation that took effect after Hurricane Katrina placed nearly all New Orleans public schools into the district.
Last year, the district saw across-the-board improvement in test scores and a jump in graduation rates. According to LaFrance, both Vallas and Pastorek think the reforms being introduced at RSD–including standardized curriculum, classroom modernization, and teacher professional development–can serve as a model for the entire state.
This fall, RSD will focus its attention on stability and integration, LaFrance said.
Officials will monitor the district’s network proactively and remotely using HP OpenView software, she said. RSD also is boosting the wireless internet capacity at its high schools, so all students can be online at the same time.
In addition, the Epic laptop appliances will be unlocked, so students can use them for tasks other than accessing Epic’s curriculum. Staff members at each school will be available to focus on integrating technology into instruction, and parents will be given access to student grades, schedules, and discipline information online. A digital management system will deliver online professional development for RSD teachers.
Despite these improvements, much work remains to be done in a city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
Affordable housing for teachers is tough to find, and families have been returning to the city with children who, in some cases, hadn’t been in school since Katrina hit in August 2005. Most students in the district are at least two years behind in reading and math.
Difficult decisions about reopening, rebuilding, or demolishing storm-damaged schools have evoked emotional responses from neighborhood groups.
There are political and organizational hurdles, too.
The public school system is fractured. A handful of the city’s best-performing schools are run by a local board not under Vallas’ control. Private organizations run a few dozen others as charter schools.
Money is limited. The district’s $260 million operating budget has no cash reserve, and decrepit school buildings need an estimated $1 billion for renovations.
And in a year of critical decisions for Vallas, one has nothing to do with the school system. He says he’s open to another run for governor of Illinois after his contract expires in July 2009.
That’s yet another worry for a city whose public school system has had a revolving door of nine superintendents over a decade before Katrina.
"We’ve had many leaders who have backed stability and effectiveness, and they have come and gone, and, often, we throw the baby out with the bath water," said Angela Daliet, executive director of the parent and community organization Save Our Schools.
Vallas’ playbook includes benchmarks for progress and marketing his program to church and community groups.
In 1995, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley named Vallas, then his budget director, to lead the city’s failing, financially mismanaged schools. Dismal test scores improved, new schools were built, and a degree of faith was restored.
"People who had made their careers off the system tended not to like him," said Greg Richmond, who worked with Vallas in Chicago. "The general public loved him."
Vallas, a Democrat, used his success as a springboard to a run for governor of Illinois in 2002. He lost the party nomination and moved to Philadelphia.
There, test scores improved–but critics charged that not enough progress had been made and tension over a multimillion-dollar budget deficit boiled over.
Vallas has a reputation as a demanding boss. In New Orleans, he is often seen with his shirt sleeves rolled up and working a BlackBerry when not scribbling on a notepad. During the school year he worked most weekends, but about once a month he drove more than 900 miles to visit his family in Chicago.
He has the support of Pastorek, and lots of new teachers to mold.
One is Jeffrey Berman.
Berman said he didn’t realize what he was getting into when he was assigned this past school year to a "transitional school" that serves eighth graders as old as 17.
"I can obviously handle it at this point," he said, "and, yeah, I don’t want to be another person to give up on these children."
That’s the attitude Vallas wants.
The local teachers’ union believes the district is better off but worries that not enough attention is being placed on behavioral problems and staff retention.
Vallas, who makes $252,000 a year, says he plans to stay "as long as I feel I’m making a difference and having success."
If he leaves when his contract expires, it would be far short of the six years he spent in Chicago and five in Philadelphia.
"People continue to innovate, and hopefully they’ll continue to build on what you left," Vallas said.