A Miracle in New Orleans Schools? Students Say, Not Quite

Students of color concerned about New Orleans' inequitable school reforms organized to have their voices heard, and the district listened.

By Julianne Hing Nov 09, 2011

Thanks to an aggressive post-Katrina school reform movement, New Orleans is currently experiencing nothing short of an education miracle. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called the charter-school-driven overhauls "stunning" and "remarkable." Not so fast, says Linda Tran, a recent New Orleans high school graduate who, together with a progressive youth group released a report in September detailing local students’ concerns with schools.

"From my own experiences, there was a lot I had to deal with," Tran said. Over 450 students from six New Orleans schools spoke up about a range of difficulties at their schools for the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans’ report on the state of the city’s schools six years on from Katrina. The survey, the first of its kind, was crafted out of 50 interviews with New Orleans students whose experiences provide a stark contrast to the popular narrative about New Orleans’ rapid reforms, and test score growth.

"Many people … believe that the charter school system is helping out and it’s better," said Paul Sampson, who graduated from Chalmette High School in 2009, "and I’m not saying it’s not, but students have a different story."

Now, district officials are listening to what students have to say. In the two months since the report was released, the district has hired two bilingual staffers–one who speaks Vietnamese and another who speaks Spanish–to staff its Family Information Centers, confirmed Gabriela Fighetti, who heads up the centers. And last week, the district agreed to expand the student survey districtwide. New Orleans’ Recovery School District is forming a Student Task Force that will adopt the research methodology and youth-driven process of the VAYLA report to put together a Student’s Guide to Schools, said Jacob Cohen, the assistant director of VAYLA.

"I think overall, one of the take homes of this process is that there has been some progress," said Cohen, "but we’re concerned that it’s been uneven and not necessarily equitable. Progress hasn’t reached all students."

Students who responded to the survey said they aren’t receiving textbooks or are in classes where there are never enough textbooks for students to take home. A full 80 percent of respondents at one school said they couldn’t take their textbooks home, and more than half said that few of their classes provided any textbooks in schools.

Still others said that the district was woefully ill-equipped to deal with immigrant families’ language needs. Many students said basic school conditions made getting an education difficult. Bathrooms in some schools are in terrible condition–more than 70 percent of respondents said they couldn’t use the restrooms in their schools–and teachers aren’t prepared for handling classrooms of teens. Still more students said their parents had no idea how to navigate the district’s new choice-driven model, where parents theoretically are allowed to choose the schools their students go to.

The responses varied deeply, depending on who ran which schools and the student demographics of each of them.

"At this one low-performing high-poverty school that’s entirely students of color, students reported having two substitute teachers a week," Cohen said, adding that nearly a third of students said they had anywhere from three to six substitute teachers a week. "This is in contrast to a high-performing charter school with significant high-income white population, where the vast majority didn’t have a single sub in front of the classroom."

In the wake of Katrina, the state passed a sweeping law that set aside the lowest performing schools in New Orleans to be run independent of the Orleans Parish School Board so that in something of a flip from the typical divisions, the schools that remained directly run by OPSB were schools that were already stable, high-performing schools before the storm. The creation of the Recovery School District ushered in a new era in New Orleans education, and test scores have indeed been on the rise. Today, 78 percent of New Orleans students are enrolled in a charter school, according to Educate Now!, a New Orleans-based reform organization. Still, some RSD-run schools have not been handed over to charter schools yet.

"To some extent," Cohen said, the extent of the success of those charter schools is contingent on the failure of these traditional schools, where the students with the highest needs are concentrated. It’s there that there are the greatest percentages of [students designated] English Language Learners, and special needs, and the greatest percentages of homeless and high poverty students."

New Orleans’ aggressive reforms, which were intended to address the district’s low test score rankings as well as deal with a persistent achievement gap, seem to have only reinscribed the preexisting inequities.

It’s with the hope of giving the broad range of student experiences a voice that VAYLA embarked on its student survey. Now that the district has agreed to adopt the student survey model to get the pulse of its students and better disseminate information to parents, Cohen hopes that the survey will be a way to empower students to educate each other, and demand the kinds of changes they want to see in their schools.

"We did the research in the hopes that this data could help the future of students’ education," Sampson said.

And students are not done yet. Sampson said they’re working collaboratively with the district on the student survey project, but are also going to keep the pressure on the district to address the rest of their concerns.