“We have this opportunity, and if we don’t make it work, shame on us,” said Kevin Guitterrez
Tonn, Jessica. (January 18, 2006). New Orleans Charter Network Gets Underway. Education Week.
This is truly a unique and unprecedented time for society. For the two of us, in our respective roles in public education, it’s eerily similar to the days and weeks in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. While the scale and expansiveness of COVID-19 is different than Hurricane Katrina, we find some uncomfortable similarities in the immediate situation… there are scarce resources and no playbook, and we have an urgent, moral imperative to provide for students and their families.
Beyond the immediate similarities, there are some lessons from the “re-entry to school” in New Orleans that we share below that we hope are useful for school systems now as they are planning to one day “re-open”.
This “pause” of normal course education delivery is a once in a generation opportunity. How can public school systems seize the moment as we “restart”?
Beyond the potential for learning loss during this time – there is a unique learning opportunity. Almost never do we get to completely hit the pause button on everything we are doing and then restart – and we have that opportunity now. In New Orleans 2005, there was an unplanned, traumatic pause. This pause and devastation became the opportunity to end decades of neglect of public school students and to invent a new system of schools. That system of schools today, while far from where it needs to be, has provided for significant learning beyond what could have ever been possible in the former system. SO – what is the equivalent opportunity for school systems today? It doesn’t need to be an overhaul of school governance as in New Orleans. The answer will be very different in different communities. For some states and districts, it could mean a shift toward competency-based learning from seat time. For others, it could mean a shift toward portfolios and evidence journals from grading and testing. And yet for others, it could be the time to better foster intergovernmental partnerships between schools, libraries, and park districts to create better access to the internet, creative spaces, and physical activity. Most of all, it’s important for school systems to take the unique opportunity this spring and summer to listen to their families and staff and answer that very question of how best to seize this unprecedented opportunity. Returning to things just as they were – this may not be a good option.
Focus on a culture that supports mental health for school system staff and students alike.
Creating a supportive school and district culture upon return becomes paramount to enabling learning later on. Consider what adults and children have experienced during this spring and summer – for some they will have experienced loss of loved ones, extreme poverty, traumatic home environments, and a disruption in virtually every aspect of life. During our initial years in New Orleans, our work was rooted in a trauma-informed approach with partners from Save the Children. Also recognize that this spring, teachers have made a major pivot in instructional delivery all while grappling with their own changed personal circumstances. Celebrate their work and the work of other school system heroes as part of creating a supportive culture. It is equally important to realize that some have struggled to make the shift to deliver instruction in the many unique ways that our current situation demands, so be prepared to meet them where they are.
Prepare for enrollment fluctuations and higher levels of student need.
In many districts next year, some schools will not have nearly the same number of students they did in March 2020. We already know that low-income families were among the first to lose their jobs. In the months to come, families will have to make difficult housing decisions while looking for new work. Districts that already had high mobility will likely see even higher mobility. In New Orleans, we had no idea how many students to plan for and where – literally everyday for many weeks, we had no idea how many new students we would have and at which schools or how many existing students would need to change schools because their temporary housing shifted. Imagine planning teaching and learning, special education services, transportation routes, and food service for that situation. Districts and schools will need to plan staffing, services, and budgets with a great deal of flexibility throughout the first year of “return to school” post-COVID-19. Use this spring and summer to do in-depth listening in the community to understand housing and population shifts to plan and prepare to meet these shifts alongside greater student needs.
When ready, focus on a strong curriculum.
As mentioned, we see the focus on mental health for staff and students as the priority on re-entry. Alongside this, now is the time to step back to ensure that that current curricula choices can both adjust to meet individual learning trajectories and can do so in a blended learning environment, supporting a competency-based approach. This will also require significant tiered support for educators as they make the shift. Leverage and celebrate the early adopters and take steps to support those who need it. In our school network in New Orleans, we were able to make significant academic gains (four out of five schools demonstrated high growth and the fifth experienced average growth) in the first few years. This growth came from an emphasis on coaching teachers, heavily staffing key areas such as academic intervention and using one-time disaster recovery funding to develop solid core curricula.
Education funding equity is more important than ever.
The impending economic crisis will exacerbate pre-existing inequities in our society. State budget shortfalls will impact the poorest districts the hardest in most if not all states. Equity in public funding must be considered, at the state-level and within districts themselves, as dollars get further stretched. This means sharp focus on funding at the school level relative to student needs. Since Katrina and the initial performance growth of the system of schools, New Orleans now has increased expectations for student achievement via an ambitious and appropriate accountability system that has been met by a plateau in school performance scores. Additionally, the hurricane-related funding and much of the federal and philanthropic resources that poured into New Orleans have mostly dried up, and schools are forging ahead with the customary per pupil funding which is not adequate relative to the needs of students. In our experience, this serves as a significant point of reflection because what Katrina taught us was that anything is possible in urban settings when adequate resources exist.
Governance and leadership matter now more than ever.
The relationship between school system leadership and board governance matters now more than ever. Communication, alignment, and relationships matter as schools are faced with important and unprecedented decisions. It is critical that there is no daylight between boards and leaders on how schools move forward in this environment. Equally critical is the communication that boards and leaders provide to the communities that are served. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, governance, especially in the charter school sector, was a sidecar to school leadership. Over time, through trials and errors, Orleans Parish schools have grown to better understand and respect the necessity of strong governance.
Kevin Guitterrez is the Governance Director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and served as the founding Chief Academic Officer of the Algiers Charter School Association. Carrie Stewart is co-founder and CEO of Afton Partners, an education finance consultancy, and served as the founding Chief Operating Officer of the Algiers Charter Schools Association. The Algiers Charter School Association opened 5 public schools on December 14, 2005, to over 1,300 students. The schools welcomed 3,000 more students in the immediate weeks and months that followed.