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New Orleans Releases Report on Increasing Equity in Schools

  • An inquiry into gaps in supports for students in New Orleans’ NOLA Public Schools has identified what a new report describes as “our students’ most urgent needs,” with trauma and mental health counseling the number-one concern.

    Also depicted as in critical need of attention: teacher training and attrition and uneven distribution of experienced teachers in local schools.

    The report, New Orleans School Partnership Study: What Our Students Need and How We Can Help, culminated a year-long study led by the Greater New Orleans Foundation in partnership with the New Orleans public school system and funding support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Baptist Community Ministries. The report was commissioned after the city’s charter schools were returned to the oversight of the Orleans Parish School Board in July 2018. Researchers collected data and surveyed students, parents and school and nonprofit leaders.

    The study was meant to serve as a foundation for garnering support from philanthropists, foundations and community groups to bolster services that may be lacking in what New Orleans Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. described as “this bifurcated system” of independent charter schools and a central office of limited scope.

    One clear aim of the report is to foster educational equity by raising the achievement of all students “while erasing the ways in which their academic outcomes differ” based on race, ethnicity, income, disability and native language.

    Lewis and others also acknowledged historic inequalities in the education system.

    “We want to make sure there’s equity across the district. To address that, we need to understand our needs, and understand where we are, and where gaps are with this decentralized district,” Lewis told reporters when plans for the study were announced last year.

    The report attempts to answer key questions related to student success: what are the biggest needs students face and how are they being addressed? And what can citywide organizations like foundations and community organizations do to assist?

    The report noted that the city’s “unique structure” of charter schools has affected distribution of services to students and resulted in uneven deployment of experienced teachers.

    Most funding – 98 percent, according to the report – goes directly to the charter schools that comprise the public school system in New Orleans, and those schools function autonomously. As a result, the research attempted to measure community capacity, not how individual schools allocate resources.

    The report describes a small number of  “concentrated advantage schools,” with student bodies of at least 20 percent white and where fewer than 60 percent of students are from economically disadvantaged families, with higher graduation and college enrollment rates compared with the remaining public schools, with 88 percent students black and 90 percent from economically disadvantaged families.

    The report also notes that the vast majority of white school-age children are enrolled in private schools in and around New Orleans. In total, a quarter of New Orleans students are in private schools.

    Nearly half the 72 charter schools scored a D or an F on the most recent state school performance assessment, according to the NOLA.com news site.

    The researchers found numerous significant needs to be addressed. Only half the K-8 grade students in need of out-of-school academic support such as tutoring receive such services;  social-emotional programing reaches no more than one-third of students with such needs; and just a fifth of special-education students receive extra services in the community.

    In one finding, the report noted that schools don’t consistently have bilingual staff and materials to support students and engage with parents who don’t speak English. One recommendation: create a citywide newcomer center to provide academic support and resources for English language learners.

    “The study illuminates the importance of addressing racial equity and meaningfully and authentically engaging families to ensure our children’s success in the classroom and in life,” Rhea Williams-Bishop, a regional director of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, said in a statement. She described the report as “a clarion call for us to better support all our children.”

    The report also focused on the issue of teacher training, attrition and retention. Data showed that almost half the teaching force in the New Orleans public school system had three years or less experience, compared with an 18 percent average elsewhere in Louisiana.

    The report recommends community focus on recruiting “great teachers,” ensuring teachers are “culturally competent,” and investing in school-based social workers and counselors to provide trauma-informed care, among numerous other ideas.

    Relevant to this report, the Orleans Parish School Board in January approved $9 million in funding over three years for teacher training and mentoring and to provide increased mental health and behavioral support for students affected by trauma.