Transforming Schools in NOLA

One of the big reasons many high-flying charter operators are wary of taking over failed district schools is that they like to start their schools small, with just a grade or two, and then grow a grade at a time.  District leaders, by contrast, want operators to take on all the grades in a school at once.  That’s why the four “transformation schools” starting up in New Orleans are worth watching.  In each of these previously struggling schools, a charter operator is running just the lower grades as a charter school, while the upper grades continue to run separately. Each year the charters will add a grade until the entire school is a charter school.

The idea raises lots of interesting issues such as, in the words of Louisiana state board of education member, “concerns about what is happening for the children in the upper grades.”  Since the upper part of the school has no future, is there any hope of attracting a strong leader and effective teachers, and getting everyone to do the hard work needed for the students to succeed?

Maybe so, but only if we get creative.  Here’s one idea from Public Impact analyst Jacob Rosch: what if we reconceive the role of the team running the upper grades?  Unlike a traditional school staff or a charter operator, their job is not to build an institution that we expect to be around 20 years from now. Instead, they have a high-pressure short-term assignment to move the remaining kids as far and as fast as possible in the time they have left at the school. If they succeed, they move on to another phasing-out school and do the same.  Intriguing idea – but just one of many possible configurations….To fix 5,000 failing schools, maybe we need to think outside of all the boxes, including the one that says every “school” is a stable institution that must be maintained over the long-haul.

–Guestbloggers Bryan and Emily Hassel

2 Replies to “Transforming Schools in NOLA”

  1. Great idea. And, I would think, quite doable. Even equity-focused district administrators and community members ought to feel OK with this approach.

    You’re right that most school change can be improved by thoughtful “divide and conquer” approaches. We’ve used two in our work:

    The first approach involves our own survey of a staff through a participant-observer model. We break the large group into four categories in more or less the same way that marketers divide up markets into groups of “early adopters” and so on. We have four groups: Leaders, Followers, Waiters, and Non-Pariticpants. And we have a set of “strategies” we apply to each group to keep things moving and as harmonious as possible. Pairing Followers with Leaders usually works well as does leaving Waiters and Non-Participants alone for a period of time while we build momentum.

    Our second approach, which we can use concurrently, is to push a small amount of content-neutral curriculum through all classrooms. We have a cross-curricular teaching strategy guide that has been used in one way or another by teachers in all grade levels and subject areas. Nobody has to use all the strategies to be “part of the group” and everyone can find ways to change their teaching at least a little even without formal in-service training.

    I really like the way you’re always thinking about simple ways to make the job of improving schools easier and more efficient. Lord knows, this is the kind of thinking we need in order to get better results and to take more good ideas to scale.

  2. Rethinking our childrens education is never a bad idea. Figuring out new strategies for a more successful way to run our schools is a necessary. The job of improving schools is in no way simple and uncomplicated. Thank you so much for your insights. It remains to be seen if transforming schools in NOLA is a good thing.

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