New Orleans Schools Can’t Unify Alone

The post below is by guest blogger, Kira Orange Jones.

The independent charter schools within the Louisiana’s Recovery School District are transferring to the auspices of the Orleans Parish School Board to form a one-of-a-kind district comprised of autonomous schools. OPSB and RSD named this process NOLA schools unification. OPSB and RSD are tasked with transferring more than 50 charter schools to OPSB by July 1, 2018. In the process New Orleans has an opportunity to do something even more distinctive: create the most democratic school system in the nation.

But that lofty goal requires significantly more political participation than what district leaders are seeing. If families, community members and civic leaders don’t participate more and if school leaders and elected officials can’t get our stakeholders to contribute, then we will continue the longstanding New Orleans legacy of an elite few doing earnest work to determine the educational fate of many.

There is still hope we can unify more than a district; we can unify a fractured community.

The night before my first election, City of Love Full Gospel Church asked my mother and me to come to prayer service so they could pray for me. I gladly accepted the invitation as anxiety from the race pushed my personal limits. Not soon after we entered the church, the pastor asked us to come to the front of the sanctuary. One by one, parishioners (mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandparents of the children I would soon be tasked with serving) gathered around us, placing their hands on our backs and shoulders. Hundreds prayed for me that day. They prayed that I would have the strength and fortitude to serve and help our community’s children, their children, succeed. They literally laid their hands and trust upon me.

I’ve never forgotten that feeling of connection – spiritually or politically. Politically it serves as a metaphor of what is required to build a quality school system. Direct engagement with families, children and voters raises support and accountability to another level.

I have been following unification discussions across the city closely and the elections even more so. In May, the Louisiana legislature passed Act 91, which mandates the unification of New Orleans autonomous charter schools under the umbrella of the New Orleans Public School Board (OPSB). Unification meetings and public forums commenced soon thereafter. A series of public forums just completed in the midst of a school board election.

Unification is not just about schools. The transfer means that hundreds of charter board members from dozens of boards will engage with thousands of families in a conversation about governance in the next two years. Our highly democratic system of schools can take it to the next level.

I was expecting rigorous debate from all corners of our city. Unfortunately, few people have yet to attend the unification meetings. In a city known for its brilliant sounds and noise of resistance, the political silence has been notable. For example, four of seven OPSB seats were won before the election. Two were elected days after their campaigns kicked off without a real race. Another ended with a disqualification. Consequently, unification will not be a topic of debate among all aspirant board members this fall.

I extend my sincere congratulations to and have every confidence in our newly elected school board members. Based on what I already know of their leadership and track records, we may be poised to already have the best board we’ve seen in New Orleans in decades,  if not ever. Moving forward, it’s critical that their leadership help build a bridge between governance and the community here in New Orleans, even without the election process. I know firsthand that there is an impenetrable bond between the public and their elected officials that comes with earning public trust. As an elected leader myself, I’ve done that through the campaign trail—forums, debates, planning sessions, knocking on doors—and elected service over the years. As schools return to OPSB, it’s critically important for all of us as elected officials to create and maintain that bond.

Some say a lack of involvement means “the public” is happy with where education has landed. But from the day I left that church I realized that great educational systems and schools become even better with greater involvement.

We must do better as a community. The passage of Act 91 marks a decade of rapid academic growth.  But I fear that growth will taper along with civic participation. There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to walk fast, walk alone; but if you want to walk far, walk together.”

With civic participation, we can create something not just structurally unique. We can create something politically powerful.

However, we must walk together.

Kira Orange Jones holds a B.A. from Wesleyan University, a M.Ed. in School Leadership from Harvard University, and is a second term elected member of the statewide education policy making board, the Louisiana Board of Elementary & Secondary Education, representing New Orleans and five other parishes. Kira also sits on the national leadership committee of EdLoc (Education Leaders of Color), an organization comprised of leaders of color committed to ‘third way’ values in education and sits on the New Orleans advisory board of Education Pioneers. Most recently, Kira was recognized by Louisiana Life Magazine as a Louisianan of the Year and in 2015 was named to Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.

An American President’s Voice Matters in Education, Local Leadership Matters More

The post below is by guest blogger, Kira Orange Jones. 

On the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, I spoke at Education Reform Now’s annual Camp Philos, which “convenes an influential group of stakeholders in the education reform movement.” As publicized, some of the most powerful educators, elected officials and thought leaders in education expressed their beliefs on what direction the country should take. But on the actual convention stage, there was very little mention of K-12 education.

As an elected member of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the entity charged with overseeing education in the state, I know the tone set by our next president can put wind at the back of our board’s sails. Like many others, I initially became concerned that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton didn’t offer a comprehensive vision for K-12 education. But before the last red, white and blue streamers were swept away, I became optimistic. The president should provide wind for our sails, but parents, students and local officials should steer the ship.

We must make our voices loud enough for the next president to hear the direction our states will take.

President Barak Obama’s administration put forth an ambitious education agenda the past eight years and pushed for things we all can agree to: great schools that serve all kids, quality teachers and more options for families.

But we can’t forget who moved President Obama to act: we did. Parents of all races, socioeconomic levels as well as of both parties demanded change. We broke through the partisan politics of the past to create a student-centered agenda.

Presidents will change. And the role of the federal government will change along with it. But calls for quality schools should remain constant. Certainly, the bully pulpit of the presidency matters mightily. But the tone set by local leaders matters more. We need a national leader who will listen.

Right now Clinton is hearing the same old tired either/or debates: choice or no choice, accountability or no accountability. But those who work on state boards know that we are always looking for the best way to offer quality options and hold ourselves accountable for setting the highest standards for our children. I believe the passage of Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) allows state leaders to continue that work.

What our presidential candidates are not saying shouldn’t add to the political gridlock that keeps us from doing the work that our children, families and communities need. Bemoaning what Clinton or Trump isn’t saying about education isn’t solving the education problems of the day.

After attending Philos, I became even more resolved in what I need to do – advocate on behalf of the children and families of my district in Louisiana. I will continue to push for high standards, quality schools and effective teachers. While we all would certainly welcome one, I don’t need a speech from a presidential candidate as much as I need my constituents’ voices in order to reach our goals.

Kira Orange Jones holds a B.A. from Wesleyan University, a M.Ed. in School Leadership from Harvard University, and is a second term elected member of the statewide education policy making board, the Louisiana Board of Elementary & Secondary Education, representing New Orleans and five other parishes. Kira also sits on the national leadership committee of EdLoc (Education Leaders of Color), an organization comprised of leaders of color committed to ‘third way’ values in education and sits on the New Orleans advisory board of Education Pioneers. Most recently, Kira was recognized by Louisiana Life Magazine as a Louisianan of the Year and in 2015 was named to Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.

EdNavigator Insight #5: No “Theory of Change” Will Work If It Doesn’t Work for Families

This week we’re sharing some of the insights we’ve gained through our work at EdNavigator, helping families with schools in New Orleans over the past year. Here’s what we’ve covered so far:

Insight #5: No “theory of change” will work if it doesn’t work for families

We started this week telling you about Maria and her daughter, to illustrate what a little help can do for a family. We’ll end by sharing another parent’s story. We’ll call her Kendra.

Like Maria, Kendra is a housekeeper at a downtown New Orleans hotel, and her employer provides her with support from EdNavigator as a benefit. One day this past school year, she visited the school where her daughter was a fourth grade student.  Kendra was dropping off a note asking her daughter’s homeroom teacher to call her so she could set up a meeting to discuss her daughter’s progress.  Her daughter was two grade levels behind in reading.  Prior to dropping off the note, Kendra had called the school four times to leave messages.  None of the calls had been returned. The teacher didn’t respond to the note either.

This may sound like nothing more than the story of a school that’s unresponsive to parents, the equivalent of a bad customer service experience. But for us, it’s more than that. To us, it shows that theories of how to improve our educational system won’t matter and won’t lead to change unless they work for families on a day-to-day basis.  This is the most important thing we’ve learned at EdNavigator so far.

Let us explain. If you read Eduwonk, you are probably well-versed in the various arguments related to New Orleans schools.  Some people argue the post-Katrina choice-based system has led to large, sustained improvements in performance and should become a model for the rest of the country.  Others say it’s still largely a low performing system and the process of creating it profoundly disrupted its workforce and community.

To be honest with you, most parents don’t care about that stuff.  They really don’t.  Nor do they care about Finland or Race to the Top.  Do you know what they care about?  They care whether schools return their phone calls when they are concerned about their kids.  They care whether schools are well run and welcoming.  They care about their kids’ results and growth, and whether their local schools are part of the solution for their family or yet another problem.  And they make that decision based on lived experience.

Kendra’s story provides a kind of Rorschach test.  Folks with concerns about the changes in New Orleans might immediately assume Kendra’s daughter attends a charter school and that the lack of school responsiveness proves the theory that charters are disengaged from families.

But the school in this case isn’t a charter.  It’s not even in Orleans Parish.  It’s a traditional school in a parish outside the city.  Kendra moved there hoping her daughter would get a better education than she had herself.  So far, she’s been wholly disappointed.

Upon hearing this, charter school supporters might feel that the story has vindicated their views on the post-Katrina reforms.  But that’s not the case either.  You see, before Kendra moved to where she lives now, she lived in Orleans Parish, and her daughter – the one who is two grade levels behind in reading – attended two different Orleans Parish charter schools. Kendra disliked them so much, she sacrificed significantly to leave the city.

Kendra works hard and is never late to her job, despite her commute.  She is a great mom to two girls.  She takes their education very seriously.  But the system is not working for her, whether we are talking about the “new” system or the “old” one.

Parents like Kendra don’t have time for competing theories of educational change.  This is likely why neither education reformers nor critics of education reform can claim much of a constituency in low income communities.  There aren’t that many grassroots rallies springing up in major cities, calling for the replication of the New Orleans system.  Nor do you see the opt-out movement making inroads to recruit families of color to boycott tests.  Those debates get outsized attention among those of us in the wonk-sphere.  But they aren’t what animate families.

All of us, no matter what set of educational priorities we subscribe to, ought to care a lot more about what happens for families when our favorite ideas are implemented. Because it’s a very mixed bag out there, folks.   At the moment, nobody has a monopoly on providing excellent experiences on the ground.  We theorists of all stripes have an awfully long way to go.

This year, our EdNavigator families have dealt with obstacles large and small, from being denied access to their children’s records to special education services that were never delivered to late buses that cost a parent wages because he clocks out from work every day to pick up his daughters at their stop.  Some of these issues were at traditional schools.  Some were at charter schools.  All of them were frustrating for families.

We continue to spend some of our time in the policy world and some of it on direct service.  The juxtaposition is striking.  For one thing, wonks and families draw conclusions differently.  Wonks declare policies successful or unsuccessful based on whether they improve academic outcomes across large populations.  They rarely know whether the process of getting those results also felt better to the families meant to benefit.  Wonks wait, sometimes for years, until “the data” come in.  Families make up their minds about whether changes are worthwhile based on their lived experience much sooner.  They may be dead set in one direction or another before “the data” arrive.

All of this leads us to conclude that we should re-balance our focus.  Systemic change is important and we should not back away from it. There’s no shortage of things that need fixing within our current education system. However, we’ve underinvested when it comes to earning the support of families for these changes—and making sure these changes actually have a positive effect on their lives.  As a result, parents have scant loyalty to any particular educational ideology. They care as much about the process as the results, and will form their opinions accordingly. So the next time a parent like Kendra calls a school four times trying to set up a meeting about her daughter, we ought to make damn sure she gets a call back.

Thanks for reading this week. If you’re interested in our work, subscribe to our blog updates and emails, or follow us on Twitter or Facebook. We try to offer a different perspective. In the coming weeks, we’ll share what we learned from Secretary of Education John King, Jr. and his wife Melissa about parenting (can you guess their daughters’ favorite children’s book?), tips on helping with homework, and more. We look forward to hearing from you.

Ariela Rozman, Timothy Daly and David Keeling are Founding Partners of EdNavigator (@ednavigate), a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization that helps families give their kids a great education.


EdNavigator Insight #4: It’s hard for families to discern differences in quality among schools.

This week we’re sharing some of the insights we’ve gained through our work at EdNavigator, helping families with schools in New Orleans over the past year. Here’s what we’ve covered so far:

Insight #4: It’s hard for families to discern differences in quality among schools

One of the reasons we chose New Orleans as our pilot site was because it gives families substantial choice in which school their kids attend. This winter, we supported about 75 parents of rising kindergartners in choosing schools and navigating the OneApp enrollment system, often for the first time. They had at their disposal a pile of information, including school report cards from the state and a 175-page Parent’s Guide to Public Schools with detailed information on local schools.

Even so, we found that parents had a hard time differentiating between their school options. The sheer amount of information can be overwhelming and it isn’t easy to compare schools side-by-side. Although the school grades and performance scores from the state provide useful indicators, they are based primarily on the proportion of students who demonstrate proficiency rather than how much those students grow academically– and our families tend to care more about the latter (growth) than the former.

For them, a C-rated school where many students are growing significantly (just not enough to reach full proficiency) may be preferable to a B-rated school where many students perform at the proficient level, but show little growth. Finally, the data available to families doesn’t tell them much about a school’s culture, discipline philosophy, or responsiveness to parents and the community, all of which are important considerations when choosing a school.

Without support, parents tend to make decisions based on schools’ reputations in the community. That often meant that they’d overlook newer or lesser-known schools with quality programs, or focus narrowly on high-demand schools where they had a slim chance of getting a seat.

With our families, we focused on helping them generate a shortlist of solid choices and getting their application completed by the main deadline. When they get some help, they feel better about the process; on our survey of families this summer, 85% of those who received support from us strongly agreed or agreed that they felt confident choosing a school and using OneApp, compared to 53% of those who did not get support.*

Implications?  For states, don’t use ESSA as an opportunity to pull a California and turn your school report cards into Rubik’s Cubes.  Families, not system insiders, are your most important audience. We’ve shared specific thoughts on how to do this in another post. For communities, don’t build systems predicated on parental choice and neglect to invest in helping parents choose.  It’s like baking bread and leaving out the yeast.  You won’t be happy with the result.

That’s it for today. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about our biggest lesson learned of all: That no plan for school reform—from the most traditional to the most disruptive—will work if it doesn’t work for families.

* Grain of salt: The survey was small (N=48) and relatively informal. But still.


Ariela Rozman, Timothy Daly and David Keeling are Founding Partners of EdNavigator (@ednavigate), a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization that helps families give their kids a great education.

EdNavigator Insight #3: Summer is a massive challenge for working families

This week we’re sharing some of the insights we’ve gained through our work at EdNavigator, helping families with schools in New Orleans over the past year. Here’s what we’ve covered so far:

Insight #3: Summer is a massive challenge.

We have a new appreciation for the annual catastrophe that is summer learning loss—and what a headache summer is for the families we work with in general.

In the summer, all the responsibility for keeping kids occupied, safe and engaged gets thrust back onto parents, most often with zero support. Good camps and summer programs are not always affordable for hourly workers, and the ones that are fill up early and quickly.  Other options might only run for three hours a day, which is simply not realistic for working parents who need full-day care. Some schools offer summer camps or programs, but they too tend to be short-term (e.g., one month only) or part-time. For older students, summer employment and internship opportunities are a possibility, but they are rare and in high demand.

So what happens instead? Most students are left in the care of older siblings, relatives or neighbors, and have enormous amounts of unstructured time on their hands. Whereas more affluent families may have a long list of activities on the agenda for their kids, helping them prevent learning loss, the children of lower-income families have far fewer opportunities. For them, the lack of support makes summer an academic sinkhole.

The out-of-school opportunity gap has received increased attention in recent years – Robert Putnam and Mike Petrilli have written pieces that you should check out – because it is becoming clearer that it is a substantial driver of long term inequality.

At EdNavigator, helping parents plan for summer has shown us that there is an urgent need for better, cheaper, and more accessible resources and summer programs (we ended up creating our own summer learning packets for many of our families). More broadly, it suggests to us that school systems, cities and states need to fundamentally rethink how they support parents and families over the summer, for example by providing stipends or vouchers that ensure every low-income family can send their child to a quality program.

Summer learning loss ought to be a five-alarm fire for everyone concerned with improving educational equity and supporting low-income families and communities. It’s one of the primary reasons for the achievement gap between higher and lower-income students. Why isn’t there more urgency around this problem? One reason may be that, in the summer, kids literally aren’t students anymore. They’re nobody’s responsibility except for their parents. Let’s change that. Let’s take responsibility for the educational development of every child, all year round.


Ariela Rozman, Timothy Daly and David Keeling are Founding Partners of EdNavigator (@ednavigate), a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization that helps families give their kids a great education.

EdNavigator Insight #2: Families Are Overwhelmed with Confusing Information

On Monday, we talked about one of the big takeaways from our work helping parents navigate schools in New Orleans: A little help goes a long way. That was reassuring. It’s the whole reason we created EdNavigator.

Spending the year side-by-side with working parents brought plenty of other insights, though, and not all of them were so positive. For example:

Insight #2: Most families don’t have a clear understanding of how their kids are doing in school.

Parents aren’t clueless. They aren’t unengaged or apathetic; the families we work with are eager to do their part in helping their children succeed and pay careful attention to what schools tell them. The problem is that they are overwhelmed with confusing and contradictory information.

Our families have access to an incredible amount of information, but much of it is hard to interpret. For example, some students’ report cards are crammed full of data, including class grades and the results of formative assessments. Don’t get us wrong – data is a good thing.  But when all this information is presented in different ways (e.g., letter grades vs. percentile scores), with different scales (50 percent is a failing grade for a class; 50th percentile is average), and commonly tell different stories (e.g., B and C grades in reading but a bottom decile score in reading on the assessment), it becomes an indecipherable jumble. Comments and explanations usually take the form of very short notes, if they exist at all.

It’s also not uncommon for families to get conflicting information from teachers themselves, who tend to soft-pedal news about students’ struggles. They may downplay a poor grade or test result, leaving parents uncertain about how significant or urgent a problem may be. And when they’re uncertain, they generally take their cues from the teacher.

Put yourself in a parent’s shoes: On one hand, you have a dense test score report from a faceless institution that shows your child is performing significantly below grade level; on the other, you have a teacher you’ve known all year who tells you your child “does all his work” and “is making progress.” Whom do you trust?*

The point is not that one source of information (tests or teacher) is always right; it’s that all parents want to believe their kids are doing well, and will almost always favor sources of information that confirm that belief. They trust what teachers have to say, in the same way you trust your doctor when he says that mole is nothing to worry about. When teachers aren’t clear and direct, parents come away with only a hazy sense of how their kids are doing in school—and most of the time, they believe their children are doing better than the full set of evidence suggests.

Our Navigators sit with families on a regular basis to walk them through academic records. Frequently, these are hard conversations; our Navigators may be sharing news that the student shows signs of substantial challenges that may have gone undiagnosed or unaddressed for years. In those instances, parents are understandably frustrated that no one told them what was happening sooner.

Surely we can do better than this.  Let’s get to work designing simple report cards that communicate information to parents clearly, help teachers be candid as well as kind, and increase engagement rather than multiplying confusion.

* A side-note lesson here: Despite all the rhetoric about over-testing and opt-outs, the frequency and amount of testing has yet to come up as a concern for any of the parents we support. Not one. Like other parents, though, they get frustrated when the results aren’t explained or when no one seems to care about them. When tests are useful — when they provide information that helps teachers and families understand how students are doing and affect what happens in school – our parents support and value them.


Ariela Rozman, Timothy Daly and David Keeling are Founding Partners of EdNavigator (@ednavigate), a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization that helps families give their kids a great education.

EdNavigator: For Families, A Little Help Goes a Long Way

First of all, a big thanks to Andy for trusting us with the keys to the Eduwonk Cadillac for a week. We don’t fish and aren’t as witty as he is, so he may come to regret the decision. But we’ll try to keep things interesting.

Longtime readers may know us from our time at TNTP.  We were colleagues there for 14 years before founding a new nonprofit, EdNavigator, about a year ago.  Brief summary: we help families with school. Right now, we’re only working in New Orleans, where we’ve partnered with a number of local hotels to provide personalized educational support as a benefit to their employees. Each participating employee gets paired with one of our Navigators, who helps them choose schools, understand and track their children’s progress, support learning at home, and advocate for their children’s needs. Hard-working employees get help; employers get happier, more engaged employees who are more likely to stay in their jobs. Everybody wins. (At least that’s the idea. Long way to go and lots to learn.)

Working directly with families as they engage with the school system offers a very different view of education policy debates than working inside the system itself, which was our background.  It has been an eye-opening experience.  Our goal here is to use our guest-blogging perch to share a few of our main lessons and how they might be applicable to the wider education landscape.

Lesson #1: A little help goes a long way for families.

We’ll illustrate what we mean through one of the parents we’re working with, whom we’ll call Maria.

Maria is a mom, and a housekeeper at a hotel in New Orleans’ business district. She earns about $10 per hour cleaning rooms. Her daughter is a rising fourth grader with long black hair and a big smile.

Neither Maria nor her husband speak English. Her daughter, Ana, does.  She often plays the role of translator for her mom and dad. Ana does not go to an inner city school.  She goes to one of the higher-performing schools in Jefferson Parish (just outside New Orleans) and generally gets good grades. She almost never misses a day.

Sounds like a success story, right?  Dedicated parents, a prime school, a well-behaved and hard-working little girl. Everything on-track.

But the truth is, Ana’s situation in school is more fragile than it looks. Although her report card showed mostly A’s and B’s when we started working with her, Ana’s test results indicated that she was below grade level in reading. She told us she was having a hard time following her teacher’s fast-paced instructions in class, and had recently gotten a string of C’s in social studies. She’d also developed some worrisome study habits, often falling asleep while doing her reading homework. Maria wasn’t sure how to help, because she couldn’t read English herself. All of this raised concerns among our Navigators, who knew that third-grade reading proficiency is a critical milestone for future academic success.

This is a good example of how we get involved. After reviewing Ana’s academic records with Maria, we helped arrange a meeting at school. Ana’s teacher agreed to slow down when she provided instructions, and to send home translated versions of homework materials so that Maria could help. We asked Maria about Ana’s workspace at home and learned that she often did her reading alone in bed at night, leading her to fall asleep. We suggested that Maria get a small table and chair where her daughter could read instead, to help her stay awake and focused.

Within a week, Maria had done everything we recommended. We followed up by helping her find more books for her daughter to read at home and teaching her how to use flashcards to help Ana practice social studies and science vocabulary, a simple strategy that she told us has been working well. This spring, we gave her a summer learning packet to keep Ana going at a time when many kids fall behind. These sorts of adjustments helped put her daughter back on track in reading by the end of the year—and led to an A in social studies in her last quarter.

For Maria and Ana, a few well-timed interventions went a long way. They had a lot going for them, for sure, but their experience also illustrates the challenges that so many families face in navigating schools: Language and cultural barriers, contradictory information about how students are really doing, uncertainty about how to support learning at home, a tendency among school systems not to respond to learning challenges until they become five-alarm fires. The list goes on and on.

How many families out there are in similar situations?  Too many to count.  Families tend to think that school has everything under control unless they hear otherwise, and schools tend to think that families aren’t concerned about their children unless they show up, in person, to school on a regular basis to ask how things are going.  Meanwhile, little problems with students like Ana become big problems that cost more money and take more time to address.

There isn’t a neat and tidy policy solution.  The solution, ultimately, is to strengthen the social fabric that connects families and schools and empower parents in the educational process. In our view, that starts with making sure that families get the sophisticated support they need to interact successfully with complex systems. Each day this week, we’ll share something we’ve learned about how families experience their interactions with schools and what happens when families speak up to ask the system for help.

Ariela Rozman, Timothy Daly and David Keeling are Founding Partners of EdNavigator (@ednavigate), a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization that helps families give their kids a great education.