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Tulane group's annual take on New Orleans schools: continued progress, potential pitfalls

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NEW ORLEANS — A Tulane University think tank's latest annual analysis of public schools in New Orleans notes continued progress in the nearly 10 years since Hurricane Katrina, but also points out vast room for improvement and a new need for accountability and vigilance in a system no longer dominated by a central, elected school board.

"In the coming years, it will be important to ensure that public schools in New Orleans encourage the public's participation by operating transparently and being open to public input," said Wednesday's report from Tulane's Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives.

It's a need arising from a uniquely decentralized — and often confusing — system of governing schools in the city. After levee failures during Katrina devastated the city as the school year began in 2005, the state moved to take over most New Orleans public schools and place them in the Louisiana Recovery School District, formed a few years earlier to take over and reform failing public schools. Only a handful of New Orleans schools were left with the city's school system, which had a reputation for corruption and poorly performing schools.

All 57 schools now governed by the RSD are operated by independent charter organizations — some running multiple schools — with a great deal of autonomy in hiring, firing and other matters. The city school board runs six schools but has turned over 14 others to charter groups.

With state law requiring that the charters be run by local oversight boards, New Orleans, in effect has 44 school boards, the report said.

"With the diffusion of boards, it can also be challenging for the public to navigate and find information on all the school boards, and similarly for organizations that want to work with multiple schools on a single issue," the report said. "Additionally, there is not currently sufficient central capacity to ensure that boards are meeting all of their obligations, including open meeting laws, and ethics trainings."

There were numerous statistics in the report showing progress.

Only 7percent of students in the city attend failing schools, compared to 62 percent in 2005.

"In 2004, just 16.5 percent of New Orleans' students were in schools that performed above the state average performance score; in 2014, that number had nearly doubled to 31.1 percent," the report said.

And the on-time graduation rate for New Orleans students was 73 percent for 2014, compared to 56 percent in 2005.

But performance remains uneven. None of the all-charter RSD schools achieved an "A'' in the state accountability program. Overall, student performance lags the state average.

The relatively few schools still governed by the Orleans Parish School Board are more likely to serve fewer poverty-level students, and have higher performance scores, than the schools overseen by the RSD. Schools run by the local school board tend to have more experienced teachers, the report noted.

The Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives was formed at Tulane after Hurricane Katrina to do education research and develop data on public education with an eye toward helping public officials improve a system that was widely seen as foundering even before the storm.

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