When I visited New Orleans before Katrina, I saw third world schools—decrepit physical conditions, corrupt governance, and abysmal academic output. Based on my last few visits, I can report that some good has come out of the horrible tragedy of the hurricanes—New Orleans has the highest percentage of students in charter schools and most of them are great.
A former shopping center near Tulane now houses one the most impressive concentrations of new school talent in the country. The heart of the operation, in the old shoe store, is New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO).
Matt Candler grew up in Atlanta, helped grow KIPP, and then incubated new charters for the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence. After Katrina, Candler was one of several talented educators to head south to New Orleans to help with recovery efforts (White House Fellow Marc Sternberg was another notable contributor).
Initial efforts to bring proven operators to town were partially successful, but Candler knew they needed to create more homegrown charters. New Schools for New Orleans, formed with grants from Gates, Broad, and Fisher, set out to create cohorts of great schools and local charter management organizations.
Scott Cowen, Tulane, played an important recovery leadership role. Jim Shelton, now leading innovation at the Education Department, and I met with Cowen as the water was receding from an abandoned campus. He chaired the city’s education recovery efforts and helped architect a new educational vision for the city.
Charter leaders at NSNO spend at least 13 months in a well structured and supported program planning their new schools. They get help applying for a charter, planning their school, and hiring staff. They receive grant funding after reaching key milestones and benefit from the other education partners in the shopping center including:
· The New Teacher Project
· Louisiana’s Charter School Association
· The Practitioner Teacher Program, run by The New Teacher Project
· Teach for America
· New Leaders for New Schools
· Scott Cowen’s Institute for Public Education Initiatives
State superintendent Paul Pastorek, an attorney that left a lucrative practice to help post recovery, deserves some of the credit. He helped form the Recovery School District and hired Paul Vallas to take on RSD New Orleans. The two of them have created an environment that rivals New York City as the best school development hotbed in America.
Matt Candler has four schools to launch this summer, and will soon start planning his next contribution. He leaves a legacy of great schools and well prepared school leaders that will serve the community in the decade to come.