86 Schools, One Goal: How Dozens of New Orleans Educators With Unique Academic Models & Layouts Are Teaming Up to Reopen This Fall

By Beth Hawkins

June 24, 2020

The abrupt COVID-related closing of New Orleans schools was a study in agility.

Within hours after Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’s announcement of the shutdown on Friday, March 13, some schools had a week’s worth of paper lessons ready to send home. By the following Monday, seven were distributing bags of meals outdoors. By Wednesday, the number had risen to 44. Within a week, 97 percent were providing students with academic instruction — a rate three times as high as the national average, even three months into the pandemic.

For a system of independent schools, though, reopening turns out to be a much more delicate dance. In most of the country, school leaders are using guidance from state and district officials on everything from installing portable handwashing stations to helping students with learning losses catch up in the coming academic year. But New Orleans’s 86 public schools are charters, and while 78 are overseen by NOLA Public Schools, the district largely functions as the schools’ charter authorizer. Meaning it holds the schools accountable for performance and provides some services but doesn’t give them instructions on how to operate.

This autonomy has made the New Orleans district a much-discussed model of innovation. But it has a downside: a lack of coordination that has made it hard for families to figure out and navigate things like enrollment, special education services and transportation. In recent years, the leaders of many of the schools have come together to troubleshoot issues arising from that freedom, ranging from making sure enrollment, school discipline and funding are fair to establishing a common calendar.

Now, they are stepping up their cooperation, with frequent meetings to stake out common ground. Among their goals: to ensure that students from very different schools don’t have uneven access to services when in-person classes resume.

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