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Caddo schools provide test of new turnaround policy

In the resolution of what to do about its failing schools, Caddo Parish found itself at the forefront of continually evolving state practices of improving education.

Recently, the parish’s School District and the state’s Department of Education concluded a pathbreaking agreement to deal with schools previously identified as struggling academically. Extending and amplifying an approach now taken with several district schools, the deal forms a new entity governed by a district appointee, but advised by a state liaison officer and local stakeholders, that will run 14 schools, most of which in the past the state would have taken over and/or removed from district supervision with conversion of these to charter status.

Historically, as opposed to the two largest school districts in the state, with its troubled schools Caddo has largely retained control. The state vehicle for administering these schools, the Recovery School District, only ever has incorporated one Caddo school, and just a handful of others gained independent charter status, despite at any given time typically a dozen or so district schools’ performances would have merited state takeover and/or conversion.

By contrast, a decade ago, aggravated by the aftermath of the hurricane disasters of 2005, lawmakers put almost all Orleans Parish schools under RSD jurisdiction. The RSD also has actively intervened in East Baton Rouge Parish, overseeing more than a dozen schools over the years. These actions stemmed from the initial model of handling schools distressed academically: take these away from the local districts unable to turn these around and either have the RSD run these directly or approve of outside groups given greater latitude to do the job.

But in the last few years the philosophy has changed. When faced with a large number of East Baton Rouge Parish School System schools in crisis, the RSD encouraged formation of the Baton Rouge Achievement Zone, a mix of RSD and charter schools from EBRPSS with governance input from the RSD and local stakeholders. The parties involved instituted the cutting away of bureaucratic red tape and decentralizing of decision-making for the schools involved.

Things also have changed in New Orleans. The RSD has begun returning control of the schools it runs or oversees to the Orleans Parish School District, with the goal of handing all over in the next two years, even ones still not performing well. However, because all schools will operate as charters, most with open enrollment, OPSD involvement has dwindled mainly to support services.

The action regarding Caddo schools continues the policy evolution. With the creation of this new district, for the first time a local district will maintain control over the affected schools, instead of this control passing to the RSD or charter operators, even though many of the plan’s enhanced features for the district replicate past RSD or charter operator practices. Among other things, principals will have vastly wider latitude in personnel, curricula, and calendar matters (subject to state law); teachers and principals in the zone can earn merit pay; incentives will become available for advanced teacher certification; and any savings from reconfigurations Caddo will plow into this district’s schools plus the state promises unspecified additional funds.

So, unlike the other two districts that have a number of challenged schools not run directly by local policy-makers, Caddo will continue to retain direct administrative responsibilities over almost all schools within its boundaries. The agreement lasts for three years, when reevaluation will occur.

With its turnaround reliance on a local education agency, this response by LDOE to Caddo’s chronically failing schools should temper criticisms about the direction of Louisiana’s school policy that in recent years has contested the government monopoly model. It also constitutes a political win for Superintendent Lamar Goree and the School Board by their ability to keep the schools in their fold.

Whether allowing an institution, like districts across the state, reluctant to let go of its one-size-fits-all grip on its schools to implement solutions that do precisely that will make the necessary progress remains a work in progress. As such, what goes on in Caddo Parish education over the next three years should make for an interesting, if not helpful, experiment.

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