Reflections and hopes for the 2023-2024 school year by Dana Peterson, CEO, New Schools for New Orleans
There is something magical about the beginning of a new school year—the playful sound of children arriving for the first day of school, the measured calm of the seasoned veteran teacher, the bright optimism of a new teacher eager to make a first impression, and the quiet relief of parents having made it through another summer. Now we’re a few weeks into this school year, and I am hopeful about New Orleans’ public schools, clear about the challenges we face as a community, and determined to help provide what our students and teachers need to thrive. At NSNO, we strive to ensure every child in New Orleans can attend a truly excellent public school. Our city’s incredible educators are leading that work. We’re here to support them, their schools, the community they’re a part of, and most importantly, their students. As we kick off the year, I want to celebrate our schools for their creativity, their innovation, and the academic progress they inspire in our children.
Schools are managing significant external challenges with creativity and care
At NSNO, we are immensely proud of and grateful for our schools. They’re at the forefront of implementing innovative teaching methods, rigorous curriculum, restorative discipline practices, and creative educational models. These practices—and many others—helped students make real academic progress on this year’s Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP) exam. Our schools grew three percentage points for students earning Mastery and above in All Subjects. Only five districts in the state achieved higher growth. At the same time, the results tell us how far we have to go to realize our goal of every student accessing a great education. Schools are facing significant challenges to deliver on that promise—like the impact of the pandemic, trauma, and persistent inequities—with skill, empathy, and responsiveness.
Last school year was our first year with a semblance of normalcy since the pandemic began, for instance—our students are still catching up from the impact of distance learning, as well as time off after Hurricane Ida. Our students are making real progress, but the time they weren’t physically in class made an undeniable impact. Their academic results still reflect that. They also often reflect the trauma students are working through, the poverty they’re facing, and their unmet needs outside of the classroom. More and more of our students are new to this country and still learning English, too.
Too often, schools are blamed for these challenges. This isn’t fair or right. In New Orleans, we should hold schools accountable for ensuring strong academic results, financial responsibility, and the safety and well—being within their walls. Schools are not accountable, however, for the effects of poverty in our community, or the violence our young people witness or experience because of it. These are real, and often, systemic issues. Schools are a part of the solution, but they can’t solve it all. I think about the many conversations I’ve had over the past year with school leaders. They have big goals and great ideas for keeping students and teachers engaged. In these conversations, there has been one recurring point—making sure their kids were safe.
Schools are innovating, meeting students’ needs, and using strong strategies to fuel success
In the face of all this, our schools are coming up with creative ways to both holistically support their students and help them make academic progress. They are doing a phenomenal job of it. Just look at Warren Easton Charter High School’s new 9th Grade Academy. Easton has a long history of providing an excellent education, building a strong community, and offering holistic, loving support for their students. Families and rising 8th graders knew this, and more students wanted to attend Easton than could fit in the building. So, Easton innovated; they realized that if they could expand to the building across from their campus, they could teach more students. They also knew that 9th grade is a crucial time, academically and developmentally. They invested in both by raising the funds for a 9th Grade Academy where Easton’s new students could build culture and learn in an environment created just for them. NSNO was proud to support their efforts.
I’ve been struck by the environment and responsiveness at many of our schools. At Audubon Gentilly School, for instance, you can feel the strong culture the moment you walk into the building. It is a supportive, joyful place where students are truly learning. I met with Audubon Gentilly’s principal, Kenya Hill, last year—it was her first year in the role. Like every educator I’ve met in this city, she dreamed of each of her students meeting or exceeding state standards. She took clear steps to do so from her first day. One of those steps was investing heavily in the highest quality “Tier 1 curriculum” and engaging her teachers in professional development to help them use it. The impact of Audubon Gentilly’s work really shows—they had a 19—percentage point increase in the percentage of their students earning Mastery on the LEAP in Reading last year, and a 9—percentage point increase in students earning Mastery overall.
When I visited Hynes—UNO, I saw this same warmth, responsiveness, and focus on best practices. Hynes-UNO uses Tier1 curriculum, too—they’ve implemented it in math, ELA, and science. On this year’s LEAP, Hynes—UNO was the second—highest performing K—8 school without admissions criteria; nearly 40% of students achieved mastery or above. Hynes is committed to constant growth and development of their leaders, and at NSNO, we have been proud to support that. The Chief Academic Officer and Chief Operations Officer of the network participated in our E3 executive leadership program, and Brittany Smith, the principal of Hynes—UNO, is part of NSNO’s Novice Leader Academy. Through NSNO’s Instructional Quality Initiative, educators from Hynes also attended the rigorous Standards Institute for high—quality professional development.
NSNO is here to support our schools and community
At NSNO, we believe that this year will hold more such dramatic academic growth for our students, and more school-level innovations like Easton’s 9th Grade Academy. Eighty—four percent of our schools, for instance, now use high—quality Tier—1 curriculum in ELA or Math like Audubon Gentilly. We also know the complex challenges facing our schools haven’t gone away–and we remain steadfast in our commitment to support them as they confront them. NSNO will continue to invest in helping schools meet students’ and teachers’ needs through our work. We see ourselves as part of a web of support–one that includes schools, families, our district, and other nonprofit partners. We also see ourselves within the broader context of our district and our community–one that has immense strengths and real struggles. New Orleans has the richest culture in the world. It is a city of potential and we need to make sure all children and the adults that support them have what they need to make it here.
As a community, we must ask ourselves not only if our students have an excellent education, but if they have what they need to thrive across the board. This is both academic–like making sure children have great teachers, high quality curriculum, and learn from evidence-based methods like the Science of Reading and non-academic. To truly thrive, students need holistic supports, access to athletics and the arts, and a caring culture; research tells us that students are more engaged in school when they feel a sense of belonging. Students need access to counseling resources, violence disruption opportunities, and conflict mediation–the Center for Restorative Approaches, for instance, is collaborating with Educators for Quality Alternatives, which run the NET Schools, on such a program this year, which will be accessible to students in grades 6-12 citywide. To provide these experiences and environments, schools need resources. These include the type of resources our system provides through the Differentiated Funding Formula, which equitably channels funding to schools whose students have higher needs, or the Systemwide Needs Program, which funds initiatives that serve students across our schools. It includes making the most of Medicaid funds for school-based services or preparing students for their career ambitions at the New Orleans Career Center. At NSNO, we are honored to be a part of these efforts and energized about the year to come.