This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of New Orleans Magazine.
Charter Boards: On Management, Vision, and a Community of Schools
This summer marked one year since the “unification” of New Orleans public schools, when our public charter schools came together for the first time since 2005 under the Orleans Parish School Board, now called NOLA Public Schools (NOLA-PS).
While NOLA-PS oversees the system of schools as a whole, smaller charter boards manage individual charter schools or networks. Across the city, there are roughly 400 local leaders serving on charter boards—students’ parents, educators and former educators, members of the business and nonprofit communities, and more. They serve in a volunteer, unpaid capacity. Collectively, they support our city’s children and push our system of schools toward continuing growth and innovation.
Today, we hear from five members of our city’s public charter school boards:
On listening to educators and putting kids first
I love meeting with school leaders, teachers, and students. When I was elected board chair, I visited every school and met with every school leader. I continue to make those visits, because that’s when I learn the most. As a board, we listen to educators. It’s why we developed a pipeline program for school leadership. It’s why we raised our teachers’ pay, even before the state did last legislative session. We listened to the people actually doing the work with our students.
And we bring everything back to what’s best for kids. That’s what’s most important, and our board knows that. Everyone around the table, at every single board meeting, with every single decision that is made, we are focused on what is best for kids every single time.
– Larry Washington, KIPP New Orleans Schools Board
On giving back to our community
My mother is a retired New Orleans public school teacher. So I grew up understanding the importance of public schools; as an adult, I wanted to give back to my city, and volunteering on a public charter school board was a way to do that.
I think a lot of people call out problems with our schools, but aren’t proactive about fixing them. So my biggest reward in all this is being able to make an impact in the policies that shape what my network can become. We directly support the CEO and his decisions. I get to do so alongside InspireNOLA parents, teachers, and other New Orleanians like me, who are deeply convicted and want to play a role.
– MaryJo L. Roberts, InspireNOLA Charter Schools Board
On the importance of great board members
I learned about Bricolage through my work with the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools. I thought the concept behind the school made a lot of sense. I believe in creative learning through knowledge-building and questioning.
Their board is wonderful – it’s comprised of very committed, experienced community leaders. And good board members don’t want their name in lights. They just want to help see the school’s vision come to life. They want to help other people, that’s what makes them tick. Good board members are “Triple A” – they’re Ambassadors, Advocates, and Askers. They’ll talk about your cause, they’ll advocate for it, and they’ll ask for the funding you need to get things done.
– Cleland Powell, recent member of the Bricolage School Board
On accountability, governance, and growth
One of us was born and raised here, and attended New Orleans Public Schools, and the other moved here forty years ago. We both serve on a charter board because we love this city and we want to help make it even better.
Our board is diverse, including the parent of a FirstLine student, a former teacher, an engineer, an attorney, and a banker, among others. As board members, we play a role in accountability and governance of FirstLine’s schools. We take the lead in executive succession, we provide oversight of finances and facilities, we review progress towards our schools’ goals, and we review and help develop policies that guide the network. In this capacity, we are able to help the shared vision of FirstLine become a reality. When we joined FirstLine’s board, in 2006 and 2010, respectively, the network was smaller than it is today. The first expansion school in the network had opened just a week before Hurricane Katrina. The years since then have brought rebuilding, growth, and success. Today, FirstLine is made up of five schools educating almost 3,500 students in pre-K through 8th grade.
– Greg St. Etienne and Alison Hartman, FirstLine Schools Board
Committed board members Larry, MaryJo, Cleland, Greg, and Alison remind us that charter school boards are critical parts of their school or network community. Those school communities, of course, expand into our entire educational ecosystem. Together, all the public schools in our city, NOLA Public Schools and its board, as well as the many nonprofits, local leaders, and families supporting our students and teachers are connected. As a unified whole, we are stronger than ever before.