Talking NOLA Schools: Orleans Parish School Board Edition
The four newest members of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) – Katie Baudouin, Olin Parker, J.C. Romero, and Carlos Zervigon – entered their roles last year during a tumultuous time for our nation and our schools. We were eager to learn about their experiences so far.
We spoke with Baudouin, Parker, and Zervigon on the radio show “Talking NOLA Schools” on WBOK 1230 AM, hosted by NSNO’s CEO, Patrick Dobard, and our Chief of Staff, Jené Liggins. We hope to sit down with Romero soon.
We discussed the search for the new superintendent, keeping schools safely in session during the COVID-19 pandemic, and more. We share some of their reflections with you today.
On Trusting the Experts Around COVID-19
In-person school closed due to COVID-19 in March of 2020, but continued to serve meals and offer virtual instruction through the spring. School was a hybrid of virtual and in-person instruction in the 2020-2021 school year, and this year, schools are open for masked, in-person learning, with frequent testing and vaccination opportunities for students and staff. In many schools, vaccination is required for school staff.
Parker: I’ve spent my entire career in education. I’m an educator, I’m not a public health professional. So it is my role as a board member, and my fellow board members agree, that we should be listening to the people who are experts in this field…it is critically important that we are listening to our public health professionals.
Not only are we trying to keep our kids safe during this pandemic, we are also trying to fill their bellies and fill their brains with knowledge. We’re trying to make sure that our mental health is strong…so it’s just a multifaceted challenge that we haven’t faced before.
I’m really grateful for the leadership of not only my fellow board members, but also Mayor Cantrell, Dr. Jennifer Avegno, now Dr. Joe Kanter, Governor John Bel Edwards – these are folks who are putting science first. And if they say, yes, it’s safe to have in person schools, then we have to follow their lead. And as soon as they say to us that it’s not, we’ll switch back to a virtual option. But right now, we’re confident that kids are safe in school, teachers are safe in school. My own kids are in school right now. My wife is a principal. This is something that’s very personal to me. And I am confident in how we’re dealing with it.
Zervigon: I’m a social studies teacher by training, I have helped run schools. I have no background in public health whatsoever. So we have very strong partners at LCMC, at Children’s Hospital. The chief operating officer of our school system, Tiffany Delcour, has a background in public health. So we’re very lucky to have her, and I look to them, to guide us, to give us advice, and to tell us how to get through this crisis as it continues.
School and District Balance in Our Unique School System
All New Orleans public schools are charter schools. Students can apply to any open-enrollment public school citywide through OneApp. The district manages certain citywide school issues, but schools have greater autonomy than in a traditional district to adjust their learning model to their students’ needs. This model allowed for a swift response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Baudouin: We have some issues that simply are system wide issues—a family with kids in multiple schools and multiple children across multiple charter management organizations [needs] to have consistency across the board. One of those [issues] is public health. Parents need to know that when their kid goes to school, no matter where their kid is going to, that that is a healthy, safe environment…but we still rely on our schools to implement that guidance. And so it needs to be consistent and clear and communicated [by the district] in a way that the schools understand it and can implement it.
…We know that every family has different needs, and there are multiple schools, multiple ways to meet the needs of students. And I think the exciting thing is that we have that sort of diversity of schools.
Parker: I’ve been really impressed by the rapid response of our charter leaders and the rapid response to our health care providers. You know, we live in a system where our schools have autonomy, and that autonomy has really shined throughout this pandemic. You know, schools shut down in March of 2020, and days later, every child in New Orleans had access to a week’s worth of food. Now, that’s not possible in other districts.
We’ve had thousands of children get vaccinated because our charter management organizations and because our health care providers have been so nimble and willing to do what is right…without waiting for a bureaucracy that could potentially bog them down.
Zervigon: In a way, our system is set up best to handle it. We are in maybe one of the best situations because we are accustomed to common decisions for emergency preparedness. These are district level safety concerns and the school district always takes the leadership in that when it comes to evacuation, when it comes to freeze warnings, when it comes to when to go to remote learning.
I was in the old system. And often the central office would tell us these things and make these decisions. And I [would] look at my colleagues, and say ‘they obviously have no idea what we’re doing in the schools when they’re handing down these decisions.’ So I said we have a good balance, all of our school operators—we are people who look to each other in a cooperative way to move forward in a way that makes sense.
…When we had to shut down schools on a dime, we were able to move to virtual way before the other parishes—they couldn’t believe how fast we could do it. That’s because the site-based managers were able to do it on the ground with their autonomy, with the leadership of Henderson Lewis leading the way on a common plan. So I believe that we can have it both ways.
OPSB has worked hard to engage our local community on key issues, such as what names should replace the names of racist figures some schools were named after.
Parker: I also am particularly proud of serving as the board representative for the facilities renaming initiative that we wrapped up a couple of months ago. The previous board passed a policy, and this board executed on that policy, to make sure that we were removing the name of segregationists and slave owners from our buildings.
It was really important to me that that process be driven by the community, that the new names for our buildings reflect the diversity of our city…and I am really, really proud about how that process ended up. We had a significant amount of community engagement, over three hundred names [for new buildings] were submitted. We had thousands of people reach out to us…it was great to be a part of that process.
Zervigon: My colleagues and I have put a premium on community engagement. We show up to the graduations with pride in our students and in our schools. We reach out to our alumni groups, we answer our emails, and we understand that the schools belong to the students, the parents and the community. They have the ownership and we are their representatives.
Search for the New Superintendent
This year, OPSB is undergoing its search for the superintendent to follow Dr. Henderson Lewis, Jr. when he steps down next year. They are hiring a search firm to help and seeking input from the community.
Baudouin: What we need, I think, in a new superintendent is a commitment to equity and a commitment to excellence. Also a real understanding that every student in our school system has the ability to excel. And a real desire to work with our schools. We need a superintendent who understands the way our system is built, understands why it was built that way, and has a vision for working with that, for working with our system, to really take it to the next level. To get to work with our schools, to really bring about the educational excellence and the personal excellence that we know that every student is capable of and ready for.
Parker: We need to find somebody who’s a visionary, we need to find somebody who is grounded in equity. And we need to find somebody who is able to communicate effectively with the public.
So as far as what we are trying to accomplish over the next few years, obviously, we are still trying to work our way as a society out of this pandemic. Number one, the superintendent needs to be able to manage in times of crisis, including the one that we’re in right now. Number two, we need somebody who allows our schools to innovate, and then expands on those innovations so that we can feel the impact system-wide.
Zervigon: Our focus is on equity, on expertise, and on experience. We will pick a search firm, and that search firm will be responsible for helping us to recruit and find and vet. The search firm will also help us facilitate community conversations…there will be events and opportunities where we will hear from our school leaders, from our parents, from our students, from all stakeholders…we will identify the best candidate and the one that best suits our vision as a people, as a community.
You have to have someone who understands that they do serve the people…we’re looking for someone who has a very keen eye to equity, to data-driven understandings, to inclusive thinking, and cooperative thinking… they’re not going to be the dictator…we would like to see someone who is a visionary, who has ideas for how to think outside the box, how to solve some of our very complex problems in our unique school system…so it’s a personality type. It’s a thinking type. It’s an experienced person. Now maybe they’re inside of education or outside of education, maybe they’re from New Orleans, or not from New Orleans, but we need someone who definitely understands our community, understands our system of schools, and can help us take it to the next level.
Want to continue the conversation?
Our OSPB members are eager for community input, and you can reach out to:
Katie Baudoin (Board_Member5@opsb.us),
Olin Parker (Board_Member3@opsb.us), and
Carlos Zervigon (Board_Member6@opsb.us)
Tune in on Mondays at 12:30 pm on WBOK 1230AM for more Talking NOLA Schools with NSNO’s CEO, Patrick Dobard, and our Chief of Staff, Jené Liggins.