SB25 wasn’t the right path. Now, let’s come together to address the challenges our schools and students face.
by Dana Peterson, CEO, New Schools for New Orleans
Last month, I traveled to Baton Rouge alongside school leaders, parents, educators, and advocates from across our city to testify against Senate Bill 25 (SB25), a piece of legislation that would have limited the freedom and flexibility of New Orleans’ educators to create schools that meet the unique needs of students. Together, we made our voices heard, and thankfully, our legislators listened and the bill failed to advance out of committee. I’m grateful for this outcome because I believe deeply in our educators, families, and our schools. Now, it’s high time we turn our focus to the real issues at hand–helping our schools improve.
Senator Dr. Joseph Bouie, who filed the bill, was motivated by the desire to make our schools academically stronger. We share this desire; we simply don’t believe SB25 was the pathway to do that. Instead, we should focus on making sure our students and educators have what they need to thrive by closing the opportunity gap. A growing body of research confirms that when students feel healthy, well, and like they belong, they’re more engaged at school and perform better academically. We must ensure our system has the resources to support this, and students and teachers can access them.
Our schools have made great academic progress over the past 15 years–that progress can, and must, continue. The committee hearing on SB25 was a powerful reminder of some of the ways schools drive that progress, including support for students’ well-being. We heard from Sophia Scott, who leads Opportunities Academy (OA), the Collegiate Academies program for college-aged students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Through classes, externships, and internships, OA helps students grow the skills they need to advocate for themselves, access the New Orleans community, live independently, and obtain employment. Sophia spoke about how deeply she and her team know the young people they work with. She talked about how they use that knowledge–and the freedom and flexibility our system provides them–to shape operational, fiscal, and curricular decisions that are precisely tailored to their students. Programs like OA–or Las Sierras, another program that serves students who are new to this country–are great examples of what can happen when schools have strong, devoted leaders and educators, and autonomy alongside accountability.
But even in a system that values educator freedom and creativity, our students need so much more. Like so many cities, New Orleans’ schools face real challenges, many of which stem from issues beyond the classroom. Today, 80% of our students are considered economically disadvantaged, and are coping with poverty, systemic racism, and inequities that impact their education and well-being. When the Education Research Alliance recently surveyed our city’s students, they found that 40% reported greater concerns about their academic performance and mental well-being since the start of the pandemic, and around 30% of students reported anxious behaviors.
Devastatingly, we are also losing students to gun violence; these losses are horrific, and these young people are deeply missed. Our students, families, and educators work hard to cope with the continuing trauma. Students are taking action to heal, promote peace, and resolve conflict, and schools have taken on holistic, restorative approaches to help students manage grief and other complex emotions. We see great examples of this in the student rallies against gun violence, such as this one at Booker T. Washington High School, the inspiring NOLALove initiative and rally led by InspireNOLA Schools, and in the restorative practices and structures at Educators for Quality Alternatives’ schools. But schools alone can’t address all that our children are up against, and they can’t provide all the support they need. They are a powerful part of the solution, though–and as a community, we can come together to help schools confront the challenges they and their students face. At NSNO, we are proud to partner with schools to do so.
We can move toward partnerships that offer children what they need. I’m given hope by NOLA-Public Schools’ exciting recent partnership with Children’s Hospital, through the crucial $10 million investment of New Orleans City Council–ThriveKids. ThriveKids is a powerful investment in our students’ mental and physical health and well-being. The program will provide schools with expedited access to psychiatry specialists, re-entry support for students who have been off-campus due to crisis, violence, or disruption, and a pilot for on-campus mental health support and psychiatry, among other forms of care. This helps students feel whole and well, and it helps them show up at school ready to learn. It also allows teachers to teach, not serve as nurses and therapists, too.
I’m also excited about the work we’re doing at NSNO in launching the Allstate Sugar Bowl New Orleans Teacher Community. We face a national crisis in teacher retention and recruitment, and schools, again, shouldn’t have to tackle that alone. We’ve partnered with the Allstate Sugar Bowl, who has generously committed $1 million over the next five years, to support schools in addressing the challenge. Together, we’re working to make New Orleans the best place to teach in the country. Our teachers need to feel a sense of well-being, too. They need to know they belong here, and that they are valued and loved by our city. We’ve approached that in a number of ways–like hosting big events like NOLA Teacher Fest and the New Orleans Excellence in Teaching Awards Gala, and by running the New Orleans Teacher Job Board, which makes it easy to apply to any job across our city’s public schools. We’ve connected teachers with a certified financial advisor, who walked them through the process to receive student loan forgiveness. With this support, teachers have reported $1.2 million in forgiveness and counting. We also support the increasing number of “Grow Your Own” programs in our public schools that are preparing our city’s own students to teach here someday.
ThriveKids and the Teacher Community are great reminders that, in our system, schools don’t have to “do it all.” We give educators the freedom and flexibility to build strong classrooms, and we let them focus on that. We know they have enough on their plates already. We need to ask ourselves, as a community, if our children and educators have all they need to thrive. Our teachers should be able to focus on teaching. Our students should be able to focus on learning. Today, there are still real barriers to this, so we need to turn our energy away from legislative debates and onto creative solutions. At NSNO, when we’ve talked to teachers and school and charter school network leaders, we’ve heard loud and clear that our children’s well-being needs to be a priority. They need to be not just physically healthy, but mentally well–they need to know they’re safe, can cope with trauma, and feel affirmed in their identities. We must braid public resources and leverage the many providers across our city that can address this.
And as we do so, we must continue to support schools in their efforts to drive academic progress. We must continue to unlock the vast creativity of our educators. They have fueled measurable and meaningful academic gains in the past fifteen years, but there’s a long way to go before every child has a great education in New Orleans. Our students still need to catch up from the impact of the early-pandemic disruptions and the time out of schools during Hurricane Ida. We must also drive resources toward providing schools with high quality curriculum, finding and retaining great teachers, and driving early literacy. If we can do that, while also providing key support outside of academics, we’ll see our children achieve and thrive in the way we’ve all been dreaming of.