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After a search that lasted more than two and a half years, the New Orleans Parish School Board found a new superintendent. Henderson Lewis Jr. was the board’s unanimous choice and he will soon have the opportunity to start the 180-Day action plan he presented during his interview.
The Jan. 20 selection is cause for celebration – the board can reach consensus. However, let’s hope “Doc” Lewis can rally this disparate group of politicos for longer than the time it took to hire him (did I say two and a half years?). Navigating the political waters is difficult for any school superintendent, but it has been particularly challenging for those who have served as the New Orleans Parish chief. And while the district is considerably smaller than it was pre-Katrina (approximately 120 before the storm, 20 today), Lewis is the 10th anniversary superintendent.
There is a tacit assumption if not hope that public schools in New Orleans could actually return to the auspices of New Orleanians. However, if the current board can’t shed the earned reputation of being indecisive, argumentative and self-serving then those hopes are mere pipe dreams. Lewis certainly knows both sides of the board-administrator relationship. Prior to his new job, Lewis had been Supt. of East Feliciana Parish Public Schools since 2012. He has also served on the St. Bernard Parish School Board since 2008. Lewis has direct experience working inside the complicated system of schools in New Orleans. He was a principal and administrator in the Algiers Charter School Association, “founded in 2005 by a nonprofit board comprised of members from the Orleans Parish School Board and neighborhood representatives.”
Related: What are New Orleans parents looking for when picking schools?
Lewis may not need any counsel, but I asked a few folks involved in the local scene to dispense some.
I requested that a few members of the education community answer two questions:
What advice do you give Henderson Lewis, new superintendent of Orleans Parish Public Schools for his first year on the job? And what do you think Supt. Lewis’s top two priorities should be?
Here is what the experts had to say:
Sharhonda Bossier, vice president, advocacy and engagement, Education Cities
There are two dominant and competing narratives about efforts to improve public education in New Orleans. One narrative claims that we have solved the public education crisis, triumphed over the achievement gap, and that the overwhelming majority of students are in great schools. The other narrative disputes that any real or meaningful gains in student achievement have been made in the past decade and claims that white, privileged outsiders have wrested control of New Orleans public schools under the guise of reform, decimating the black teaching force as a result. I would urge the superintendent to work to bring all stakeholders back to the table and focus on ALL of the children of New Orleans who deserve access to a great school.
Convening community conversations about what has been done to improve public education in New Orleans with the goal of creating a sense of a shared version of reality and vision for how to move forward to better serve ALL students. Also in [Orleans Parish] operated schools, increase autonomy to allow educators to create and lead schools, while holding them accountable for how quickly students are learning. Giving principals and teachers more control will allow resources and interventions to be directed in ways that are best for students.
Amanda Stenson, New Orleans Public School Parent and STAND for Children Parent Leader
“He should immediately get out and visit the schools. Listen to the people actually in the school building: educators, support staff, parents and students and allow them to help set his vision. With their support behind him, he can do anything.” I would try and impress upon Mr. Lewis the importance of building consensus and earning the trust of the community and our schools so that we can move forward. I think our new superintendent has to focus on ensuring that the system works, that all the players are communicating, doing their parts and are working together to achieve goals. I would ask him to engage the community and be exceptionally transparent and forthcoming, to BE that strong leader, that champion our children, our schools, our community desperately needs.
He will have to craft a system that makes our children’s needs, their success the priority, and that has clear, realistic, and achievable goals, one that will support our schools, teachers, our educational leaders in achieving those goals. He needs to create a system, an environment, that our schools will want to return to and that the community feels good about them returning to.
Karran Harper Royal, education advocate
My advice to Dr. Henderson Lewis is to authentically engage the community in determining a vision for the future of the district. I would also suggest that Dr. Lewis makes sure the district toots its own horn when it comes to the [Orleans Parish] schools that have operated very successfully as open admissions schools over the last nine years.
Find ways to rectify the problems of the McDonogh #35 Academy and expand the other successful schools so that more families can access [Orleans Parish] schools. In addition, Supt. Lewis should focus on re-unifying the district while improving academic performance of all of the [Orleans Parish] schools.
Flozell Daniels, president and CEO, Foundation for Louisiana
It’s critical that the board has in Dr. Lewis an expert guide and coach on education policy and the creation of priorities for these policies that are singularly focused on student achievement. The board, the public, and most important, the students and teachers need to see a leader who’s bringing them into alignment. The standard should be that we all know what the top three to five priorities are and how we expect to succeed in them, including the things that the schools system can directly impact – as well as the things that the “public” has to step up to in supporting public education as a public good.
[Orleans Parish] must be the premiere place to work in public education. Faculty, principals, staff and (in the case of charters) board members must see clear indicators that [Orleans Parish] has the talent and capacity to support successful work environments that help drive practices known to improve student achievement. Dr. Lewis must work hand-in-hand with these constituents to create this space as a permanent installation in the education landscape – the system will only be as good as how we expect to succeed in them, including the things that the schools system can directly impact – as well as the things that the “public” has to step up to in supporting public education as a public good. Its people.
Dr. Lewis must make [Orleans Parish] the standard bearer for truly leaving no child behind. Specifically, he has to significantly improve the identification and assurances that we’re retaining and graduating as many of our children as possible by closing the leaks between 7th and 12th grades where students are dropped/pushed out of the system. Doing so would eliminate growing concerns that New Orleans is losing its best opportunity to educate the next generation of thinkers, leaders and workers – and give confidence to the social justice community that we have answers for the children and families who carry the heaviest burden of New Orleans’ back-breaking poverty and discrimination.
Rashida Govan, education consultant and researcher
My advice would be to build alliances and relationships with key stakeholders to engender trust in his leadership of [Orleans Parish]. By building the confidence of key stakeholders in his leadership, Dr. Lewis can better position Orleans Parish Public Schools to receive schools back to local control. To do this, he must have a vision for the future that offers a more sustainable model of public education, preserves the autonomy of its schools, and increases schools’ accountability for the education of all our children.
Dr. Lewis should focus heavily on ensuring that the policies, practices and systems that manage Orleans Parish Public Schools promote equity in all areas it touches. Issues such as improving language access for families of English Language Learners, ensuring Disadvantaged Business Enterprise compliance, increasing high quality school options for families, and full participation of [Orleans Parish] schools in the One App are just some of the key equity issues that require his attention. Dr. Lewis should also focus his attention on building the capacity of Orleans Parish Public Schools to effectively receive schools back into local control.
Erika McConduit-Diggs, CEO, Urban League of Greater New Orleans
Dr. Lewis should leverage his first hand knowledge of the NOLA public school landscape coupled with his experience as a superintendent and board member in other districts to bring out the changes needed to reestablish trust, decorum, and leadership while working to bridge the gap between community, accountability, and excellence. Both inside and outside the classroom, there are opportunities for innovation. Dr. Lewis should incorporate partners to help navigate and create pathways for growth in human capital development, academics, inclusion strategies, operational efficiencies, social innovation, procurement, and civic engagement – all of which appropriately connect education to the community as a whole.
[His top two priorities should be] quality and equity. By focusing on quality as a guiding principle, student achievement, teacher and school leader development, curriculum advancement, enrichment experiences, and school choice options should all improve. By focusing on equity, students and families of all races, abilities, and economic brackets should fairly access educational, occupational, and entrepreneurial opportunities available through public education in New Orleans.
Caroline Roemer, executive director of Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and parent of New Orleans public school student
He should immediately get out and visit the schools. Listen to the people actually in the school building: Educators, support staff, parents and students and allow them to help set his vision. With their support behind him, he can do anything.
Plan, create and communicate a vision for the most unique school district in the country, including an academic vision for [Orleans Parish’s] direct operated schools. He should support the [Orleans Parish] Charter School Office and lead the board to a better understanding of how to be a quality charter school authorizer including setting high standards around academics and finances, creation of equitable policies that strive to meet the needs of all students, and directing as much money to classrooms as possible.
Evaluate. As Supt. his job should not be about day to day operations of schools. Instead, he needs figure out how to innovate and create an organization that provides support and oversight to our schools. That efforts needs to include an evaluation of every central office employee and to determine which positions sill make sense in this nontraditional education landscape.
Lead. As someone who has sat through seven years of [Orleans Parish] board meetings, I personally hope he will be bold and assertive and lead this school board on path that focuses on kids and education. He must set the tone early in the public meetings, showing zero tolerance for the bully like behavior of both board and audience members, and instead create an atmosphere that embraces input from educators, parents and community stakeholders.
LaVonsell Rogers-Thaggard, former teacher in New Orleans Parish Schools (taught for 14 years until hurricane Katrina).
Take the time to learn and understand how departments and schools within the system operate. Don’t try to change everything at once. Prioritize one or two major things that need change, map out an efficient and effective replacement strategy or model, and start there the first year.
[Priorities should be:] Human Resources – Providing enough highly qualified teachers (including enough special education teachers) in classes with manageable and reasonable class sizes (Max 20-25 students).
Provide support and professional development for teachers in areas the teachers indicate they need help. Erase the culture where teachers feel their careers are under attack and create a culture where teacher’s efforts and dedication are appreciated.
(edited for length and clarity)
Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The GardenPath: The Miseducation of a City (2011).
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.
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