This is the third in a series stemming from a Chiefs for Change panel discussion at the National Charter Schools Conference hosted by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. With such a dynamic and experienced group of leaders offering insights from their communities, we wanted to share lightly edited highlights of comments from each of the four Chiefs. The first part with commentary from Superintendent of Denver Public Schools Tom Boasberg is here and the second in the series with Pedro Martinez here.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2003, state leaders in Louisiana created the Recovery School District (RSD) to manage the state’s lowest-performing schools. The RSD previously managed nearly 80 percent of public schools in New Orleans. Recently, however, schools in that city were returned to local control. RSD CEO Kunjan Narechania was tabbed to lead this reunification and transition to the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB).
In her remarks below at the National Charter Schools Conference, Narechania shares what school collaboration looks like, the need to build bridges to all families and how the RSD is balancing school autonomy and accountability.
What School Collaboration Looks Like and Challenges in a Rural State
We are focused on a system that delivers autonomy, accountability, equity, and choice. Upon unification of the Orleans school system, the RSD will soon become the last intervention the state has in a series of interventions used with school systems as they seek to improve their struggling schools.
We will partner with districts to start the process of school improvement, and if those strategies aren’t working over a number of years, our state board still has the authority to take the school from the local parish and place it into the RSD.
We have struggled to expand the charter sector outside of urban areas. We are inviting charter applicants (outside of New Orleans and Baton Rouge) and getting very few. So, we cannot rely on school choice and charter schools alone to address some of the issues we see across Louisiana.
Building Bridges and Holding Schools Accountable for Providing Equitable Access
Achieving equity across systems requires that charter schools and district schools give up some autonomy, which I acknowledge is a controversial point. We don’t let schools choose their children. We have a centralized enrollment system, and if a family chooses a school, that school is obligated to serve that family.
“If a family chooses a school, that school is obligated to serve that family.” Kunjan Narechania
The system then has a responsibility in supporting that school in serving their families. We offer additional funding for students with the most severe needs and also offer a high-cost services pool that schools can apply to as needed. We are also building more centers of specialization where schools themselves become experts in serving particular populations of students. As students and families learn more about these options, they are gravitating towards the places that have the expertise to serve their particular family.
How the RSD Is Balancing School Autonomy and Accountability
This is a tension we are navigating currently. Much of the progress we’ve made over the past decade is built on our four tenets of autonomy, accountability, equity, and choice. But we are starting to see results stagnate and level off. As we look at why this is so, it’s important for the charter community to acknowledge that these four tenets have been necessary but are not sufficient to get students ready for college, career, and beyond.
Across Louisiana, we have focused on the quality of curriculum materials being used in our schools and the training teachers have on implementation of those particular curricula. Our charters have had a high degree of autonomy, and we believe that autonomy has been part of the puzzle that’s led us to progress. We aren’t aiming to encroach on that, but we are wanting to partner and provide information, research, and context so that people are making informed decisions about curricula.
At this point in New Orleans, we have almost every major charter network switching to high-quality curricula in the next year or two years. We are funding through federal ESSA money that switch and the training of those teachers around new curricula. We’ve also done that in partnership with the Orleans Parish School Board and a local foundation that also is supporting the change.