Years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans Schools, a district leader shapes the ed system's turnaround
Recovery School District CEO Kunjan Narechania says in the city, it's a privilege to educate students — schools that don't meet accountability standards potentially face closing
In the early 2000s, one could argue the New Orleans public school system was a disaster. It was riddled with corruption and poor management. School supplies and textbooks were sparse or nonexistent. Classrooms and buildings were in poor condition at best, and test scores were poor to match.
Then, the real disaster hit. Hurricane Katrina swept in, ravaging the city and community, taking most of the school system with it. Roughly one-eighth of school buildings escaped relatively unharmed. The only choice was to start over. And that’s exactly what the Recovery School District (RSD) did.
After the storm, thousands of teachers were let go, and the mission of the RSD, a state entity, became taking failing schools in New Orleans and turning them around. The RSD took over most of the city’s schools — the rest stayed in local hands — by overseeing and authorizing them while also running as a traditional school district. During that process, nearly all of them became charters, setting a historic precedent across America by becoming the nation’s first all-charter district and a model for school choice advocates.
The overall effort proved to be successful — enough that the state, on July 1, handed the district over to the locally elected Orleans Parish School Board, whose job is to now hold the schools accountable for performance while letting each school’s leaders make day-to-day choices affecting their students. And amid all these changes, RSD CEO Kunjan Narechania, who has been leading the organization since 2017, is working to keep the momentum going.
Narechania shared with Education Dive her thoughts on some of the city’s biggest educational reform efforts, how they’re progressing and why this model, which began as a high-stakes experiment, was able to flourish.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
EDUCATION DIVE: Tell me about the Recovery School District and the history behind it.
KUNJAN NARECHANIA: The Recovery School District is a policy that was created by the Louisiana State Legislature. The policy was passed in 2003, before Hurricane Katrina, and was intended to allow the state to take over schools that had been failing for a consecutive number of years. It wasn’t really impacting large numbers of schools, and it was never intended to be the entity that ran the majority of the city’s schools. But when the storm hit, the state legislature decided to move control of most schools to the RSD and the state, which was very different than the other schools run by local boards. The majority of the schools had then been in the state’s control, and from 2005 to 2014, the RSD governed most of the schools in New Orleans and had two functions: overseeing new charter schools being authorized and running as a traditional district at the same time.
What are some of the changes the district has seen? What’s taken place this year?
NARECHANIA: From 2005 to 2014, we essentially closed almost all of our district-run schools and transitioned them to charters. 2014 was the first year where we had an entirely charter district, and the RSD was the first all-charter district in the country. In the summer of 2018, we transitioned all the schools from the state back to the local school parish, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB). At the same time, a set of four reforms took place within those milestones: school choice, accountability for schools, issues of equity and autonomy for schools.
What do these reforms look like, and how do they affect schools and students?
NARECHANIA: Within school choice, we are one of the only districts to create a unified enrollment system that allows families access through a single application to a majority of schools in the system. A family could express interest in multiple schools, and that opens up access for them. A unique component is that they’re not relegated — your zip code doesn’t determine what school you go to, and schools need to provide transportation to the school you do end up going to. Accountability allowed us to close schools that are really struggling. If you can’t demonstrate that you can grow students, you don’t have the privilege of running a school here, and we’ve outright closed or transformed almost 40 schools in the seven years I’ve been here. The impact of that is the urgency in the system to show improvement, and to hold schools accountable to not just academic measures, but also to financial and organizational ones.
Autonomy allows schools to make decisions that impact students and teachers at the local level. We don’t dictate things; we strictly are an authorizer. At the end of the day, how you get there and how you achieve that are decisions made by the schools. And with equity, we really aim to protect the individual rights of students. We put into place not only the enrollment system I talked about, but we also implemented a unified expulsion system. You don’t have the autonomy of choosing who you remove, and we set uniform standards for expulsions. We also have an office of social workers who provide intensive support to families with significant needs across the county that exceeds the capacity of schools. We tried to create a district that sets a high bar and ensures schools are achieving that bar.
How do you think the transition is going so far?
NARECHANIA: I think the transition, overall, has been a positive one for the city. The new OPSB is focused on a group of new core functions: oversight, authorizing, facilities maintenance and long-term planning, and running the expulsion process and guaranteeing equity for students. It’s a unique system in that the OPSB schools are almost entirely charters — that’s different from most school systems in America. And they’re making sure these schools do what they’re supposed to. So overall, the New Orleans school system is one that holds a high bar for what students are expected to achieve and what schools should be doing to help them. Not anyone can educate kids; we grant schools the privilege to educate kids. But all of this together has led to the constant improvement of schools.
Now that most of these schools have been transitioned back to the hands of the local school board, what happens to the RSD? What’s your role now, and how has it evolved?
NARECHANIA: The RSD still exists. It’s still the authority of the state to take control of failing schools, and we’re using the RSD as a last resort in a series of interventions of struggling schools. [The Every Student Succeeds Act] required states to identify their struggling schools, and we put [many] schools on that list. The RSD will be a last resort if those plans don’t demonstrate those schools are improving. It’s just a policy arm, though, so it’s part of a larger school improvement effort. The RSD is still the lever of state policy — it’s just a much smaller entity than it was a few months ago. The state can always give us more schools. We’re just partnering to help them improve. The local districts are still the ones in charge.
The role for the district to play, and the district’s role, from my perspective, is setting a bar for what constitutes as successful performance from a school. The district and the state have to set a bar, and then you have to let people who lead make decisions for the kids in front of them. The model we created respects their autonomy but also holds them accountable.
Why do you think the city has become a model for success and school choice advocates?
NARECHANIA: The Orleans Parish School Board is the first almost all-charter district. It’s maintained autonomy, accountability, choice and equity — everything we’ve built since ’05. Any merger is a complicated situation, but the thing that made me confident in our ability to do this well was the investment of our leaders in everything we created. The majority of them came together and said, “This is the right thing to do for the system.” There’s a set of charter leaders in the state who feel tied to the policies we created because they were part of making them. It’s really a balance of those four factors. There are places where people argue for some or none of those things, but you have to have these things together. You can’t comply with them and yet have to tell parents, “You have to send your child to a failing school.” And you can’t protect students without them.
What would you tell people who are against charter schools/school choice?
NARECHANIA: One thing we’ve tried to hold true to is we haven’t made friends with either side of the aisle. We aren’t on either side; we’re in the middle. We haven’t been about the rhetoric — we’ve been about policymaking with schools. That’s the only way I know how to solve our city’s challenges, and that’s a tough road to walk on. What we have done — our metrics are generally trending in the right direction.
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