Fighting for Our Future Workforce

On the precipice of another big educational change — on July 1 all New Orleans public schools will fall under the Orleans Parish School Board — Patrick Dobard, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, talks about how far our schools have come and how we get to where we need to be.

The post-Katrina transformation of New Orleans’ public education system has involved a dizzying number of players across the public, private and nonprofit sectors. But few have had as much impact as New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO), a nonprofit organization founded in 2006 to help shepherd the city’s decade-plus transition from a dysfunctional network of chronically underperforming schools to the nation’s first charter district led by an elected school board.

While the overhaul has been rocky at times, the student gains are indisputable, with significant increases in graduation rates, standardized test scores and eligibility for TOPS scholarships, among other measures.

At the center of this evolution is Patrick Dobard, a New Orleans-born-and-raised educator whose 27-year career has revolved around the belief that every student deserves equal access to high-quality public education and the improved life outcomes it provides.

Dobard spent the first decade of his career as a classroom teacher, then 16 years with the Louisiana Department of Education, including a five-year term as superintendent for the city’s Recovery School District. One year ago he took on the role as CEO of NSNO — in time for a significant milestone, the upcoming unification (July 1, 2018) of all the city’s public schools under the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB).

As that transition approaches, Dobard reflects on the progress the city has made for its students, the work that remains and the part NSNO will continue to play.


WHAT PREPARED YOU TO BE AN ADVOCATE FOR EDUCATION?

I never envisioned myself as a superintendent of schools, let alone CEO of an education entity, but I can see now that my career path was leading me this way. What’s driven me, and the work — particularly over the last 12 years or so — has been grounded in my family story. I think it’s common to many of us that grew up here.

In 1969, my oldest brother went to our neighborhood public high school, Joseph Clark. He was able to graduate from Clark and be accepted to, and graduate from, Tulane University. Fast forward to 1981, when it was time for me to go to high school, my parents would not even consider me going to the neighborhood public school anymore. They decided they were going to scrape up every dollar they could to send me to St. Augustine High School. [By 2005], unfortunately, Clark had become the lowest-performing high school, not only in the city of New Orleans, but in the state of Louisiana.

So that tale — how a young man in 1969 could have his life outcome be positively influenced by the quality of education he received but, by 2005, have that not be the case for most children in New Orleans public schools — underscores what drives me and many of my colleagues in this work.

WHAT ARE SOME OF NSNO'S MAIN ACCOMPLISHMENTS?

We’ve helped to fund and launch or expand about 35 schools citywide. We are launching the Innovative Schools Fellowship, where we will select individuals with the best ideas for creating new school designs. In the area of special education, we are creating the Special Education Leader Fellowship as well as specialized programs like Opportunities Academy. From a talent perspective, we’ve created the Norman C. Francis Teacher Residency program in partnership with Xavier University — the first of its kind in our nation where a historically black college is partnering with schools to increase the number of teachers in the system.

We also do things to celebrate our students and teachers. NSNO created the Senior Shout Out, where we recognize our graduating seniors and motivate them to continue moving higher in their educational career. And we created the New Orleans Excellence in Teaching Awards, recognizing excellent teachers throughout the city and giving them a stipend in honor of their work.


Favorite book?

The Coldest Winter Ever

Favorite TV Show?

The Wire

Who do you look up to?

Muhammad Ali

Biggest life lesson learned?

Character matters

Best advice ever received?

Rarely do opportunity and convenience meet

Hobbies?

Playing golf. Reading and listening to Audible. Watching the NBA.

Daily habits?

I’m not a “habit” person, but I do these three things daily: 1. Read spiritual devotionals and various news periodicals 2. Drink at least one cup of coffee  3.  Ask a lot of questions

Pet peeve(s)?

When people don’t push in their chairs

What are you most looking forward to in the next year?

Moving closer to fulfilling the vision of NSNO, which is to dramatically improve the life outcomes of our students in New Orleans schools. The way that we will accomplish this next year is by having significant funding commitments that will jump-start the next wave of work and I’m excited to make this happen.


HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE CITY'S PROGRESS ON EDUCATION TO DATE?

First, out of the 200 largest school districts in the U.S., there’s no city serving primarily black students that outperforms New Orleans on academic growth. So, we’re measuring up against that national standard.

Secondly, in 2015, Tulane’s Education Research Alliance shared that they weren’t aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short period of time.

Third, since 2004, our graduation rates have improved from one out of two students graduating on time to today, when we have almost three out of four students graduating on time. Our college entry rates are up from about 37 percent in 2004 to almost 60 percent today.

We’ve also doubled the number of students that are eligible for TOPS opportunity scholarships from 25 percent to almost 50 percent.

We’ve made phenomenal growth, whether it’s against local metrics, as we look at the college entry rates and TOPS scholarships, or measuring against growth and standards nationally. We’re much better than where we were, but we still have a very long way to go to get to excellent schools across the city.

WHAT ARE OUR STRENGTHS?

We have really good leadership, both local leaders in education as well as statewide. Leadership matters, whether it’s in the classroom or in government. I believe the governance structure we’ve established in New Orleans has allowed a lot of the success we’re seeing. It’s the OPSB understanding and embracing their role as an authorizer — starting this July — of all schools in the city, making certain they continue to build off the infrastructure that has been laid around enrollment and ensuring that there’s equity among services and funding for all kids. We’ve solidified that.

We also have a well-coordinated system that values the input of schools. Our charter leaders are viewed as partners. They can create and innovate, all within a framework that government has created and that leadership has put their mark on. But the system has also been nimble enough that when the charter leaders tell us there are things that they need to serve students well, it’s not a top-down approach.

WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER OUR MAIN CHALLENGES?

A few things come to mind, and context is important. First, charter operators and leaders have given up a lot of individual autonomy for the betterment of the system as a whole. Years ago, they all agreed to opt into a centralized enrollment system which was basically blind to the ability level of the kids being assigned to schools. No school ever knows the capabilities of the kids they’re going to educate because, as public schools, you serve all kids that come through your door. So, while there was a lot of autonomy early on in New Orleans before we created a centralized enrollment around student populations, there isn’t anymore.

With that, schools have taken on some of the most challenged kids, not only in our city, but our state. Two out of three kids in New Orleans are born in poverty and will die in poverty. They do not have the infrastructure at home and in society that allows them to be productive students. We have to educate them, but it takes more resources, more human capacity, in order to serve many of our most disadvantaged kids.

Another challenge is around the curriculum usage in schools. We made the shift to the Common Core curriculum a few years ago, but around 70 percent of our schools still aren’t using aligned curriculum, and we see the decline. They’ve come to us and said, ‘We need help.’ So, we are now focusing on the curriculum being used.

A final challenge is around talent. We find that in New Orleans, we are losing approximately 875 teachers a year — one quarter of our workforce. That includes teachers going from school to school within networks, or different networks, or even to surrounding parishes.

One of the fears is that the cost of living in New Orleans is increasing and educators may be being priced out. That’s something to think about. If we value (and I think we do) our teaching profession, what can we do to retain more teachers?

HOW IS NSNO PLANNING TO ADDRESS THESE CHALLENGES?

We’re now embarking on our new three-year strategic plan, so I’ve spent most of the last 10 months meeting with stakeholders in the city, state and beyond to get a feel for what’s the next frontier.

First on our list is portfolio management. We invest to make sure we have schools that are high quality throughout the city, which means new school development and support of existing schools. We want to continue to create a pipeline of schools that create diverse options for families, whether it’s options around programming or around the student population.

Second, we’re going to help schools focus on curriculum and instruction, since we identified that as a weak area that has caused some of the decline. We felt like we needed to engage with quality third-party entities that would partner with schools to help them shore up their development of curriculum and help teachers make the switch to a much more rigorous accountability and standards system.

The third area of our strategy is talent, so we are going to coordinate the citywide strategy on retention and recruitment of teachers. That includes supporting the growth of current programs such as Teach For America, Relay Graduate School, teachNOLA and TNTP. We’re also looking to fund the launch of at least one new university-based program to train and place teachers in New Orleans public schools.

One of the things I’m proud that we’ve accomplished is convening, for the first time, all the deans of the colleges of education in the city to start the conversation about how to strengthen their programs to become better partners with our schools.

We’re working with national experts to help us figure out the root causes for not being able to retain teachers and what we can do to turn that around. We tend to lose most of our teachers here — and nationally — within the first five years. If you can get individuals to stay up to five years, then the likelihood of them making a career out of it is very strong.

Part of our talent strategy is also working on the development of our C-level talent: the CEOs of charters, their academic leads, individuals that might be principals, and trying to build up more succession planning. Many of our founding leaders are starting to move on to other things, and we don’t want to destabilize the system if they haven’t thought about a succession plan. We’re starting to think more like the business community, grooming individuals to take our schools to the next level.

The fourth area of focus is policy, an area where NSNO has traditionally been behind the scenes — not very vocal in the community but very influential. Going forward, we’ll take more of an active role with the OPSB and their leadership, as well as our partners that advocate in different areas of education and be a main convener and coordinator around policy development as well as communications.

HOW ARE SCHOOLS ADDRESSING THE ISSUE OF WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT?

We have the New Orleans Career and Technical Center, which will be piloted this fall as a half-day school for kids in career and technical education. For the business community, this should be an exciting thing that allows students to learn industry skills and get certifications that ultimately, when they graduate from high school, will help them go right into the workforce or continue their education to strengthen their abilities to move into the workforce.

We’re working with YouthForce NOLA, a great program that’s been in existence for a few years now, along with the state’s department of education. We feel it’s important to get different sectors to talk to each other and work together in order to figure out other high-wage, high-growth industries that we may not be tapping into.

HOW IS NSNO FUNDED?

A large portion of our funding is through philanthropy, and we do receive some federal grants. Fundraising is a big part of our work. We’ve had some strong national partners that are in the process of recommitting to New Orleans over the next several years, but we also want to tap into more of a local funder base to sustain the work we have going on. We are the lead partner right now in helping to identify those revenue sources so we won’t have to depend totally on philanthropy. 

WHAT IS THE GOVERNMENT'S ROLE NOW IN THE CITY'S EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM?

The biggest role they play is to regulate the system, to hold a high bar for academic quality as well as preserve equity for all of our young people. The leadership of the board has laid out a good foundation to be a quality authorizer and regulator of schools. The OPSB has met all of the benchmarks in the unification legislation that’s been laid out. They’re on schedule. It’s going to be a successful transition come July 1, 2018.

HOW CAN THE BUSINESS COMMUNITY PARTICIPATE IN SUPPORTING OUR PUBLIC SCHOOLS?

I would strongly encourage the business community to get actively involved in becoming charter board members. We have seats on multiple charter boards – every charter school and/or network of charter schools has their own board, and those are all volunteer positions.

I would encourage people to reach out to organizations like the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, which recruits and trains individuals to serve on charter boards. It’s a way to give back to the community. You’re helping shape the lives of children and using your business expertise to help shape the thinking of a CEO who’s managing a diverse network of schools. We have a lot of strong individuals who come from business and professional backgrounds, but we need more.

IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU'RE OPTIMISTIC.

I’m extremely optimistic. After having been superintendent, I have had the privilege to step back and enjoy thinking about the accomplishments we were able to make in a relatively short period of time. But as I reflected, I realized we’re barely at the halfway point.

I do feel we can continue to impact, in a positive way, the systemic generational inequities that have plagued our city for far too long, where we are putting more students on the path to quality life outcomes than ever before, and that excites me. That makes me wake up every day with a little bit more energy to say, ‘What can we do today to improve the life outcome of one more child?’ That’s what this next decade-plus is about, and I’m super excited to be part of this incredible team we have built in New Orleans to help solve that.


 

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