New Orleans Hires Veteran to Run City's Schools

Paul Vallas, who led the Chicago school system in the 1990s and the Philadelphia schools until earlier this year, has accepted the same job in New Orleans, as the district struggles under state control to recover from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

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There's a new man in charge of New Orleans' schools. He's Paul Vallas, Philadelphia's superintendent of schools. Vallas has made a name for himself running troubled urban school systems in both Philadelphia and Chicago. But as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the Crescent City will provide some unique challenges.

LARRY ABRAMSON: People who've worked with Paul Vallas used words like hard charging and driven to describe him. Wendy Beetlestone worked as Vallas' general counsel in Philadelphia for three years.

Ms. WENDY BEETLESTONE (General Counsel, School District of Philadelphia): Paul has vision. He has a grand vision for what education should be. And he's committed to making sure that the children who are in his district achieve as best as they can and exceed the expectations that have been placed on them.

ABRAMSON: Vallas used his passion to put new energy into school reform in Philadelphia. Test scores were in the basement when Vallas took over in 2002. In a press release announcing today's move, Louisiana education chief Paul Pastorek says one reason he chose Vallas was that he'd raised math and reading scores 20 percent in Philadelphia. In addition, Pastorek says that Vallas will bring something that New Orleans needs badly - a national reputation and national contacts.

Mr. PAUL PASTOREK (State Superintendent of Education, Louisiana): He'll be able to tap people from around the country to come to New Orleans and to support and to help. And he actually had about 20 people with him, today, that had been working in the city, actually, for the past two weeks.

ABRAMSON: The current superintendent, Robin Jarvis, cited the overwhelming stress of the job in announcing her resignation. She is moving to an educational non-profit. Jarvis says that over the past year, she struggled to get 22 New Orleans schools and 31 charters up and running. She says she's exhausted from the challenge of trying to bust students out of flood-ravaged areas, hire staff, and deliver meals to schools without functioning kitchens.

Ms. ROBIN JARVIS (Superintendent of Schools, New Orleans): Those types of things create unusual operational difficulties that really diverts your attention away from the instructional role.

ABRAMSON: Vallas will be moving from a massive system - Philadelphia has 174,000 students - to a city with just under 30,000 today. That's about half the number New Orleans had before Katrina. His first challenge, however, will be coping with rapid growth - hundreds of students returned to New Orleans and re-enroll every month, and the city faces a severe teacher shortage.

No one has been able to measure achievement in post-Katrina New Orleans. The system is effectively in year zero. Many schools are serving a new student body, and some of those students' records have been lost. But when all that gets straightened out, Mike Casserly of the Council of Great City Schools says this is where Vallas will probably try to make his mark.

Mr. MIKE CASSERLY (The Council Of Great City School): Before Hurricane Katrina, it was a school system and a city whose student achievement was nationally renowned as being extremely low. And that's going to be, probably, his toughest challenge, and that is to turn around the performance of the schools in that city.

ABRAMSON: Paul Vallas would not comment. For all his success in Philadelphia, Vallas leaves that school system with a $73 million deficit that led to tensions with the mayor and with the School Reform Commission overseeing Philadelphia's schools.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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