An Education Star Takes on New Orleans Schools

Last year was a rocky one for the New Orleans Recovery School District, which has run the city's schools since Hurricane Katrina. Hundreds of students were turned away because schools and teachers were in short supply. Test scores were at rock bottom. Buildings are still in terrible shape.

But now, there's a new sheriff in town. Paul Vallas has taken over as superintendent, after running schools in Philadelphia and Chicago.

Vallas may be an education megastar, but reviving the New Orleans school system could be his toughest assignment ever.

Avoiding Last Year's Mistakes

After the storm, the city's teachers were laid off; many complained that they did not receive proper benefits. There's still palpable anger over the way the state took over city schools, creating the Recovery School District.

Part of Vallas' task is to ease relations with the teachers' union.

For example, "I need to make sure that payroll is going to be met," Vallas says. "We cannot have any screw-ups in payroll."

He also spends time making the rounds on public affairs shows, as he works to reassure the city that this year won't see a repeat of the problems that plagued schools last year.

Doubt still lingers about the quality of instruction in the district's 22 schools. More than half of all eighth-graders failed to pass the state's math test last year. Critics blamed a lack of qualified teachers, and schools that were reopened before they were ready.

"I equated the school openings last year to being a passenger on a sinking ocean liner," Vallas says. "You're just trying to grab as many lifeboats as you can." He adds: "A lot of times, it was just 'Get the kids in the building, and get a warm body in front of the kids.'"

That rush to reopen schools led to concerns about violence and gang problems, as students from different parts of town were thrown into the same schools. Last year, the district hired a lot of security guards; the result, many said, made schools feel like prisons.

Vallas has addressed this concern by employing one of his favorite strategies: hiring a local, well-known person — in this case, former police chief Eddie Compass.

Compass was forced out of his job right after Katrina hit, and many in town think he got a raw deal. Vallas has hired Compass as his security chief, a move that has given the new superintendent instant street credibility.

Winning Hearts and Minds

Another Vallas strategy: holding meeting after meeting with potential rivals and allies. He'll talk to anyone. It's never completely clear just how much Vallas is really listening — he often interrupts discussions. But no one seems to mind.

Armando Almendarez has worked with Vallas in Chicago and Philadelphia, and he came out of retirement to help Vallas here.

"I don't think that there's another urban superintendent quite like Paul Vallas — he really looks at solutions out of the box," Almendarez says.

Almendarez acknowledges that Vallas isn't the easiest person to work with. But, he says, "You can't find anyone with a greater passion, a greater vision."

The Pressure to Show Results

But Vallas still faces an uphill climb. Since Katrina, suspicions have run high about the city's education system. Low-income residents complain that New Orleans' growing crop of charter schools skim the best students. Some fear that the city's traditional schools are quickly returning to the substandard status they were known for before the storm.

After years in tough districts like Chicago and Philadelphia, Vallas seems confident he can humor even the skeptics in New Orleans. But he knows that any "turnaround superintendent" gets a short honeymoon.

"The first two years, he's like a demolitions expert — you know, go in, diffuse the bomb. No one interferes with you, everyone keeps their distance," Vallas says of the role of a "turnaround expert."

"By year three," he adds, "like maybe test scores are rising, you're building new schools, things are really happening. People start to turn around and go, 'This is easier than we thought.' By year four, if things are still improving, people are moping that you're getting way too much credit for it. And then by year five, you're chopped liver."

But for now, Vallas is still a fine pate.

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