Q&A: Former RSD Leader On The Strengths Of NOLA's Charter School System, And Biggest Challenge
New Orleans is on the verge of becoming the first city in the nation with no traditional public schools. Next school year, all New Orleans public schools will be either charters, or something similar known as 'contract schools.' Patrick Dobard has seen the school system evolve since Hurricane Katrina. Dobard ran the Recovery School District from 2012 to 2017. Now he’s the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit focused on improving the city’s schools. He sat down with WWNO education reporter Jess Clark to talk about how well the city's school system is working.
Below is a transcript of their conversation. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: New Orleans is now nearly an all-charter district. But some people who began the charter movement say charter schools were never supposed to compose an entire school district - that they're supposed to be outliers that innovate and drive change. Do you think New Orleans' charter system is working?
I believe it's working. There are so many different points of access for where you can make meaningful change. For example, in a traditional school district if you have an elected school board member, they may represent 10,000 kids. And you may want to see some changes in your school, but you may not know how to go about doing that, and then the board member has to figure out what's going on at the school, and what you need as a parent. But if your charter board only oversees 800 kids, and meets regularly just like the Orleans Parish School Board, you can go to that meeting and it's less people that you have to navigate through to have direct access to those indivuals making decisions. So that decentralization creates really good access points for families.
Q: At the same time, charter school board members are not elected. So, if you have a board member who you have problems with, you can't necessarily get them off the board very easily. There are not a lot of mechanisms to do that.
Yeah, but that's just like with an elected school board - if you're not pleased with them, then you have to wait until the next cycle of electing. And there are ways to work through issues with people you have on your charter board. They may not be elected, but they still have to uphold a standard of making sure that they're responsive to families. And, Orleans Parish has an office that works with charter boards, and so if an individual feels that they're having issues with a charter board, they can go to the district.
Q: What's the biggest challenge schools are facing in New Orleans? Is there one problem that keeps you up at night more than others?
The teacher talent crisis. We're losing 900 teachers a year in New Orleans - 900. And those teachers aren't just going from one charter network to another - they're leaving the city.
Q: Do we know why they're leaving?
We at New Schools for New Orleans have surveyed over 1,000 teachers. There are a few reasons they leave. One, they want to have more professional growth opportunities and feel really supported, and so they're looking for other opportunities elsewhere. Second is pay. And third, they're looking for things that give them a better quality of life, like loan forgiveness, help with housing or just even feeling valued in the profession. We have to continue to have honest conversations, figure out what people actually need, and then support teachers so they want to stay in the profession. It's a noble profession, a lot of people are called to it, but they don't have the wherewithall to stick to it because of either life circumstances, or because of the challenging work that it is.