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Search to find New Orleans’ next superintendent enters interview stage; students weigh in

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DCJOHN
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WWNO
Students play at Akili Academy in the Upper 9th Ward. Nov. 13, 2020.

As New Orleans Public Schools enters the final phase of its superintendent search, the school board voted Thursday to begin inviting candidates to interview for the district’s top position.

Before voting, the board met in executive session for three hours to discuss a list of “one or more superintendency candidates,” recommended by its search firm Greenwood/Asher & Associates.

District superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. announced last June that he would leave the position when his contract expired at the end of the 2021-22 school year, kicking off a nationwide search for his replacement.

Representatives with Greenwood/Asher have said on multiple occasions that the search process remains on schedule and that they expect to hire Lewis’ replacement by early April.

Candidate names are not publicly available, though the board has previously said it plans to include the community in later stage interviews.

“We are not done with community engagement. We are not done with feedback,” board president Olin Parker said. He also urged people to complete the district’s feedback form.

David Presley with Greenwood/Asher said his team has hosted more than 50 community feedback sessions since December, most over Zoom, but some in person.

More than 450 people have weighed in so far, including parents, teachers, students, community and advocacy groups and school leaders.

“By far my favorite and most dynamic part of this process thus far was engaging with the young minds of the city,” Presley said, adding that students had offered “invaluable feedback.”

Three of the in-person sessions were exclusively for students and included representatives from several schools and charter operators. The events were held in mid-February, but only one at John F. Kennedy High School was open to the press. More than 100 students from seven high schools attended the event.

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Aubri Juhasz
/
WWNO
John F. Kennedy High School in Gentilly on Feb. 17, 2022.

Students were first asked to list traits and skills they thought the next superintendent should possess. But most of the hour-long discussion ended up focusing on the challenges they thought the district’s new leader would need to address.

Most of the concerns raised had to do with the lack of equity between schools, which some students framed as a funding issue.

While student enrollment determines the amount of money a school gets from the city and the state, some charters have access to additional funding streams, including money from investments, grants and donations.

Additionally, selective admissions schools like Lusher Charter School often end up with fewer students that require special, and often costly, services. Factors including student enrollment and the condition of school facilities can also play a role in how much money a school has to put toward things like special classes, extracurriculars, internships and field trips.

Lusher students spoke candidly at the session about the level of privilege they felt their school had and advocated for changes that would provide more resources to other schools.

“We are grateful, but we feel like [the] opportunities [we have] need to be extended to everyone,” one Lusher student said, as students around the room nodded their heads in approval.

“I really like how the Lusher group is really advocating for the rest of the city,” another student said.

Keyron Torregano, a senior at John F. Kennedy, told New Orleans Public Radio after the event that he sees a clear connection between the resources schools offered and student engagement and achievement.

“You have a lot of students who wish they had the opportunities to show what they actually can do,” he said, adding that when a student discovers a class or club they’ve been looking forward to doesn’t exist at their school they’re more likely to disconnect.

Amari Shepherd, a tenth-grader at Frederick Douglass, agreed.

“It’s always a question of resources,” Shepherd said. “I think it’s vital that the next superintendent knows that.”

Another problem brought up by students was the shortage of teachers that’s been felt across the city and the country due to the pandemic. Beyond that, many students said they had been disappointed with teacher quality, especially among substitutes.

“I think we have a lot of people who know things but don't necessarily know how to teach,” Shepherd said, adding that schools should provide teachers with more mentorship and professional development.

Torregano said the same problem exists at his school.

“I've had experiences where they've come in, taught the lesson, went through the procedures, but we haven't actually learned anything,” he said.

Presley, with Greenwood/Asher, relayed many of the students’ concerns to board members Thursday and said students and community members want a superintendent who will work to actively address problems outside of the classroom, including poverty, crime and truancy.

Vice president J.C. Wagner Romero said that was a priority for the board as well.

“I’m looking forward to doing this work … to ensure the superintendent isn’t just someone who is leading academics, operations [and] finances … but someone who is prioritizing all of the equity issues that exist in our society,” Romero said.

While the search has created the opportunity to have conversations about the district’s weaknesses and the challenges it’s facing, board president Parker said he didn’t want to lose sight of Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.’s accomplishments.

“Dr. Lewis is leaving this district in a much better place than he found it. I don’t want that to get lost in this community engagement,” Parker said. “The challenges that the incoming superintendent will face are much different than the ones he faced when he first came here.”

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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