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Commentary: New Orleans offers lessons for Philadelphia’s ‘portfolio’

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    Photo: Dale Mezzacappa




As the Philadelphia School District continues its shift toward portfolio management for its public schools, it makes sense to look at another city at the forefront of this movement: New Orleans, where I spent the summer of 2011 working for the Recovery School District (RSD).

The RSD is the state-led entity that took over 75 percent of the public schools in New Orleans in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina. Its implementation of the portfolio model has important lessons for Philadelphia in two main areas: how to have robust oversight of its diverse group of school operators, and how a well-funded education nonprofit can play a role in promoting this model.

Since it started, the RSD has made significant changes to the way it manages accountability and oversight of its charters. It has centralized enrollment and expulsions and required public “equity reports” for each charter. A well-staffed Portfolio and School Performance Office holds annual review sessions with each charter.

At the same time, a nonprofit called New Schools for New Orleans has become one of the most powerful philanthropic players in the city’s education landscape. With RSD, it obtained a large federal innovation grant to help turn around low-performing schools.

The Philadelphia School Partnership sees itself as playing a similar role here.

Mike Wang, the managing director of PSP, has reached out to Neerav Kingsland, chief strategy officer of New Schools for New Orleans, to share ideas.

But there are important differences between Philadelphia and New Orleans. In New Orleans, a natural disaster allowed charter proponents to reshape the city’s educational landscape. In Philadelphia, it was a man-made catastrophe – call it a combination of Hurricane Ackerman and Hurricane Corbett – that led to the appointment of a chief recovery officer and the Boston Consulting Group’s recommendation to fully embrace portfolio management.

And the RSD oversees 63 public schools, while Philadelphia oversees nearly five times as many. In Philadelphia, only 25 percent of schools are charters, compared to 75 percent in the RSD. And the RSD is committed to converting the remaining district-run schools to charters by 2014.

New Orleans is portfolio/network management at its most extreme.

Charter school accountability

New Orleans has a few things to teach Philadelphia about accountability and oversight. After some hard lessons – a lawsuit by Southern Poverty Law Center charging discrimination against special education students, a mismanagement scandal involving a charter run by the same Turkish network that runs one in Philadelphia – RSD made a major adjustment to how it manages accountability.

A “deputy superintendent of portfolio” now oversees a 10-person office. Four of these staff members are “on-the-ground” managers; each oversees a network of approximately 15 charters.

“I really believe in a network-type structure,” said Deputy Superintendent of Portfolio Adam Hawf. “I think the sweet spot is somewhere in the ballpark of 15 schools.”
Philadelphia, which oversees more than 80 charter schools, had only six people in its troubled charter office when its director resigned in July.

To improve the RSD’s ability to oversee charters, the district centralizes enrollment and expulsion records to ensure no students are being unfairly “pushed out.”

The office publishes the equity reports for each charter. In addition to compiling data on student enrollment, attendance and performance, these reports monitor schools’ records on special education and annual student turnover.

“It’s holding schools accountable [for something] that we didn’t previously hold them accountable for,” said Hawf.

His office is also developing a new annual quality review for charter operators to delve into issues beyond test scores and budgets.

Hawf said that charter operators responded to RSD’s past overemphasis on test scores by pushing out special education students.

“Schools will do what you incentivize them to do,” he said, “so you need to be careful that you don’t accidentally incentivize them to do inappropriate things.”

Role of philanthropy

New Orleans also offers lessons for the role of philanthropy in promoting and supporting portfolio models.

Soon after Katrina, New Schools for New Orleans was playing a key role in incubating new charter operators. Six years later, local and national foundations, including Gates and Broad, helped the organization partner with the RSD to win a five-year federal Investing in Innovation (i3) grant. Under the grant, New Schools and the RSD work together to match low-performing schools with new operators in the New Orleans version of Philadelphia’s Renaissance initiative.

New Schools for New Orleans also got federal money to develop a robust, test-score oriented evaluation to identify successful charter operators worthy of grants for turnaround or expansion.   

Right now, PSP has vague criteria for giving away its millions to schools. A federal grant might help it develop standards that are more transparent, uniform and rigorous while also including criteria that could help high-performing District-run schools replicate their success.

And finally, New Schools for New Orleans has not only funded the expansion of successful charter schools, but actively recruited new charter operators from outside the city. PSP’s first two rounds of grants have been limited to schools and operators with Philadelphia roots. It is not yet clear whether PSP plans to recruit new school providers to Philadelphia.

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