Success amid obstacles for head of New Orleans schools

Paul Vallas tackles the many challenges New Orleans schools face.

By , Associated Press

Paul Vallas recently passed his first major milestone when fourth- and eighth-graders in the city's woeful public schools posted significantly higher test scores on state tests.

The superintendent of a 33-school district that includes many of New Orleans' worst-performing schools has received mostly positive reviews after his first year on the job, but many challenges remain. Too many students continue to fail or not show up for classes, there's limited funding for dilapidated buildings, and the district needs to retain quality teachers.

Mr. Vallas was known as a hard-driving reformer in Chicago and Philadelphia. After a year as the Recovery School District superintendent in New Orleans, the tireless worker has lengthened class days, decreased class sizes, and increased classroom technology. He is also helping create schools that revolve around themes like the arts and technology.

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Perhaps the biggest distraction, though, has been recovering from hurricane Katrina.

Affordable housing for teachers is tough to find, and families have been returning to the city with children who, in some cases earlier this year, hadn't been in school since Katrina hit in August 2005. Most students in the district are at least two years behind in reading and math.

Difficult decisions about reopening, rebuilding, or demolishing storm-damaged schools also have evoked emotional responses from neighborhood groups.

There are political and organizational hurdles, too. The public school system here is fractured. A handful of the city's best-performing schools are run by a local board and not under Vallas's control. Private organizations run a few dozen others as charter schools. And money is limited. The district's $260 million operating budget has no cash reserve, and decrepit school buildings need an estimated $1 billion for renovations.

Vallas's playbook includes creating benchmarks for progress and marketing his program to church and community groups.

In 1995, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley named Vallas, then his budget director, to lead the city's failing, financially mismanaged schools. Dismal test scores improved, new schools were built, and a degree of faith was restored.

"People who had made their careers off the system tended not to like him," says Greg Richmond, who worked with Vallas in Chicago. "The general public loved him."

The local teachers' union believes the district is better off but worries that not enough attention is being placed on behavioral problems and staff retention.

Paul Vallas recently passed his first major milestone when fourth- and eighth-graders in the city's woeful public schools posted significantly higher test scores on state tests.

The superintendent of a 33-school district that includes many of New Orleans' worst-performing schools has received mostly positive reviews after his first year on the job, but many challenges remain. Too many students continue to fail or not show up for classes, there's limited funding for dilapidated buildings, and the district needs to retain quality teachers.

Mr. Vallas was known as a hard-driving reformer in Chicago and Philadelphia. After a year as the Recovery School District superintendent in New Orleans, the tireless worker has lengthened class days, decreased class sizes, and increased classroom technology. He is also helping create schools that revolve around themes like the arts and technology.

Perhaps the biggest distraction, though, has been recovering from hurricane Katrina.

Affordable housing for teachers is tough to find, and families have been returning to the city with children who, in some cases earlier this year, hadn't been in school since Katrina hit in August 2005. Most students in the district are at least two years behind in reading and math.

Difficult decisions about reopening, rebuilding, or demolishing storm-damaged schools also have evoked emotional responses from neighborhood groups.

There are political and organizational hurdles, too. The public school system here is fractured. A handful of the city's best-performing schools are run by a local board and not under Vallas's control. Private organizations run a few dozen others as charter schools. And money is limited. The district's $260 million operating budget has no cash reserve, and decrepit school buildings need an estimated $1 billion for renovations.

Vallas's playbook includes creating benchmarks for progress and marketing his program to church and community groups.

In 1995, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley named Vallas, then his budget director, to lead the city's failing, financially mismanaged schools. Dismal test scores improved, new schools were built, and a degree of faith was restored.

"People who had made their careers off the system tended not to like him," says Greg Richmond, who worked with Vallas in Chicago. "The general public loved him."

The local teachers' union believes the district is better off but worries that not enough attention is being placed on behavioral problems and staff retention.

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