Education Nation event puts Louisiana schools in spotlight

Advocate staff photo by KARI DEQUINE HARDEN -- NBC anchor Hoda Kotb moderates a panel with Leslie Jacobs. Sarah Carr and Andre Perry at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts as part of the Education Nation tour.
Advocate staff photo by KARI DEQUINE HARDEN -- NBC anchor Hoda Kotb moderates a panel with Leslie Jacobs. Sarah Carr and Andre Perry at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts as part of the Education Nation tour.

The auditorium at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts was transformed into a television studio Friday as preschool owners and professors joined politicians and policy-makers for a conversation about all things education with Hoda Kotb, co-host of NBC’s “Today” show.

Throughout the day of speeches, panels and one-on-one interviews, New Orleans — and specifically education in New Orleans — was referred to as a laboratory for innovation and change, a petri dish, a model for the rest of the country and the Silicon Valley of education.

Next year, the city will continue to outpace all others in the privatization of schools with more than 90 percent of public school children attending charter schools.

After a “near death experience,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, “we are re-creating ourselves because we had to,” and are building the New Orleans that always should have been. “We have to get education right.”

The all-star day of discussion was part of NBC’s Education Nation annual broadcast tour, with New Orleans as the second stop on the circuit in between Detroit and Phoenix.

Kyle Wedberg, president and CEO of NOCCA, said that change is vital not because of a wrong path in the past but because the future demands it.

Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard talked about the city’s unprecedented gains and the driving idea in his district of raising the bar for children and families.

Stan Smith, interim superintendent of the Orleans Parish School Board, touted his district’s growth and said that it was only possible through the hard work of teachers.

The first panel discussion covered early childhood education. The participants all agreed quality pre-kindergarten education leads to academic success many years down the line but that the dollars aren’t there to support it, said Geoff Nagle, director of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health at Tulane University.

“We’re not investing in young children,” Nagle said. “The dollars are diminishing instead of increasing.”

Tagle also discussed expanding the idea of education to include the ability to work with others, confidence, self-control of emotions, creativity, determination and other social skills as being critical. If children have those, then they learn to read, Tagle said.

Jenna Conway, executive director of early childhood for the state Department of Education, said that more federal dollars are needed, as well as combined funding sources including the investment of the business community.

The second session was titled “K-12: Lessons from the New Orleans Experience.”

Leslie Jacobs, founder of Educate Now!, talked about the increased power of principals to make key decisions under the decentralized charter districts.

Author Sarah Carr said that with schools’ increased autonomy, leadership makes the difference between the school doing well or poorly. She said there is a continued need for checks and balances to make sure principals are doing what they need to for their schools.

Andre Perry, associate directory for the Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education, talked about self-determination and the community members who successfully rebuilt schools only to be told by out-of-state forces.

“We can do it better,” he said.

Perry talked about the importance of giving neighborhood groups charters and recruiting and retaining residents.

Carr said she would like to see schools getting more input from the low-income families they serve for more honest and nuanced perspectives about the gaps that still exist, rather than relying on the community elite. She stressed bringing parents into the conversation on a deeper level.

In the charter versus traditional school debate, the overall consensus among the panel was that there are good and bad charter schools and good and bad traditional schools.

State Superintendent John White said that areas where he would like to see improvement are career education mental health care.

The third session focused on the skills gap and workforce development and increasing student awareness of viable, lucrative careers in technical fields that require shorter post-secondary studies but in which there are high demand for workers.

Charlotte Bollinger, executive vice president and corporate secretary of Bollinger Shipyard, said that in her industry, there are hundreds of job openings, and they are desperate for trained workers to fill them.

Bollinger said she encourages students who aren’t on a path to a four-year degree to graduate high school and participate in dual-enrollment programs.

The panelists discussed the demand for workers in advanced manufacturing, creative digital technology, allied health and the film industry.

Kotb expressed particular interest in Louisiana’s voucher program, using the last few minutes of the discussion to grill Jindal about it. When she asked him if the vouchers hurt public schools, he said absolutely not, touting the ability of parents to pull their kids out of failing schools, the money the state was saving paying less for private schools, the increased investment in K-12 education and the fact that it isn’t a one size fits all solution. “Every child learns differently,” Jindal said.

In the previous session, Perry told Kotb that the state should not be giving privilege to unproven private and parochial schools, and that private does not necessarily equal better.

Repeatedly, Kotb asked if creationism should be taught in public schools. Jindal refused to give a yes or no but answered by saying that all children should be exposed to the best science and that students are tested on national standards. With the wiggle room allowed in the Louisiana Science Education Act for teachers to add supplementary teaching material, Jindal said, “We shouldn’t be afraid to expose kids to more knowledge,” and then let them make up their own minds.

She also asked Jindal about speaking engagements in New Hampshire and whether that signified anything, to which he said no, that there was too much work to be done at home. She asked about his “parked” tax reform plan and whether he was planning to “put it back in drive.” Jindal said that while the specific bill was parked, during the legislative session they would continue to debate how best to get rid of income tax.

Today, a teacher town hall will be broadcast live on WDSU at 6 p.m. On Sunday at 4 p.m., a student town hall will air and will be streamed live online at http:www.educationnation.com.