January 1, 2011
Education: Advanced Placement
The key to New Orleans’s rebirth may lie in an unprecedented overhaul of its education system that puts public schools at the center of community services.
Before Hurricane Katrina, the public schools in New Orleans were notoriously bad: academically substandard, chronically corrupt, poorly funded, racially and economically segregated (white students made up a miniscule 3 percent of enrollment), and in such disrepair due to decades of deferred maintenance that the storm nearly finished off what were already dismal facilities. Many thought it was a system that was broken beyond repair, requiring a clean slate.
Five and a half years later, that is close to what the city got. After Katrina, the state of Louisiana seized control of 107 of the city’s failing schools, firing all of the teachers. (Sixteen schools remain under the control of the Orleans Parish District.) It established the Recovery School District (RSD), which in fairly short order began systematically replacing many of the underperforming schools with charters. Sensing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, education reformers and idealistic young teachers flocked to New Orleans. Today about two-thirds of the city’s 38,000 students (there were 65,000 before the storm) attend charter schools, and according to the RSD, test scores are up significantly.
The physical transformation of the schools, however, has progressed much more slowly. Recently, four new buildings opened as part of the Quick Start program, but most students attend classes in a mix of obsolete existing schools, modular structures, and other temporary fixes. But the landmark $1.8 billion disaster-relief settlement, reached last August with FEMA, promises to jump-start a six-phase master plan that will not only rebuild or renovate the entire system—unprecedented for an American city—but make neighborhood schools central to the economic and cultural rebirth of New Orleans.
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The idea of schools as neighborhood anchors is largely the brainchild of the local planner and architect Steven Bingler and his firm, Concordia. The “Nexus” concept, as he calls it, is not about midnight basketball or sharing facilities. Instead, it’s an urban-planning approach for delivering community services at the neighborhood level. “Nexus is about clustering,” says Bingler, whose firm played a leading role in developing the school master plan. “You don’t put the health clinic in the school. You put it across the street.” In its ideal form, a Nexus cluster might contain a school, a health-care clinic, a day-care center, cultural activities, and recreation centers; the mix could vary depending on neighborhood need. Putting schools at the center of these clusters falls in line with what Bingler heard over and over again at neighborhood charrettes. At a grass-roots level, locals overwhelmingly wanted politicians and planners to focus on schools. “By grouping all of these community services within walking distance of each other and a school, we could also address a lot of things at once: equitable access, sustainability, and wellness,” he says.
Bingler, a tireless network builder, has successfully embedded Nexus into virtually all of the community planning done up to this point, from the chaotic, contentious plans hatched in the immediate aftermath of the storm to the meticulously detailed facilities master plan commissioned by the RSD in 2007. That effort began with a thorough physical assessment of all 127 schools. Most of the buildings were in such poor shape that demolition was the best option. Because the city’s population had dramatically dropped, the number of sites had to be whittled down to 85 and located within ten- or fifteen-minute walks of significant population clusters—not an easy calculation in post-Katrina New Orleans. Establishing where people lived, and in what numbers, was difficult enough. Estimating a neighborhood’s growth in three or five years’ time was even more challenging. “We worked with demographers and created a point map on GIS”—geographic information systems—“which showed where people were living and where they were moving back to,” Bingler says.
Concordia worked on the plan with Sue Robertson, of Planning Alliance, and Bill DeJong, of DeJong & Associates, two facilities planners that the firm often competes against in other cities. “I told them, ‘I know you guys are going for this RFP,’” Bingler recalls. “‘This is my town, and the only thing I care about is having the best plan anywhere, because New Orleans children and families deserve it. So why don’t we do it together instead of competing with each other?’” The FEMA money—roughly $25 million a month for the next seven years—allowed them to do something rare for New Orleans: adopt a best-practices approach. “We have one of the most progressive school master plans anywhere in the country,” he says. “It’s a plan based on research. Research says small schools are better than big ones. So we have 400-student K–8 schools and 800-student high schools. It’s more expensive to operate schools at that size, but we know the outcomes are much higher.”
Of course, even the most visionary plans are merely that: plans. There is no guarantee that they will make their way into built form. Nevertheless, a number of recent events bode well for Nexus. About a year ago, Mitch Landrieu, a former lieutenant governor and the brother of Louisiana’s senior U.S. senator, was overwhelmingly elected to city hall. Strong, politically connected, and hands-on, the new mayor is the antithesis of his predecessor, Ray Nagin, whose combination of arrogance and incompetence helped unify voters, black and white, behind Landrieu.
By then, New Orleans had entered a new phase of recovery: it was implementation time. The street car, rolling downhill now, needed a driver.
Last July, speaking to a gathering of urban planners, architects, bankers, and community leaders, the mayor asked, “Why don’t the schools become the center of communities?” Why not, indeed? A month later Landrieu appointed William A. Gilchrist, a respected architect and planner, as “Director of Place-Based Planning.” The job title is a clear indication that the mayor is looking at economic development through the lens of urban design. “This Nexus concept really falls under the broader category of place-based planning,” Gilchrist says. “We have regular meetings with the RSD and the Orleans Parish School Board. We look at their building programs and explore ways that we can get better synergy around those projects, and also see what other investments, through our own capital projects—community and recreation centers, police and fire stations—we might do to leverage the presence of a school.”
Though the first batch of Quick Start schools aren’t pure expressions of the Nexus concept, that will hardly throw off Bingler’s master plan;
for now, the new schools will naturally serve as community hubs. “The vast majority of our projects are clustered near schools for the simple fact that the school program is so ubiquitous,” Gilchrist says. Meanwhile, eighteen additional schools are in design development, and Bingler
is producing a more nuanced and fully realized Nexus model for five neighborhoods, each of them tailored to their particular needs. There
is some urgency to the effort. A complete build-out is largely dependent on the city’s ability to design and construct new schools on time and
on budget—something that would have been unthinkable in pre-Katrina New Orleans but, miraculously, seems possible today. The effort, however, is long overdue, and the need predates everything that has happened since the storm. The old schools were separate and almost criminally unequal. “One thing we learned from recovery planning in New Orleans from Day One: equity was the most important factor to consider,” Bingler says. “The city had failed to address this for 150 years. Let’s just say, equity was on our minds.”