Dana Peterson CEO, New Schools for New Orleans
Last month, I traveled to Baton Rouge alongside school leaders, parents, educators, and advocates from across our city to testify against Senate Bill 25 (SB25), a piece of legislation that would have limited the freedom and flexibility of New Orleans’ educators to create schools that meet the unique needs of students. Together, we made our voices heard, and thankfully, the bill failed to advance out of committee. Now, we can turn our collective focus toward making sure our students and educators have what they need to thrive. A growing body of research confirms that students’ well-being and academic success are closely connected. We must ensure our system has the resources to support this, and students and teachers can access them.
Our schools have made great academic progress over the past 15 years in a system that values their autonomy and accountability. That progress can, and must, continue. Like so many cities, New Orleans’ schools face real challenges, many of which stem from issues beyond the classroom. Today, 80% of our students are considered economically disadvantaged, and cope with poverty, systemic racism, and inequities. Tulane’s Education Research Alliance found that 40% of students they surveyed reported greater concerns about their academic performance and mental well-being since the start of the Pandemic.
Devastatingly, we’re also losing many students to gun violence; these losses are horrific, and these young people are deeply missed. Students are taking action to heal, promote peace, and resolve conflict, and schools have taken holistic, restorative approaches to help students manage grief and other complex emotions. We see great examples of this in the student rallies against gun violence, such as one at Booker T. Washington High School, the inspiring NOLA Love Initiative and Rally led by InspireNOLA Schools, and in the restorative practices and structures at Educators for Quality Alternatives’ schools. But schools alone can’t address all that our children are up against, and they can’t provide all the support they need. At NSNO, we’re proud to partner with schools to do so.
We can move toward partnerships that offer children what they need. I’m given hope by NOLA-Public Schools’ exciting recent partnership with Children’s Hospital, through the crucial recent $10 million investment of New Orleans City Council–ThriveKids. ThriveKids is a powerful investment in our students’ mental and physical health and well-being. This helps students feel whole and well, and it helps them show up at school ready to learn. It also allows teachers to teach, and not serve as nurses and therapists, too.
I’m also excited about the work we’re doing at NSNO in launching the Allstate Sugar Bowl New Orleans Teacher Community. We want to support schools as they tackle the crisis in teacher retention and recruitment. We’ve partnered with the Allstate Sugar Bowl and College Football Playoff Foundation, who have generously committed $1 million over five years, to support schools in addressing the challenge. Together, we’re working to make New Orleans the best place to teach in the country. Our teachers need to feel a sense of well-being, too. They need to know they belong here, and that they are loved by our city. We’ve approached that in a number of ways–like hosting NOLA Teacher Fest and the New Orleans Excellence in Teaching Awards Gala, and by running the New Orleans Teacher Job Board, which makes it easy to apply to any job across our city’s public schools. We also support the growing number of “Grow Your Own” Programs in our public schools that are preparing our city’s own students to teach here someday.
ThriveKids and the Teacher Community remind us that, in our system, schools don’t have to “do it all.” We give educators the freedom and flexibility to build strong classrooms, and we let them focus on that. We know they have enough on their plates already. Our teachers should be able to focus on teaching. Our students should be able to focus on learning. Today, there are still real barriers to this, so we need to turn our energy away from legislative debates and onto creative solutions. We must braid public resources and leverage the many providers across our city that can address this.
And as we do so, we must continue to support the academic progress of the last fifteen years. Our students still need to catch up from time out of school during the early Pandemic and Hurricane Ida. We must also drive resources toward high quality curriculum, finding and retaining great teachers, and driving early literacy. If we can do that, while also providing key support outside of academics, we’ll see our children achieve and thrive in the way we’ve all been dreaming of.