How New Schools for New Orleans Helped the City Come Back


[Part 1 of 2 profiles of the U.S. Department of Education’s New Orleans grantees, and the difference they are making for children in the city.]

In the years since Hurricane Katrina, the people of New Orleans have worked hard to rebuild virtually every aspect of their city. Yet few sectors have undergone as much change as the city’s educational system. Since 2005, the city has rebuilt how it educates its students.

It’s made a real difference in student outcomes—though there is still a great deal more to accomplish. For example, graduation rates are up 19 percentage points since 2005.

This transformation has been led by local educators and innovators. In many cases, their work has been helped by New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO), a U.S. Department of Education grantee.

NSNO takes a comprehensive approach to supporting schools and students across the city. To date, NSNO funding has helped launched 31 schools, which collectively serve over 12,000 students. NSNO also helps schools meet talent development challenges, particularly to improve data-driven instruction, enhance school culture and design, and launch effective teacher and leadership training. In addition, NSNO is working hard to identify new ways to ensure that the city’s special education population gets the education they deserve.

Recognizing the scope and impact of NSNO’s work, the U.S. Department of Education has invested over $40 million in NSNO through three key grant programs: Investing in Innovation (i3), the Teacher Incentive Fund program and the Charter Schools Program. The organization has also received $5.6 million in matching funds from private organizations.

The grants to NSNO are just one part of the Department’s larger investment in New Orleans. Through our Office of Innovation and Improvement alone, New Orleans and Louisiana have received over $100 million since 2005. These funds haven’t just helped the city to rebuild. They’ve helped the city to innovate and thrive.

Maggie Runyan-Shefa, co-CEO of NSNO, says grants like i3 have helped New Orleans to dramatically improve its devastated school system. “We’re really excited about [turning around failing schools]. We know we have a lot of progress to make in New Orleans… but the fact that we have moved so many students out of failing schools is really exciting.”

While much of NSNO’s i3 work has involved starting new schools, Runyan-Shefa says that i3 has also allowed her and her colleagues to think about overall infrastructure development. In addition, the i3 grant has allowed them to share lessons learned and best practices with other organizations outside of the city—and even the state.

Part of NSNO’s i3 grant enabled them to work with Tennessee’s statewide school district to launch successful new schools that replace low-performing ones, building on NSNO’s lessons learned in New Orleans. During this process, a lot of information was shared back and forth—and both districts benefitted from the exchange. “We’ve learned a lot from them in how [we] think about and work with communities… and what we’ve been able to give to them—beyond school selection expertise—is thinking about how [to] help charter schools that traditionally had a different model of enrollment really serve all kids.”

Runyan-Shefa acknowledges that success hasn’t come without challenges. In particular, NSNO worries about including all community members in the process. “Given the state of our school system now compared to where it was 10 or 15 years ago, how do we make sure that we have a school system for everybody and that everybody feels engaged with—but also feels really proud of?” asked Runyan-Shefa. “The gains that the students have made in the last decade are really exciting—and so how do we make sure that…parents feel they can be a part of [their schools]?”

Despite these challenges, Runyan-Shefa says the city’s faith and fortitude is palpable. “I was just blown away… by the tremendous needs of the schools in New Orleans—but also by the real feeling of hope and resilience in the community.”

That hope and resilience has translated into real progress over the last ten years. With help from NSNO and its partners, New Orleans can continue its momentum. If it does, the city will be well on its way to creating an educational system where every child succeeds.

Learn more and read NSNO’s full report – Ten Years in New Orleans: Public School Resurgence and the Path Ahead


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