Something to prove

New Schools for Baton Rouge offers radical reform model, the country is watching

By Sara Bongiorni

The stakes were always high for New Schools for Baton Rouge, which set out to give 12,000 students in the parish’s worst schools better options by recruiting top charter-school operators to Baton Rouge.

It has opened 15 schools in six years. Three years ago, its schools enrolled 1,000 children. Today, the number is 5,000 students in kindergarten through 10th grade, a figure that will swell to 10,000 when its existing schools are fully operational.

New Schools for Baton Rouge CEO Chris Meyer

New Schools for Baton Rouge CEO Chris Meyer

New Schools has recruited acclaimed charter school operators to Baton Rouge, including an Arizona-based network whose Scottsdale high school was ranked the No. 2 best high school in the U.S. by U.S. News & World Report last year.

Now New Schools will pursue still-higher stakes for children in failing public schools. Education reformers are pushing the New Schools model to disrupt the traditional school-system model nationally.

Those reformers have a transformative aim: Demonstrating the power of the school-management approach used by New Schools to expand its use in school districts nationwide.

The approach, known as the portfolio model, works like this: school systems invest in and expand schools that deliver good results and overhaul or close those that don’t, whether they are charter schools, traditional public schools, magnets or some other iteration.

Charter schools are a central feature of a model in which school autonomy and community support are paramount, but it can be applied to traditional districts, too.

“The idea is giving autonomy to school leaders and then holding them to high results, regardless of what kind of school it is,” said Chris Meyer, New Schools’ CEO. “The focus is on outcomes and expanding schools that work for kids.”

Baton Rouge is one of about 10 cities where new nonprofit The City Fund is focusing efforts to expand the model. Its founders included billionaire hedge-fund manager John and Laura Arnold and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. The City Fund has raised nearly $200 million to expand the portfolio model in Baton Rouge and elsewhere since its founding last year. Arnold’s foundation alone has given several million dollars to New Schools to speed portfolio-model use in Baton Rouge.

The City Fund initiative has put New Schools, an organization created by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation with startup funding from our donors, on the front lines of work that could reshape education policy nationwide.

The idea is giving autonomy to school leaders and then holding them to high results, regardless of what kind of school it is,
— Chris Meyer, New Schools' CEO

“What happens in Baton Rouge is extremely important to the rest of the country because only a handful of cities have shown how to really serve kids in poverty,” said Ken Bubp, a partner in The City Fund who joined New Schools’ board of directors two years ago.

Expanding the portfolio model in Baton Rouge is tied to New Schools’ most ambitious undertaking so far.

Some 20,000 children in East Baton Rouge Parish still attend D- or F-rated public schools. New Schools wants to give those 20,000 students better school options by 2021 through added school capacity that includes growing its existing schools and building more of them.

The effort will take place against a backdrop of increased urgency. The number of D and F-rated schools in the parish rose from 32 to 43 between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, in some part because the Louisiana Department of Education raised its grading standards.

“We want to give those kids the chance to attend some of the best schools in the country,” said Meyer.

Portfolio-model advocates say giving power to school leaders—principals, in traditional language—is key to what makes it work for children who live in poverty. Traditional schools in high-poverty areas often have the least-experienced teachers, yet principals have little power over hiring and firing decisions.

By comparison, the portfolio model frees principals to make decisions over everything from faculty, books and budget to the number of hours in the school day or days in the school year and how many meals students get each day.

Superintendents have little role in day-to-day school operations in the model, instead overseeing the system and helping to identify which schools are working and which are not.

Few cities have put the model to work. Post-Katrina New Orleans is one of them. Nearly all its public schools are now charters, and it closes its worst-performing schools. Portfolio-model backers point to the city as an example of success.

But skeptics argue the disruption of Hurricane Katrina and a massive infusion of recovery funds are more likely indicators of academic gains in the city’s public schools in recent years.

For that reason, success in Baton Rouge and cities such as Memphis and Indianapolis where The City Fund is investing is likely to be more meaningful.

As elsewhere, recruiting charter operators is central to New Schools’ implementation of the portfolio model in Baton Rouge, as is providing start-up and ongoing support to its schools. That support can take a variety of forms. In 2017, for instance, it covered the cost of sending 15 to 20 local teachers and principals to Texas for the better part of the school year to get them ready to open two IDEA schools in Baton Rouge.

Also in line with the model, New Schools is mostly hands-off day to day, with an eye on outcomes. It looks at test scores in assessing school performance, but student re-enrollment and teacher retention are other measures. The involvement of community partners is paramount.

Among its school results: two Baton Rouge schools run by Indianapolis-based charter network GEO Academies earned A grades from the state in how well they prepare kids for high school. About half of schools recruited by New Schools earned Top Gains honors from the state in 2018—it has moved some schools from F to C rankings.

All its schools have an A or B for growth. The grade for its schools as a group is C, which compares to a D for parish schools when higher-performing magnet campuses are excluded, the organization notes.

New Schools also has shown it is willing to yank support when a school is not showing adequate progress. Last year, it pulled support for a North Baton Rouge school three years after helping to open it.

“Successful schools show they can change and improve,” Meyer said.

New Schools envisions a growing role for the portfolio model in Baton Rouge, not only from its own work but in view of organic changes in school operations across East Baton Rouge.

Charter schools are proliferating. There is no longer one district in the parish, but four. Local school board members have demonstrated growing openness to charter operators and increasingly speak the language of school choice and results, Meyer observes.

He sees an opportunity for New Schools and its community partners to work with the public schools to ramp up models that work, whatever their structure.

“We believe that when a community comes together to form a plan to address under-performing schools that’s the best path forward,” Meyer said. “We have a shot to show that this can work.”

The City Fund’s Bubp likewise sees collaboration between New Schools and public schools in years ahead.

“The best version of this is a partnership to support and establish schools that work,” he said. “The country needs to know this is possible.”

Sara Bongiorni