13 Years After Hurricane Katrina, My School Is Returning to Local Control

On July 1, the Recovery School District (RSD) will return control of our schools to the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSD). The shift back is called unification—and simply put, it means we are all coming together again under local control. New Orleans’ public schools have learned a great deal during their time under the RSD. Now, we join forces once more, ready to make each other stronger. I grew up here in New Orleans, and I have been the principal of Sophie B. Wright School since 2001. I don’t want things to return to the way they were during that time. I believe our city’s schools have gotten stronger, and we are better for the shifts we’ve been through. As educators, we have more autonomy and influence over our funding and our schools than ever before. Some of the teachers I worked with pre-Katrina are still with me today. They’ve remained because of our excellent students, but also because they have been given space and flexibility. Under our charter and the the RSD, my teachers are allowed to teach in the way that works for their classroom, provided it meets high standards. They use their professional judgment to determine what their students really need. This works for us, because we know our students. As our principal, I take pride in truly being present for my students and their families. I can tell you which young person needs more work on his essay. I can tell you which college a senior is dreaming of, or who’s going to prom with whom. We’re like a family. When two of our students got great scholarships this spring, our whole student body reacted as if it were their brother or their cousin who had earned the honor. Because we are such a tight-knit community, my teachers and I can provide an experience that’s tailor-made for our students’ needs. We seek out input from parents, family members, and students themselves. Even our extracurriculars—our band, our athletic teams—are based on what our community has asked for. The autonomy we’ve had for over a decade under the Recovery School District has made this possible. The RSD allowed us flexibility while holding our school, and all schools, to the high standards children deserve. It has also allowed us to engage in supportive partnerships. Sophie B. Wright has strong relationships with Touro Synagogue, Sacred Heart Academy, and Tulane University Service Learning Program. These connections have been fruitful on all sides. Our children have advocates in all corners of the city. The freedom we were given under the RSD meant we could pursue these partnerships without lots of red tape. It meant that we could build connections that might not have been possible for the whole district, but were right for us, in our neighborhood, and our classrooms. This summer, when the district changes hands, I believe things will only improve—not just for Sophie B. Wright, but for all our schools. The best aspects of the RSD will continue in the new OPSB, and the district will continue to move control and funding to those of us closest to students themselves—school leaders, teachers and families. Under OPSB control, our schools will be regulated and our charters approved by our own local board, but schools will have more agency than ever. The incoming school system has already begun to seek the input of educators. I have had the privilege of talking directly to Superintendent Henderson Lewis about our needs. Superintendent Lewis understands that the city’s educators know our students, parents and community best. Our voices need to be heard. Too often, I’ve sat in policy meetings and not seen a single other educator. There might be dedicated individuals working in various ways for children, but no teachers or principals. We do the work day in and day out with our children, and our input matters. The new OPSB knows this. I had a retreat a few weeks ago now with some of my fellow New Orleans Public Schools school leaders from a group called the School Leader Forum. We discussed policies and practices, and we shared knowledge with one another. We also discussed unification. It was a defining moment. We agreed that as a unified system, we will either be successful together, or not be successful at all. Our work is bound as one. Given this, I believe ours will be a story of success. I stand behind unification because I stand behind my students, my teachers and our community at large. Together, we have been through a great deal of change in education. We have seen ups and downs in New Orleans’ schools, but I believe this next shift will make things better for us all. I want us to always move forward, to keep improving for our students. On July 1, we move forward together with hope.
Photo courtesy of Sophie B. Wright School.
Sharon Clark was born and raised in New Orleans. After graduating from Xavier University and moving to Atlanta and Houston to complete a master's degree, Sharon then moved back to New Orleans to complete her second master's degree in education from Xavier. She has been the principal of Sophie B. Wright School since 2001 and is currently working to complete her Ph.D. from the University of New ...

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