Education and Innovation in New Orleans

(Below are excerpts from an article published on April 8, 2014 by Tom Vander Ark’s on the blog, Getting Smart. The educational success story of New Orleans is the subject of our upcoming Leadership Breakfast on April 24 featuring native Atlantan, Matt Candler, CEO of 4.0 Schools. Matt and his organization are referenced several times in the article.)

The first Maker Faire in New Orleans was held over the weekend. It was hosted by a new school incubated by 4.0 Schools and New Schools New Orleans (NSNO)– Bricolage Academy. Matt Candler, founder of 4.0 Schools, said the event represents an important proof point that the New Orleans education story is about much more than recovery or making schools less bad than they once were, “Events like Mini Maker Faire prove that the future of school in New Orleans is a community effort – an effort by an entire city to invest in creativity, entrepreneurship, job creation in entire new industries, and the future of an entire city.”

As he watched hundreds of kids making robots, learning to code, and making jewelry, Chris Schultz, the founder of the city’s most vibrant coworking community, Launchpad, described the shift he sees, “This is so much bigger than the entrepreneurs at Launchpad right now. This is about the startups and companies these kids will start in the next 10, 20 years.” City leaders like Chris have made the connection between the academic success and creative potential of New Orleans’ kids and her long-term prosperity as a city. Mini Maker Faire, Bricolage, and dozens of other small-scale efforts across the city give him and others a tremendous sense of hope for the future.

End of failure.

“Soon there will be zero failing schools in NOLA,” said Neerav Kingsland, CEO of NSNO, in a November 2013 speech. The same could not be said for any other urban center in the country. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 created an opportunity for the community to rethink the education system.

Over 90 percent of New Orleans public school students attend charter schools–the highest in the nation according to the Cowen Institute. The new system was designed around 3 principles: educator-run schools, parent choice, and public oversight. A student of portfolio strategy, Kingsland calls NOLA an inverted system where “parents and educators have the most power.”

Of the 112 failing schools in Louisiana, only 9 are in New Orleans—and they will be improved or closed. Compared to the old system, the new schools in New Orleans have learning gains equivalent to 5 months of extra learning. New Orleans has nearly caught the state average in proficiency and college readiness and passed the state average graduation rate. African American students have gone from lowest performing in the state to 5 percentage points above the state average for African American students. That is “improved but not excellent,” said Kingland, “New Orleans needs 50,000 high quality seats to provide every child with an excellent education” and he estimated that they were half way there.

Innovative schools.

NSNO and 4.0 Schools, with the support of Khan Academy, launched the Future of School Challenge. The challenge is designed to bring to life a new generation of responsive, student-centered schools in New Orleans. Finalists in the Future of School Challenge will be given the time, space, and resources needed to make their vision a reality in the fall of 2016.


A Brookings report indicates that entrepreneurial activity in New Orleans is now 40 percent above the national average. Forbes said, “Assets such as low cost of living, high quality of life, and culture” have been essential in attracting and retaining the talent that has turned New Orleans into a tech hub.

Matt Candler is growing people that are growing educational solutions. His 4.0 Schools, is based on a process that most organizations start as an idea and go through a five-stage process: itch, hunch, test, launch, and scale. Matt and the team “live on the left side” turning hunches into testable products. They’ve supported a bunch of NOLA EdTech startups including:

  • mSchool: makes personalized learning incredibly simple for schools.
  • enrichED: helps schools hire great, part-time and substitute teachers.
  • CultureConnect: a tool for museums and cultural institutions to build smartphone and tablet applications.
  • Overgrad: students can track progress toward college admissions.
  • Borne Digital: books that grow in difficulty as kids become better readers.
  • Flummox and Friends: a smart, quirky show that equips students to talk about social and emotional challenges.
  • TrueSchool: design studio for educators.
  • imagiLabs: an educational game for kids, ChallengeBox, that blends digital learning with offline tinkering.
  • Nomad Schools: individualized English language instruction for low-income students
  • FantasyGeopolitics: social learning game that follows countries and world leaders as they compete for news headlines- fantasy league sports-style.

Some of the 23 ventures launched by 4.0 Schools are impacting other cities including Lead Prep Southeast, a 5-12 charter school in Nashville and Community Guilds and their STE(A)M Truck in Decatur Georgia.

Going digital.

In the fall of 2011, families gained access to two full time virtual options including Louisiana Connections Academy and Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy. The state virtual school served up 9,179 part time course enrollments last year.

A Course Choice bill passed in 2012 (HB976), which allows students to take supplemental courses from approved providers with fractional funding following the student beginning in 2013. Students in schools graded C or below can take any course, while students in schools graded A or B can take courses for which their school offers no equivalent.

Assistant state superintendent Ken Bradford describes Course Choice program as part of the state’s effort to simultaneously improve college and career preparation. About a recent expansion of providers, Bradford said:

  • It includes job training providers reflecting the superintendent’s aggressive efforts to quickly and dramatically improve employability; and
  • It includes student support and special needs service providers like speech therapy provider PresenceLearning.

Another NOLA?

Can the NOLA model be scaled or replicated? New Orleans schools spend about $10,000 per student, or just under the national average. On top of that they’ve raised about $100 million of philanthropy post Katrina.

Improvement of the last nine years has been a change in governance more than change in school models. Kingsland thinks other cities can copy the New Orleans model by replacing or transforming about 5 percent of schools every year—after 10 years that would be replace or update the lower performing half of the system.

Asked about the biggest mistake, Kingland said, “We didn’t think enough about networks early on.” (See recent post on the importance of networks to scaling quality).

There is not really a central office anymore. Now that there are so many charter schools, there are lots of questions about special education, admissions, discipline, and facilities being worked out as NOLA invents a system of schools. They have addressed enrollment with a common application (OneApp), discipline with a citywide standard, and long term building maintenance (proposed bill). The RSD and Orleans Parish School Board just signed a Cooperative Endeavor Agreement addressing special education, and services for truant and adjudicated youth.

Can it be done elsewhere? The question may be, as Caroline Romer Shirley asked, “Can school boards reinvent themselves around portfolio?”

While the first decade post-Katrina was enabled by governance reform and powered by an amazing confluence of talent it looks like the second post-storm decade will be powered by the freedom of charter schools to innovate, a harbormaster like NSNO, and a thick web of support for edupreneurs. New Orleans will continue to be one of the best example of what’s possible in urban education.

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Thanks to Leslie Jacobs, Neerav Kingsland and Matt Candler for help updated this post. MIND Research Institute and Presence Learning are Advocacy Partners. LearnZillion is a Learn Capital portfolio company.