Families in New Orleans face unique challenges when it comes to education. Set against a backdrop of violence, racial tension and wide disparities in school quality, many New Orleans public schools are considered failing, and the city's academic performance lags behind the nation.
But there’s a platform fostering real dialogue and collaboration around critical issues affecting student performance, issues like race and class. The concept behind Orleans Public Education Network (OPEN) began in 2007, just two years after Hurricane Katrina, and the program launched in 2009 to encourage authentic dialogue around rebuilding the education system and engaging the entire community, especially parents.
According to OPEN Executive Director Deirdre Burel, prior to OPEN’s existence there “hadn’t been a place in the center for dialogue.” However, as Todd Baptiste, vice president at United Way of Southeast Louisiana points out, “Collaboration in itself is difficult, but because of the conditions in New Orleans, it’s even more so.”
Community leaders wanted to create a safe space for community voices and ensure that these voices were deeply involved with relevant conversations on education. A grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation served as a catalyst for the organization’s efforts to address race and class issues in New Orleans, as well as empower parents to take a seat at the table.
“Institutions alone are not going to save children,” Burel said.
The reality of public education in New Orleans is that it is the nation’s first and only all-charter school district, the Recovery School District. The system of charter schools, which are run by private groups instead of a publicly-elected board, is taking bold steps in the name of education innovation. However, it can prove daunting for many parents.
Parent engagement is at the core of OPEN’s work in New Orleans. One of their signature programs is the Parent Leadership Training Institute (PLTI), which trains parents on how to use their voices to advocate for their children, while navigating the city’s diverse school system.
Cassandra Dorsey is a parent at Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans who was recruited to the PLTI during a meeting at the school. Dorsey “wanted to speak up, but didn’t know how.” Over the course of the 20-week program, Dorsey attended once-a-week sessions and learned how to use her voice and power as a parent to influence decisions impacting children in the city.
Glenda Allen Jones, director of school readiness at New Orleans nonprofit Agenda for Children and an instructor in the PLTI program, said: “We meet parents where they are, but we don’t leave them where we meet them.”
Through the PLTI program, OPEN provides transportation, child care and other support structures that enable parents to meet once a week in the evenings for three-hour sessions – simple solutions which support parents in activating their voice.
“The most important voice for a child, and most important advocate, is a parent,” Burel said. Already, three dozen parents have completed the program, with more signing up each month.
Another of OPEN’s signature programs is called “Ready, Set, Go” (RSG), which advocates the importance of early learning and instills the notion that parents are a child’s first, and most important educator. RSG recognizes the unique and critical role parents play in a child’s development and the impact that has on a child’s ability to arrive at kindergarten ready to learn.
Centered on the premise that a child-centered city in New Orleans can’t be built without developing children’s abilities at the earliest ages, RSG focuses less on the ABC's and more on holistic child development, including topics like socialization, independence, self-control, communication skills and accepting responsibility. Based in data on parent engagement from the Early Development Instrument, RSG has increased awareness on school readiness from 2 to 65 percent in the past two years.
Saundra Reed, community coordinator at OPEN, stresses to parents she engages with that, “I am not just a parent, I am an educator.”
At the heart of OPEN’s work though, is a table that welcomes all stakeholders in the community – teachers, parents, advocates and others – to have a safe space for conversations on education in New Orleans. It’s for this reason that Matthew Schwarzman, executive director of New Orleans Kids Partnership, says that “OPEN is a hub of hubs.”
Importantly though, OPEN takes an agnostic approach to policy in New Orleans schools by sharing best practices and effective policy, but the community has called upon the organization to leverage the trusted space as a community leader to connect parents and policymakers in dialogue. As Burel says, “OPEN wants to be a conduit for community voice, not the community voice.”
As New Orleans’ schools evolve, so does OPEN. They now are helping parents and organizations navigate the dynamics of the newly formed all-charter schools system through partnership and convening conversations.
It’s in that vein that Burel notes, “the need for this space is more necessary than ever, but we cannot do our work by ourselves.”
For OPEN, the work will be done with their partners around the table and driven by the voice of parents and an informed and engaged community.