Former superintendent, Louisiana Recovery School District
Together, we can transform communities and the lives of underprivileged youth.
Patrick Dobard is keenly aware of what his leadership means to the people of New Orleans. Having grown up in the city’s 7th Ward and previously served as a deputy superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School District, Patrick knew the challenges that lay ahead when he was appointed in 2012 to lead the nation’s first all-charter public school district. The former social studies teacher and lifelong educator was eager to roll up his sleeves on behalf of the kids and families he serves. But shortly before the press conference announcing his new role, it became clear that the impact he could have on young people was far greater than even he had imagined.
The announcement of his appointment was scheduled at a local school library. As Patrick approached the building that day, a student was waiting at the door to escort the new superintendent inside. Patrick introduced himself, and the boy was visibly stunned. “As we walked to the library, I struck up a conversation. I found out that he was surprised because I was a black man. In his mind, a black man being in a position of power and permanence was not something he was used to.”
Patrick was deeply affected by that conversation. As he took the stage, he ignored his prepared remarks and spoke instead about that young man. “I said I want to improve our schools and our community so that kids would not be shocked to see a black man in charge. Our young black men and women need to see successful people who look like them. And it should be the norm for those young people to succeed at high levels themselves.”
That core belief is behind the mission and work of the Recovery School District. The RSD was created in 2003 to improve the state’s lowest-performing schools — many of which were based in New Orleans, where the school district was rife with mismanagement issues and shamefully low overall performance. Once Hurricane Katrina devastated the region, city and state officials came together to reimagine what the public schools could be. They rethought schools from the bottom up, giving school leaders greater say in how their campuses were managed.
Since then, student performance has improved steadily. In 2004, less than one-third of New Orleans students were proficient in reading and mathematics. A decade later, twice as many students were performing on grade level and the high school graduation rate among black males exceeded the national average.
But while the schools made strong academic gains, too many students — particularly black males —were being systematically pushed out of class or out of school entirely. In fact, in some of the city’s highest-performing charter schools, student suspensions rose above 50 percent. Patrick knew that keeping those young people in class was critical for both student learning and social justice. But the agreements the RSD had with the local charter school operators didn’t give him authority over most student disciplinary practices.
To ensure students were not subject to very different or extreme consequences for minor infractions, the RSD centralized expulsion procedures to guarantee every student was held to the same standard and received due process. In addition, a series of community conversations on student discipline was launched, bringing together the leaders of the city’s charter schools, faith-based organizations and social-justice advocates. One year later, RSD schools had reduced expulsions by one-third. And after implementing restorative practices in partnership with local juvenile justice organizations, the charter schools with the highest suspension rates in the previous year were notably at the bottom of the following year’s list.
The RSD also created an unprecedented partnership with the Orleans Parish School Board to identify and assist students who may be on the path to dropping out, including students with habitual absences or experience in the justice system. The two school systems now jointly offer resources like counseling services to students and families to help young people stay in, and succeed in, school. Students are also evaluated in preschool to ensure adequate learning supports are available to those with disabilities. Students are matched with the school best suited to their individual needs, and those who require more help have access to more intensive external services than are offered in the schools.
Although the Recovery School District’s gains may be extraordinary, Patrick knows much work still remains. In fact, there may be no one more impatient for stronger results than Patrick himself. And he knows that no one leader has all of the answers. That is why he believes in engaging both supporters and critics in policy development, strategy and theories of change. By involving students, parents and a broad range of community members, change comes not just in student outcomes but also the long-term strength of the communities in which they live.
“This work can’t be about just ‘I’ or ‘me,’” said Patrick. “It’s about working with others, reaching out to others and how, together, we can transform communities and the lives of underprivileged youth.”
More from Patrick Dobard
Guest column: Increasing black student achievement imperative - The Advocate, February 11, 2016
"While we work hard daily to serve all students regardless of race, we do recognize and accept a higher calling to ensure we focus intently on serving children who look like us and look up to us as figures of authority in their own towns and cities." Read more.
High school teacher
Executive director, Louis A Martinet Legal Society
Adjunct professor, Baton Rouge Community College
Deputy director of government affairs, Louisiana Department of Education
Superintendent, Recovery School District of Louisiana