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A Renewed Sense of Hope in New Orleans: Jamar McKneely Talks with Adam Hawf

Jamar McKneely is the Chief Executive Officer of InspireNOLA Charter Schools. Adam Hawf previously served as assistant superintendent of Portfolio at the Louisiana Department of Education, and deputy superintendent of Portfolio at the Louisiana Recovery School District. Hawf spoke recently with McKneely about what the past 10 years have meant, and what the next 10 years will mean, for students and schools in New Orleans.


Adam: Hi Jamar, what’s your role in New Orleans education?

Jamar: I’m the Chief Executive Officer of InspireNOLA Charter Schools, an organization designed to inspire an educational movement in New Orleans. We have three core beliefs: inspiration, aspiration, and dedication. We believe that all kids can learn when surrounded with strong academics and social and emotional programs to increase their self-esteem and help them become critical thinkers. One unique thing about InspireNOLA—we’re no longer just focusing on foundational and fundamental skills; we’re developing kids to become productive citizens within their community and to understand that they can be difference makers to transform our city.

Adam: How long have you been in New Orleans? Were you working here before the storm?

Jamar: I’ve been here 13 years! I started teaching in 2002 at Edna Karr High School. I was a business teacher, an entrepreneur club sponsor, a coach, and an after-school tutor for a community organization. I transitioned over the last 13 years from teacher to assistant principal, principal, head of school, and now CEO of InspireNOLA.

Adam: That makes you a great person to answer this question: what are the key changes you have seen in education in New Orleans since 2002?

Jamar: In 2002, there were a lot of teachers working extremely hard for the students of Orleans. But, there were two areas that stopped our students from achieving high academic results, in my opinion. One was the lack of autonomy given to leaders to make onsite decisions based on the deficiencies of our students. Second was the lack of strong professional development opportunities to help our teachers process data and develop strategies to help our students learn. Now above all, I think we have a renewed sense of hope when it comes to education. I feel like we have a lot of creative energy where individuals are really fighting for kids. You see so many creative approaches to reaching students—innovative things like personalized learning. Schools have a major focus on data to help students grow academically. Autonomy has made a huge difference for us. Leaders are able to make decisions that are based on the kids’ best interest. And—this part is ironic because I was a member of the teachers union—accountability has replaced tenure and now our teachers have to perform every day for our youth. It is important that we understand that when we’re working with students, every day counts.

Adam: Those are all positive changes. What did we get wrong over the same period?

Jamar: I think we could have considered some of the communities that we were working with, actually brought in more partnerships for collaboration to impact the school and community. I wouldn’t say holistically wrong, it’s just some consideration of things we could have done better.

Adam: That makes sense. So if we look back 10 years, test scores are up a lot, and college attendance and graduation rates have improved. But the numbers are still pretty low—only 14 percent of students are reaching mastery. So, while we have made progress, we have so far to go. I’m curious: where do you think we should be as a city 10 years from now? What would be the one or two things you would want to be able to say about the schools in New Orleans come 2025?

Jamar: That all kids have the opportunity to go to a quality school that focuses on academics and social and emotional needs of students. Hopefully, we will continue to expect more for what “quality” means. Our mastery percentage should be much higher, at least 30 percent, because then kids will have the opportunity to get into tier-one and tier-two colleges where they can graduate with a meaningful degree. Even in our high school, which has one of the highest graduation rates in the city, few students are on track to graduate from a rigorous university. We’re getting kids into college, but we still have to prepare them with the necessary skills to make sure they graduate college and impact their communities.

Adam: Your current second graders at Alice Harte will be the graduating seniors of 2025. What does InspireNOLA need to do differently so that four out of five, rather than half, are graduating from high school ready to be successful in college?

Jamar: We’re shifting our instructional strategy to engage our kids to analyze more and interpret the differences—in fact, their mind process is becoming a whole lot more creative so they can see the next step. We need to see our kids process where they can go from A to D compared to just A to B, and see the outcomes and figure out how to do that. So it’s a different learning process. A lot of our focus for next year will be on higher thinking and questioning, to get our kids truly able to process and think on a higher level.

Adam: What specific steps are you taking to help get your students to that level?

Jamar: We believe that our kids are ready to go there now; it’s a matter of how do we train our teachers to be able to take them there. Currently, our teacher leaders and academic teams are creating professional development trainings to support teachers with high-order thinking, questioning, and analytic skills. Right now we’re focusing on English language arts and math to holistically build that curriculum and then we go from there. Hopefully, we are developing a new wave of learning where our students can compete nationally.

Adam: Looking ahead at the next 10 years, what do you think are the major risks?

Jamar: I think that the biggest issue we face is the growth of our kids academically and emotionally. If we don’t make the same level of progress for the next 10 years, then what is our messaging going to be? So let’s celebrate right now, but let’s put our heads back down extremely fast to see what it is going to take for the next 10. Because, as you said, 14 percent mastery is the standard now—that’s the baseline from which we’ll be measuring progress. Ten years from now, the narrative changes. We have to do better because our students and city deserve our best!

Adam: People are going to expect more from us.

Jamar: Yes, and I believe the critics are going to become a whole lot louder, especially around elections and what’s going to happen for our city. We need to prepare our students to be good citizens and the future leaders of our city. I believe in them and will continue to fight for them. We are the city that believes in a rebirth. Let’s have one for our youth.

This is the third in a series of blogs from education leaders in New Orleans—people in the trenches sharing their ideas about what’s next for the city’s public schools. Have some thoughts of your own? Send them our way and we will publish a compilation of responses.

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