Sarah Newell Usdin is District 3 Representative of Orleans Parish School Board and founder and past CEO of New Schools for New Orleans. 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. He spoke recently with Usdin about what it will take over the next 10 years to bring New Orleans schools to a much higher level of success.
Adam: Sarah, what is your connection to New Orleans education today?
Sarah: I was elected to the Orleans Parish School Board over two years ago with the hope that that we would be able to think differently about governance for the schools in New Orleans. So much has changed since Katrina and so much structure really hadn’t moved—we needed to figure out how to truly empower teachers and principals at the school level and to make sure that people were playing by the same rules.
Adam: What did you do prior to running for the School Board?
Sarah: I ran an organization called New Schools for New Orleans. I founded NSNO after Katrina to keep the focus very clearly on educational excellence and equity for all kids, with the knowledge that New Orleans public schools had been struggling mightily for a long time.
Adam: How is education in New Orleans different today because of the reforms we implemented after Hurricane Katrina?
Sarah: I think the integral difference is that we’ve really empowered the right people, the right stakeholders, at all levels to be able to have a say in what they want for their own schools—whether that person is a student that came from another school, a teacher who found a different place of employment, or a principal leader who wants an arts-based curriculum.
Adam: What do you think is the biggest gap or liability in the current system?
Sarah: Right now, the demographics of people involved with public education aren’t diverse enough to be truly public in my mind. We need to have much more vested interest from all different types of people in the public school system. And so we’ve got to figure out how to do a better job of having all the public own public education, even if they don’t choose to send their child to a public school, even if they don’t have a kid to send to school. I do think there’s way more engagement now than there was in the past, but I don’t know if it’s broad enough or deep enough to be sustaining.
Adam: I think one of the biggest successes of the last 10 years is broadening the universe of public stakeholders who are invested in public schools in New Orleans. There is a whole set of people—many of whom are business and civic leaders—who did not spend much time thinking about public education 10 years ago but are now deeply involved and engaged. Do you think we can keep people engaged?
Sarah: That is a success but I also think we have to figure out how to broaden it further. I recently presented to a whole bunch of New Orleans business people and expats and showed them how much we’ve improved, and what’s going on, and where we are, and how we’re nowhere near where we need to be citywide for all kids—and high-needs kids especially. And these folks were like, “Wait, I thought we were done with this, I thought we had checked that box.” And I said we’ve done a tremendous amount and we’ve made phenomenal progress, but we have potentially an even harder path ahead of us to get to where I feel like we need to be.
Adam: I agree. Sarah, imagine we’re in year 2025, how would you judge or measure your success for our students in New Orleans?
Sarah: I’ve been dying to do a much better job of authentically polling parents and kids to ask them that question. Because I actually think that that would be incredibly helpful for us to be able to measure where their experience is now and how that experience compares with the past and where it needs to be for the future. They’re the primary source and we aren’t consulting them.
Adam: What would you want to hear families say about the school system?
Sarah: That they had the right choices. That they felt engaged. That they really felt like their child was getting a great, holistic educational experience. That their characters and values aligned with the school values. That their child got what they needed academically.
Adam: As a policymaker, what’s the top strategy you would employ over the next 10 years to get us from where we are now to where you want us to be?
Sarah: I think we need to do a much better job of communicating the successes we have had and the gaps that still remain, and inviting people to work jointly on addressing those gaps. So the question is: How do we come up with a better narrative—one that gets shared by everyone collectively, one that is about community and the emotions and the hard times coupled with the factual academic results of how our students are performing and need to perform to lead fulfilling, meaningful lives.
This is the fourth 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.