The funding community takes NOLA by storm.
Another storm for a hard-hit city, but this was a productive one. Last week several Rodel staff were pleased to join 450 other education funders in New Orleans for the annual Grantmakers for Education Conference. This year’s theme, “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” couldn’t have been more appropriate for a place like “NOLA.” Although the conference was much broader than the work underway in the city and region since Hurricane Katrina hit five years ago, it was impossible to talk about education in the United States today without referring to the devastation and resurrection of New Orleans’ Public Schools.
There are few places that can link such huge changes to one single event. Time and again we heard about schools “before the storm” and “after the storm,” as if the storm was a living person or a school turnaround program implemented by Mother Nature. It is easy to see why people are excited by what is happening in NOLA. They have tapped into just about every school innovation in the past decade, and are creating a much more nimble and customized education experience for the majority of their students. There is a distinct sense of purpose in the eyes of those involved with NOLA’s schools; they are finally getting their chance to address a problem that was long overdue for an answer. Energy and commitment permeated our meeting rooms and hallways and site visits, just as the sound of jazz from Bourbon Street permeated the warm fall nights.
The conference was one of big ideas, and big challenges. Everywhere there was talk about the changes that programs like Race to the Top and I3 have brought to education. Yet, there also was a lot of concern over events such as the ouster of Michelle Rhee, and the potential of a backslide in federal funding and state commitments for a number of anticipated reforms. In the national context, states and their partner organizations are working furiously to address tough challenges like the achievement gap, civil rights inequities, the alignment of post-secondary education with the needs of today’s high school students and today’s marketplace, and the almost ubiquitous school funding lawsuit. No small tasks, but in a room with 450 like-minded people chomping at the bit to make this work, I couldn’t help but feel encouraged.