Next for Neerav, NSNO, and NOLA

Last week, New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO) announced that longtime CEO Neerav Kingsland will transition out of the organization this summer.

NSNO is one of my favorite organizations in this business, and Neerav is one of my very favorite people. I’m excited for him and his successors—Maggie Runyan-Shefa and Michael Stone will jointly head NSNO—but, selfishly, I’m even more excited for our field.

After eight years of helping make New Orleans the most exciting American city for K–12 education, Neerav is going to focus on bringing NOLA-style reform to other cities. The potential of seeing the urban school system of the future take off in additional locations is thrilling, and Neerav has the brains and experience to get it done.

In case you don’t know much about NSNO, here’s the story in brief. It was founded by Sarah Usdin in April 2006 (the storms hit in 2005), and it initially focused on educator recruitment and charter incubation. Its first cohort of incubated schools started in 2008; more recently, it shifted to investing in CMOs.

NSNO won a federal i3 grant in 2010 and in 2012 began co-managing a $25 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. It has played a central role in a number of human-capital efforts, such as TeachNOLA, MATCH teacher coaching, the Center for Transformative Teacher Training, and Relay GSE.

In short, NSNO is in the business of growing high-quality seats (its schools now serve nearly one quarter of all New Orleans students); its goal is 50,000—enough for all of the city’s kids. The organization’s view, which will remain unchanged with the leadership transition, is that smart portfolio management by the Recovery School District (close failing schools, expand and replicate great schools, start new schools in the charter sector, repeat) offers the best chance to achieve this ambition.

Since 2008, 40 schools have closed or been taken over by a charter operator and 49 new charters have opened (12 charters have been closed for poor performance). Before Katrina, the city only had a handful of charters; now, 91 percent of all public school students are in charters.

The city’s system of schools has made tremendous progress since 2005—higher state test scores, higher ACT scores, and higher graduation rates. Remarkably, before Katrina, 44 percent of Louisiana’s failing schools were located in New Orleans; today, its only 9 percent.

But much work still lies ahead. By NSNO’s reckoning, only a third of the city’s kids are in high-quality schools, special-education services need to be improved, and the city doesn’t have the vocational or technical programs it needs. NSNO is well positioned to continue leading the city’s dramatic transformation.

Though Neerav will be missed, Maggie and Michael are ready to take the baton. Maggie, who’s been with NSNO since 2007 and was the founding principal of a KIPP school in Harlem, will provide internal leadership, overseeing NSNO’s charter and human-capital investments and direct programming for schools, including Common Core implementation. Michael, a NOLA native and former public-school teacher, will oversee outward-facing activities (fundraising, advocacy, community engagement, communications, and government relations).

The NOLA system-of-schools model is the most important reimagining of K–12 delivery in a hundred years. The government is moving out of school operation, leaving that job to the nonprofit sector. This transition process might have never happened—and certainly wouldn’t have happened so well—had it not been for NSNO. It has shown the rest of the nation how this can be done.

I wish Neerav the best of luck as he shares his wisdom with other cities and look forward eagerly to NSNO’s next phase under Maggie and Michael.

-Andy Smarick

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