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Eating Our Own 

Several months ago, former Saints head coach Jim Mora Sr., appearing as an NFL commentator, referred to Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick as a "coach killer." The comment was all the more inflammatory because Mora's son, Jim Jr., was the Falcons' head coach at the time. Junior was fired last month. Nobody here wept.

If Mora Sr. thinks Vick's style slays coaches, he should check out New Orleans' public schools. They eat their own superintendents for breakfast. Just ask the current boss of the Recovery School District, Robin Jarvis. She threatened to resign last week in the face of mounting criticism from parents, politicians and the press.

The Recovery District, or RSD, was created in November 2005 by state lawmakers who, after years of frustration with the Orleans Parish School Board, finally made good on the longstanding threat to "take over" underperforming local public schools. The RSD assumed control of more than 100 schools, although it has reopened fewer than half that number. Jarvis, a former Baton Rouge teacher and principal who went on to become a state education bureaucrat, was named superintendent of the new district.

In the wake of Katrina, when New Orleans saw itself as having equal measures of opportunity and devastation, Jarvis arrived on a wave of high hopes -- and expectations. The same can be said of the last half-dozen or so public school superintendents, all of whom were ultimately run out of town on a rail. Jarvis, perhaps anticipating the same fate, seems to be contemplating a more dignified exit of her own choosing.

To be fair, Jarvis and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) took over an almost impossible situation. Not only was the old system broken in terms of student performance, but it also was physically destroyed by Katrina. Moreover, Jarvis got the worst of the bunch -- all the schools that performed below the state average. That means the poorest schools in the poorest neighborhoods with the poorest students.

But, after Katrina, devastation and despair gave rise to communitywide hopes that things could, and would, get better.

Truth be told, a lot of public schools are better nowadays. Many of them have become charter schools that receive extra community support and resources (read: money and volunteers). Jarvis, who had not spent much time in New Orleans before her appointment, perhaps took the job thinking she could turn all the schools into "charters" and remake the system from the top down. Most of her early decisions seem to convey the notion that the right type of governance and management could solve just about every problem.

That's a common misconception with regard to our public schools. In fact, it's the same mistake that every failed superintendent has made here for decades. The problems of public education in New Orleans are many, and they run deep. Sure, the system needs better management, but no one -- not even the best public schools chief in the country -- can manage his or her way out of New Orleans' public school morass. Nor can legislators solve the problem by changing the system's governance.

Hear me out when I say this: The biggest problem in our public schools is the students themselves. No, I'm not saying they're bad or can't learn. I'm saying that when the bell rings every weekday morning, those kids arrive with all sorts of issues and baggage -- none of it of their own making. They come from some of the worst circumstances in America, now more than ever. And our public school system is nowhere near set up to deal with the kinds of issues those kids carry with them every day.

They come filled with potential, and many bring hope. They come hoping that school will be the one place in their confusing world where things make sense. Where there is order and structure. Where adults care. Where they can feel safe.

If our schools -- and our superintendents -- have failed, it's because they have looked at schools from the top down, not from the bottom up. As one group of students noted recently, schools need more counselors on campus, not more cops. And yes, they need good management as well, especially when it leads to textbooks and qualified teachers.

Jarvis correctly laments that many wanted her and the RSD to fail. But many more wanted her to succeed. The students most of all need her to succeed.

In a school system that historically eats its own, the superintendent is the least tragic victim.

Correction -- In last week's column, I misspelled the last name of Shaw Group CEO Jim Bernhard, who is also the former chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party. Bernhard is mulling a possible campaign for governor in the fall. I apologize for the error.

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