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School's Out 

Recovery School District Superintendent Robin Jarvis brought steely resolve and do-gooder compassion to one of the toughest jobs in town. So why isn't she sticking around longer?

On the first full day of school last September, angry protesters from the Lower Ninth Ward and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) marched toward the freshly painted Recovery School District (RSD) office on Poland Avenue to pressure the RSD into reopening Martin Luther King Elementary School, which flooded during Katrina. The RSD took over more than 100 "under-performing" public schools in New Orleans after Katrina, and many in the Lower Nine felt the state was neglecting their neighborhood school.

Those feelings intensified as Lower Nine residents watched newly chartered public schools in other neighborhoods -- white neighborhoods -- reopen while MLK's temporary location at Colton Middle School in the Upper Nine still had workmen chipping away Katrina crud the day children were supposed to arrive for classes. To many in the Lower Nine, black children's education was being short-changed by the white powers that be, and they had had enough. SCLC national president Charles Steele flew in from Atlanta and compared RSD Superintendent Dr. Robin Jarvis and other state officials to members of the Ku Klux Klan.

As the crowd of several hundred marchers approached the RSD office, Jarvis received an urgent call. She was across town, hunched over in her seat at a meeting of the New Orleans City Council.

"You need to come back," said a voice from inside the RSD building.

"Well, I'm about to present to the City Council," Jarvis replied.

"You need to come back," the voice repeated.

After some discussion, Jarvis understood that it was her the protesters wanted. She tendered her talking points to the City Council and said she would have to reschedule.

As she left City Hall, Jarvis encountered several TV camera crews but brushed past them. Her office phoned again, telling her it would probably be a good idea to use the back door.

"No," she said. "I'm coming in the front."

With the protesters crowding the RSD's parking lot, Jarvis parked across the street and tried to navigate her way to the front. Almost instantly, she gravitated toward two children playing on the hot, sticky asphalt. "One little girl was running around with her shoes off and her white socks," Jarvis recalls. "I said, 'Sweetie put your shoes on. You're getting your socks dirty and Mom's not going to like that.'"

After parting the crowd, she met local SCLC leader Rev. Norwood Thompson, who, upon seeing her, started to make an announcement to the crowd.

"Let's go inside," she said sternly. "Let's go inside and we'll talk." She took a few of her aides with her and invited a small group of MLK parents and SCLC members to join her.

A closed-door meeting ensued as the protesters, additional RSD staff and news reporters milled about outside, waiting for an indication of how the meeting was going. When the talks ended, Jarvis and the protest leaders emerged, smiling and shaking hands. They had agreed to move MLK to an upgraded facility Uptown while the RSD continued to search for ways to reopen the school in the Lower Nine.

In many ways, the encounter with MLK Elementary supporters has defined Jarvis' tenure as superintendent of the Recovery School District. The former kindergarten teacher wrestles daily with competing forces on the federal, state and local levels, each of which has an opinion as to what's best for the roughly 18,000 New Orleans public school children and the struggling system that aspires to educate them. While many offer opinions, at the end of the day only Jarvis is legally and politically accountable for the children's fate.

The RSD got off to a shaky start, mostly because there were not enough certified teachers for kids who showed up -- and who continue to pour into the system. Finding teachers is difficult enough; Jarvis also has had to find safe facilities to educate students -- with a fraction of the staff that the Orleans Parish School Board enjoyed pre-Katrina.

Several months ago, the growing chorus of criticism caused Jarvis to wonder publicly how much longer she would remain as RSD chief. Such talk only emboldened her critics. Last week, she gave official notice that she will not return after May 31, two weeks before the school year ends. She will go to work for the nonprofit Southwest Educational Development Laboratory. Jarvis, who commutes daily from her home in Baton Rouge, attributes her decision to quit the RSD job on the enormous strain that the job has put on her family.

But is there another reason?

Tagging along on a typical day with Jarvis, we hop in the back seat of her white minivan on our way to meet visitors from the U.S. Department of Education who are in town for the first time since Katrina. In the driver and passenger seats, we're escorted by two security guards from the Guidry Group, both former Secret Servicemen. They carry pistols tucked in their waistbands.

While not quite presidential, it all seems a bit much for an educator. When asked about her armed accompaniment, she shrugs and says it wasn't her idea. After several racial taunts were thrown at her in close-quartered community meetings, then-state Education Superintendent Cecil Picard, who died in February, insisted that she at least have a bodyguard while in public. "Things got a little interesting," she says with a laugh. "And besides, now I don't have to look for a parking spot." A big laugh and hokey sarcasm, which she often invokes when discussing difficult situations, is Jarvis' way of putting those around her at ease.

With red hair, fair skin and blue eyes, Jarvis makes an easy target for racial slings. In response to such taunts, she affects the cool demeanor of her late mentor, Cecil Picard, seeking to engage the mostly black community interests that support New Orleans' public school system. "For some people it's harder to see how I can relate, understand, and care about the children in the community," says Jarvis. "They see a middle class white woman and they think 'How can she understand these children and how can she understand their home lives and what they need in school?' You have to be able to look beyond that to what the person's real philosophy and belief system is." Jarvis said the tension was most palpable in the fall when things were just getting started and schools were still opening.

"Everybody wants their school back, and they want it back immediately," she says. "What I'm trying to frame it as is productive: How do we meet together in a productive manner so I hear your concerns, but we also work towards solutions together?" Perhaps the best evidence of Jarvis' strategy is the turn her relationship took with national SCLC president Charles Steele after he compared her to the KKK. Since their first encounter, she has called Steele regularly for advice and support.

Jarvis began her turn as superintendent without fanfare -- as "acting superintendent" -- when Picard appointed her in the wake of the state takeover of 107 of New Orleans' most troubled public schools after Katrina. At the time, Jarvis was an assistant superintendent shepherding the state's accountability system and the handful of charter schools that were already in the fledgling Recovery School District, which lawmakers created in 2003. With a sudden and urgent need to get several dozen schools open in flooded-out New Orleans and no time to do a national job search, Picard looked to Jarvis to head up the district. Until then, she had never run a traditional school district.

"I knew that it would be a tremendous task, and I agreed to it thinking it would be for a period of time. But," she says, responding to criticism that she didn't want the job, "I would not have accepted the position had I not wanted it and had I not been committed to doing it."

Much of the criticism of Jarvis is actually animosity over the state takeover -- and frustrations with problems that perhaps should have been anticipated from the get-go. As state officials planned to rebuild New Orleans' public school system in time for the first full academic year after the storm, there was an underlying assumption that a large majority of the schools would become charter schools. That would relieve Jarvis and the RSD from much of the logistics of managing a large student population -- because charters are independently managed by individual boards that hire their own administrative teams. At the same time, many in New Orleans felt that the state department was out to prove it could run New Orleans schools without the Orleans Parish School Board's bloated bureaucracy. Both sides seem to have erred.

Under the tight guidelines that charter applicants were forced to meet, far fewer schools were chartered than expected, leaving 21 schools to be run by Jarvis and her small staff -- with less than two months to prepare for a steadily growing student population. As one member of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), which oversees Jarvis and the RSD, put it: "We feel like the dog that finally caught the bus."

A highly publicized series of missteps followed as the RSD tried unsuccessfully to play catch-up, and Jarvis' inexperience as a front-line superintendent showed. The district struggled to get buildings ready in time for fall enrollment, which caused a staggered and confused opening week. There were controversies over some schools, such as MLK Elementary, not reopening. A teacher shortage, the result of a late start in hiring, caused RSD class sizes to swell throughout the year. Fights broke out in some schools, particularly John McDonogh. In response, the RSD hired security guards, some of whom were only a year older than the students.

The community's patience with post-storm complications nose-dived when news broke that some students still did not have textbooks or hot meals. Jarvis eventually accepted the reality of needing a bigger staff, but as students continued to pour into the district daily, the RSD remained unable to hire enough administrative staff, which inevitably caused some things to slip through the cracks.

New Orleans continued to attract the intense focus of national and local media, and many reporters looked first to the school system for signs of progress -- or stagnation. To be sure, some charter schools painted a hopeful picture. Elsewhere, reality sobered public perception. Jarvis, the former kindergarten teacher, continually found herself trying to catch up with a learning curve that kept getting steeper -- all in a spotlight that was often unkind.

"I don't know that there's any training for it, because you go into education to teach," says Jarvis, who holds a Ph.D. in educational leadership and research. "It is difficult at times, especially when it's negative in some of the meetings. I don't have all the answers right away, but I at least need to hear all of the concerns so I can begin to work through the problems that we are having."

She continues, "The reality is that once you accept the responsibility, you have to also accept what comes with it. You have to learn not to take it personally. It's not about me. I guess I can say that because most of them don't really know me, personally."

Jarvis admits that the strain of it all withered her at times, most notably in February, when she vented to a reporter that she felt as though she lacked public support and might consider quitting. Ever since then, speculation has mounted that she was not long for the job. Last week, after spending time with her family, Jarvis announced her resignation. She told Gambit Weekly that her husband encouraged her to stay "down to the bitter end," but she decided it was time to move on.

Riding in the van to the Ninth Ward after our first stop at Craig Elementary in Treme, Jarvis talks about growing up as the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister in central Louisiana. Her father spent 25 years as a Navy chaplain and moved the family from Lafayette to California and North Carolina. "I think it had a pretty major influence on me," she says. "It was always about helping out other people, being willing to take a role in other people's lives, and being committed to helping them and doing what you can for them."

Before taking the job as RSD superintendent, Jarvis taught Sunday school and sang in her church choir in her spare time. Her daughter, Kristen, aims to continue the family's social mission as a freshman at Southeastern Louisiana University, where she will pursue a degree in social work.

The flip side of Jarvis' do-gooder compassion is the resolve of a steely missionary. Trudging through the tall grass on the flood-ravaged campus of Lawless High School, she tells her audience from the Department of Education what it's like having to fight with FEMA over every single building, hoping this bevy of bureaucrats can bring some understanding to their fellow civil servants back in Washington. One of them later confides in Jarvis during lunch, "We remember how tough you were from the conference calls, but this is just ..." the visitor pauses in search of words to describe the devastation she has just seen.

"Well," Jarvis replies, after letting the pause take its effect, "there's certainly never a dull moment." Her hallmark laugh comes out again. She notes that, just before she met President George W. Bush during his recent visit to Samuel J. Green Charter School, she was told to "behave." She had previously butted heads with Bush's Gulf Coast recovery chief, Donald Powell, over how she could spend federal funds sent to the RSD. "They all know that I'm pretty direct when I get frustrated," says Jarvis, adding that she had threatened to go to the media and bring a lawsuit against Powell.

Yet, for all her toughness on behalf of the system and the children, she has struggled in her attempts to gain public support. She spent much of last fall fighting community groups while defending the state's new role in local education. As a result, she was tagged as an outsider who didn't have the kids' best interest at heart. She was stung by that criticism, so much so that she cited the importance of "connecting with the community" as "the thing I learned the most" during her tenure here. She appears to have taken that lesson to heart. Her recent decision to defend community groups' position on testing and grading standards for hurricane-affected children put her at odds with her boss, state Education Superintendent Paul Pastorek, the media and BESE members for not upholding state educational standards.

"I don't think it's fair to say that she gives in to pressure easily," Pastorek said several weeks before Jarvis announced her decision to leave. "But I do think this job can take its toll. And I think she has such a strong desire to benefit the children in these schools that I think it has colored her vision a bit."

Others say she has been put in a no-win situation.

"She didn't have enough support, and that was the major problem," says Phyllis Landrieu, president of the Orleans Parish School Board. The OPSB currently operates only five schools, having lost control of the 107 "under-performing" schools that went to the RSD in the state takeover.

"She almost single-handedly tried to tackle the job, and that was an impossible thing to do," Landrieu adds, noting that Jarvis' lack of experience as an urban school superintendent exacerbated the problem. "I just think the woman undertook a job that was far beyond her ability to perform. To the extent that she got us where we are is to her credit. Her effort deserves an 'A,' but her outcome probably deserves a 'C.' But I don't think it's all her fault. The whole set-up deserves a 'C.'"

Pastorek told Gambit Weekly that getting a qualified support staff in place is his "No. 1 priority." Roughly half of the 200 authorized RSD office staff positions are filled. "We're in a serious shortage of adequate staff to execute the mission of the RSD -- and I'm talking about infrastructure, not even including principals and teachers," adds Pastorek, who has been reaching out to in-state and out-of-state educators in search of qualified people. "Do I think she's been a good No. 1? I think she's been a great No. 1 given the resources that she's had at her disposal."

Ironically, Pastorek's promise to give Jarvis adequate administrative staff also included talks with her replacement, Paul Vallas. Although both Jarvis and Pastorek deny that she was forced out, Pastorek was openly consulting with the Philadelphia superintendent in person weeks before the announcement of Jarvis' resignation. Pastorek at the time said he was bringing Vallas and others to New Orleans because, with the cooperation of Jarvis, he was looking for help to bring the "A Team" of educators to the city. Then Pastorek explained specifically what he was searching for. "Some people think Robin is heroic, like myself, and you can have superman but if you don't have a community engaged in this enterprise -- the community has to step up and the person who is leading the team has to engage the community at the proper level. If you don't have a highly talented, highly qualified person and a community that's fully engaged in this process, then you're not going to succeed."

In the same interview, Pastorek pointed to Jarvis' original role as acting superintendent in analyzing her performance. "I think we also have to recognize what her [former] job was. Was she tasked to run these schools for the next 10 years, or was she tasked to take the beach? The way I see it, she's taken the beach. RSD has 39 schools that are open." He also noted that before he accepted the position of state superintendent in March, he asked Jarvis to stay, but for how long was unclear.

A statement by Board of Elementary and Secondary Education President Linda Johnson when Vallas was named the new superintendent shortly after Jarvis announced her intention to retire, however, hinted that BESE had been looking for her replacement for some time. "It is imperative that the RSD is led by a person who has the proven ability to build leadership and capacity," Johnson said, when the announcement was made at the newly renovated Matin Luther King school last week. "I told Superintendent Pastorek to find us the best leader in the country for New Orleans, and I am confident that Mr. Vallas will be able to take this district to the next level by successfully opening more schools, recruiting teachers and staff, and most importantly, ensuring our children improve academically in real and measured ways."

For her part, Jarvis insists that she came to fill a temporary role -- as her home in Baton Rouge would indicate -- and that her only motivation in quitting is the goal of spending more time with her family. But, even before that decision was reached, she pondered her legacy.

"As far as going down in history as having been a leader in this whole thing, that's not really how I look at my career. That's not really how I looked at taking on the job to start with," she says. "There was a need, and I thought I could help, so I stepped in to help for a period of time. I will know what my role has been regardless of how that goes in other people's minds. You have to learn to take what you value in yourself and go with that rather than worrying about what everybody else has to say."

Later, after announcing her decision, she said: "Most people in education understand the challenges that we have. They understand that what we're doing here has never been done anywhere around the country, and they respect that I was willing to take it on even with the obstacles."

She never hinted that she knew who would take her place, but she offered this wisdom: "They're coming into New Orleans. It is a unique culture and unique political environment to be in."

With the Louisiana Legislature back in session as of last week, the RSD's future remains an open question. Jarvis' decision to leave may spur renewed efforts to tweak -- or disband -- the district. "I will tell you this," says veteran New Orleans Sen. Ed Murray, "I don't think anybody is happy with the way the recovery district is being run today. Some people think that we should give the recovery district more time to find its way. Some want to return it back to the Orleans school district, and everything in between. There is not a consensus except that the Recovery District is not what it ought to be today."

As this academic year winds down, Jarvis and her staff have opened 22 RSD schools and supported the opening of 17 charter schools. The district next year plans to open up to a dozen more traditional public schools, plus nine new charters. During this school year, the RSD went from one employee -- Jarvis -- to 1,200 employees, including teachers, principals and office staff. A lawsuit against the RSD for putting children on waiting lists is still pending. Overcrowded classrooms, a shortage of teachers, efforts to guarantee quality instruction and getting more facilities open remain some of the RSD's most difficult immediate challenges. Long-term issues include whether charter schools will be as successful as promised and how the RSD, which was created as a five-year interim solution, will transition public school management back to the OPSB.

At Sylvanie Williams Elementary School on Martin Luther King Boulevard just hours after Jarvis' announcement became official, an overwhelming sense of relief is visible in her face. The rough-and-tumble world of New Orleans politics clearly has taken a toll on Jarvis. Ever so quickly, however, a tour through one of the kindergarten classes livens her up as she engages a group of nine youngsters sitting on tiny chairs during their snack time. It recalls what she said about the future of New Orleans schools, and possibly herself, at the end of our first meeting. "People have to keep fighting and moving forward by celebrating the small wins and taking encouragement from that, knowing that there will be bigger wins down the road. It's hard to see because there's still so much more that needs to be done."

click to enlarge TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
click to enlarge Jarvis, formerly a kindergarten teacher, offers to help a - youngster unwrap a crayon during a visit last week to - Sylvanie Williams elementary school. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Jarvis, formerly a kindergarten teacher, offers to help a youngster unwrap a crayon during a visit last week to Sylvanie Williams elementary school.
click to enlarge Because of threatening taunts she has received, Jarvis is - accompanied in public by an armed bodyguard who - previously worked with the Secret Service. Jarvis says it - wasn't her idea; it was something former state Education - Superintendent Cecil Picard insisted was necessary for - her safety. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Because of threatening taunts she has received, Jarvis is accompanied in public by an armed bodyguard who previously worked with the Secret Service. Jarvis says it wasn't her idea; it was something former state Education Superintendent Cecil Picard insisted was necessary for her safety.
click to enlarge Missteps in opening public schools in New Orleans - resulted in several problems including overly large - classes due to teacher shortages, heated discussions of - why some schools weren't reopening and staggered - opening dates. Fights broke out in some areas, incuding - John McDonogh, where security guards were brought in - to maintain peace and keep students in line. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Missteps in opening public schools in New Orleans resulted in several problems including overly large classes due to teacher shortages, heated discussions of why some schools weren't reopening and staggered opening dates. Fights broke out in some areas, incuding John McDonogh, where security guards were brought in to maintain peace and keep students in line.
click to enlarge Martin Luther King Elementary in the Ninth Ward, which - sparked controversy when it was not among school - buildings to reopen this past school year, has been newly - renovated and will open for students in the fall. It was - chosen as the site for last week's announcement that - Paul Vallas, CEO of the School District of Philadelphia, - will take over Jarvis' post as RSD superintendent this - summer. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Martin Luther King Elementary in the Ninth Ward, which sparked controversy when it was not among school buildings to reopen this past school year, has been newly renovated and will open for students in the fall. It was chosen as the site for last week's announcement that Paul Vallas, CEO of the School District of Philadelphia, will take over Jarvis' post as RSD superintendent this summer.
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