An Intern’s Perspective: Paul Luczak
By: Jill Zimmerman | July 13, 2012
Each semester, the Cowen Institute hosts college students interested in K-12 public education in New Orleans. This is a guest post written by a research intern offering up his perspective on his experience, some of his most important research findings, and his thoughts on public education in New Orleans.
On my last Monday night in New Orleans before heading back to Glen Ellyn, Illinois (coincidently, also the home town of the Cowen Institute’s new executive director, John Ayers), for the first time in my eight-week adventure here, I finally felt like a local. Following an eventful day at the Cowen Institute, I stir-fried some Louisiana shrimp (not caught by me, did not get that local), jumped on the St. Charles streetcar, and, without checking Google maps (well, maybe once), made my way to the Prytania Theater to watch Beasts of The Southern Wild. Pretty impressive, right? As I stepped onto the homeward bound streetcar for what felt like my thousandth time, basking in the success of my quintessential night in Uptown, I confidently shoved my quarter into the opening of the cash machine reserved specifically for dollar bills. Needless to say, the glare of the conductor and the chuckles of everyone on board shattered my pride almost as quickly as I broke the cash machine.
If the NORTA is still looking for the culprit of this heinous crime, admitting my guilt online may not be the smartest move, but I feel like it represents the crucial point that no matter how much New Orleans feels like home to me after my 8 weeks, I am clearly not a local. Additionally, while reading the rest of this post, remember that my perspective is one groomed in the Chicago suburbs and within the walls of Notre Dame, not New Orleans.
That being said, the Cowen Institute granted me the freedom to work on a variety of different projects and immerse myself in the public education and nonprofit sectors of the city. Now that my time in New Orleans is coming to an end, and I have time to reflect on my work and experiences, the Cowen Institute has graciously given me this forum to share my thoughts and opinions.
First and foremost, I have found the city to be full of dedicated teachers, school leaders, and nonprofit groups committed to improving the opportunities of NOLA’s children. Each event we attended seemed to be populated by leaders and educators I had yet to meet, and every Google search lead me to an organization’s website which still possessed the blue text of an unopened link. In a relatively small city like New Orleans, this observation was refreshing and unexpected. While a handful of groups seemed committed to solely serving the goals of their own organization, more often than not, the nonprofit leaders appeared dedicated to maximizing their impact through collaboration and teamwork. The term ‘collective impact’ was echoed almost everywhere we went. Without a doubt, the wealth of talented teachers and school leaders (not literal wealth, major improvement still needs to be made in that department), in addition to a majority of nonprofit groups placing a commitment to the children of New Orleans over their individual success, leaves me confident that the motivated individuals of New Orleans will not let failure populate the vocabulary of this city for much longer.
When looking at the school system currently in place in New Orleans, collaboration and teamwork frequently occur at the school level, but often these partnerships come with a cost. In an open enrollment system like New Orleans, schools compete against each other for teachers, resources, and most importantly, students. If a school wants a higher SPS or school ranking, it is in their best interest to hoard their own best practices in order to gain a leg-up in the recruitment process of talented students with dedicated parents who can succeed on the state tests. Additionally, too often people spoke or wrote about schools finding ways to kick out low achievers, or not accepting students of special needs, in order to raise their test scores. While my research on charter school leaders suggested that more often than not these leaders value the good of each child in the city as much as each child in their school, the incentives for isolation are hard to resist. Competition is often championed as a way to push schools to the top, but it also creates the temptation to lead your school to success while watching other schools fall to the wayside. The integrity and values of the majority of members in the education community have so far minimized the potential danger of this threat, but it is hard to ignore the proximity of this forbidden fruit. In a system where school closures, mass firings, and school takeover are often hanging in the balance, I have faith that school leaders will continue to take the high road.
While this competitive environment does scare me, I am still confident that the city’s public schools will continue to adapt and improve as long as dedicated, passionate, and brilliant education leaders continue to commit themselves to New Orleans.
I would like to end this blog post by thanking the Cowen Institute and the Hesburgh Yusko Scholars Program. The Cowen Institute could not have been more welcoming, and was the perfect environment to learn more about public education and education reform. This opportunity would not have been possible without the generous funding and backing of HYSP, and for that I could not be more grateful.
Paul Luczak is from Glen Ellyn, Illinois. He attends the University of Notre Dame as a Business and Economics major, and will begin his sophomore year in the fall. Paul is a Hesburgh Yusko Scholar and the treasurer of Notre Dame’s chapter of Students for Education Reform. While Paul’s career plans remain undecided, he hopes to incorporate his passion for public education in whatever career he pursues.