August 31, 2014 at 1:00 am

Column: A New Orleans model for Detroit?

Former Louisiana Superintendent Paul Pastorek, pictured here at a 2008 groundbreaking ceremony for Langston Hughes Elementary in New Orleans, has spent significant time in Michigan this summer evaluating education in Detroit and across the state. (Cheryl Gerber / AP)

If you aren’t familiar with the name Paul Pastorek, chances are you’ve heard about his work.

Pastorek, Louisiana’s superintendent of education from 2007 to 2011, is one of the key architects behind the successful effort to turn around the school climate in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Pastorek’s work to convert the vast majority of the city’s public schools to charter schools has reaped positive results.

Now, Pastorek is spending time in Michigan and talking closely with Gov. Rick Snyder and his education team. Since the middle of June, he’s worked about three days a week in the state, dividing his time among Lansing, Detroit and other troubled Michigan districts.

While he says his focus is on Detroit, he’s looking beyond it, too.

“I’m taking stock of urban education in the state,” says Pastorek, an attorney whose resume includes a stretch as general counsel to NASA.

Pastorek is currently chair of the board of directors at the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems, a nonprofit education initiative of the Eli Broad Foundation.

Craig Ruff, Snyder’s education policy adviser, is pleased to have Pastorek in the state. He says the Broad Center “offered him up” and that the Governor’s Office seized the opportunity. The foundation is covering Pastorek’s expenses.

“He’s very well thought of,” Ruff says. “It’s a good brain to have around.”

While Pastorek says what worked in New Orleans could be replicated elsewhere, he stops short of saying simply chartering all Detroit schools is the answer.

He acknowledges the landscape in Detroit is unique, with a wide mix of traditional public schools, charter schools and the schools now run by the Education Achievement Authority.

Roughly 80 percent of public school students in New Orleans attend charter schools, yet Pastorek doesn’t think charter schools are the only way to boost education. Rather, he believes it’s more about the leadership at individual schools — public or charter.

“Frankly, we look at setting principals up for success,” Pastorek says. “It’s really allowing leaders to lead.”

Nationally, Detroit ranks second behind New Orleans for the percentage of students in charter schools. Fifty-one percent of Detroit students are enrolled in charters. So there is plenty of room for comparisons between the two cities, as well as the opportunity to see what’s worked in New Orleans and how that can play out in Detroit.

New Orleans schools aren’t perfect, but they are showing marked progress. Before Katrina, Pastorek says only 24 percent of students in New Orleans were at grade level; now, it’s 55 percent.

Prior to the hurricane, the graduation rate was 48 percent. Today it’s 80 percent.

Detroit, and other struggling urban districts, desperately need to see results like this. And Pastorek is committed to offering guidance to help that happen.

“Kids can be successful, even when they come from challenged circumstances,” Pastorek says.

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.
ijacques@detroitnews.com