Community Impact Series -- Eastbank Collaborative of Charter Schools

New Orleans, La. –

After Hurricane Katrina, a group of New Orleans public schools raced to get students back into the classroom and back to the business of learning. As they reopened, however, the leaders of these pioneering schools quickly found that they had a lot to learn themselves.

With the school district still in utter disarray, these first schools reopened as charter schools, and without all the services, contractors and resources of a central office, these school leaders confronted a dizzying array of new responsibilities.

"None of us had experience as being charters, and that's a totally different game," says Kathy Riedlinger, the CEO of Lusher Charter School in Uptown New Orleans. "We were responsible for the finances, responsible for all aspects of operations, so we had to learn a lot of different things and we were on our own in doing so.

"We had to do benefits, we had to figure out salaries, we had to figure out facilities services, maintenance, custodians, food service. We had to do a lot of things and we had to do them very quickly."

But they weren't on their own for long. As they rebuilt their schools, Riedlinger and the leaders of six other new charters formed the Eastbank Collaborative of Charter Schools, a nonprofit that helps them remain independent without being in isolation.

One part of the collaborative's job is helping charters with the basics that all schools need, providing experts in areas ranging from pest control and code compliance to insurance issues and human resources. For instance, the collaborative holds an annual teacher jobs fair, and on its Web site an employment forum connects schools and jobseekers every day.

"By working as part of a collaborative, they're able to kind of pool resources, get an easier transition between the old model and the new model," says Ken Ducote, a consultant of the group.

The collaborative has expanded to 12 New Orleans schools now, and its role has expended as well, as executive director Rose Drill-Peterson explains.

"The goal was certainly providing the back office services but also providing the information and advocacy to keep the charter schools autonomous and independent so students would have, and parents would have, this high-quality choice," she says.

Drill-Peterson says this work on behalf of the broader charter movement takes many forms. On one level, the collaborative gives schools a stronger voice in issues like funding and facilities master planning that affect all New Orleans schools, while on another level it provides peer networking for charter school administrators, board presidents and others facing similar issues - again, ensuring that being independent doesn't have to mean working in isolation.

The group also monitors the many committee meetings of the Orleans Parish School Board, whose decisions still impact charter schools, and then post reports online for the public and for busy school leaders alike. Kathy Riedlinger says that's just another example of how the collaborative's work outside the classroom makes a difference in the classroom.

"It frees me up to be at school, to be in classrooms, to be where I need to be to monitor instruction, to be the instructional leader at school, and the impact that has on student achievement is tremendous," she says.

Click here to learn more about the Eastbank Collaborative of Charter Schools.