Is the New Orleans education system a fertile training ground for the talented, skilled, and innovative workforce of the New Economy? While educators say local universities such as Tulane and Louisiana State University pass with honors, they also agree that the current K-12 public education system doesn’t make the grade. Many academics say the steadfast answer to education reform lies with the tough leadership of Colonel A.G. Davis, the new superintendent of New Orleans Public Schools.
New Orleans has a very strong parochial school system, so there always have been educational alternatives for people who can afford them. About 30 percent of all the school-eligible citizens in New Orleans go to parochial schools. Public education has been under-funded here for a very long time. But there is a genuine community feeling that we, as a city, cannot survive unless we work together to reform our public schools. We’re very concerned about improving the reading rate among all students. We get many students at the New Orleans Center for Math and Science who lack the basic skills like multiplication, subtraction, and division. We are working to remedy that, and figure out how we can provide our students with experiences that will help them learn basic skills. We started a math power summer camp, which is markedly improving their skills. We also have a very dynamic superintendent, Colonel Alphonse Davis, who is a military man. I sometimes feel like divine intervention brought him here. He is a dynamic, strong leader who will stress the importance of fundamental rules like attendance and punctuality. For a long time, we had even given up on such basics as an achievable goal.
I’ve seen a lot of state-level education changes, but I still think we’re behind other states. The technical education system has existed in North Carolina since the 1960s, and that area also has the Research Triangle Park, which was just a pasture when I served in the chamber of business in the Carolinas. Education reform was taking place in other states well before New Orleans made it a priority. Finally, we’ve come to realize that citizens cannot ignore the public schools simply because their children don’t attend them. The public schools prepare and groom New Orleans’ future workforce. New Orleans’ workforce-related initiatives include an outstanding school-to-career program sponsored by MetroVision, which is an economic development partnership affiliated with the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce. This education and school-to-career program is a major development in seven parishes in the New Orleans region. It’s been in existence for two years and is considered a model program in the country.
Louisiana is in the midst of a total public education reform for the grades K-12. Despite reform efforts, citizens must keep in mind that Louisiana has one of the highest poverty levels in the U.S., and New Orleans is in the same category. Preparing the future workforce must start even before kindergarten. When students complete high school, the state must ensure that graduates leave with a high-caliber education that will prove useful in the workforce or in higher education. We have a major challenge ahead of us. However, the new state standards should help produce the kind of high school students that Louisiana needs in its workforce. Down the line, those education initiatives will benefit the business environment. If a city can set itself apart by offering high-quality, customized training, then it can be more competitive. That is currently in the works here. Specifically, we are developing an outstanding school-to-career initiative that encourages students to follow a career path in the ninth or tenth grade. Those students’ interests are reinforced through internships and jobs in the community. We want to give them hands-on experience with teachers who have worked in the business community and who can relate that world to the classroom.
I have never been more encouraged about the future of Tulane, and the future of Louisiana. I have seen so many good things happen in the last couple of years. I’m convinced that we are really positioned to take off as a region. We’ve created living and learning communities where groups of students who live together in common areas of a dormitory can share some main interests. The first community was centered on the urban theme because Tulane wanted to be much more a part of the community. The second one will focus on international topics and allow interaction among students who want to go into international business or major in a foreign language.
Additionally, Tulane has established the Center for Learning and Technology, which trains faculty to use new technology in the classroom. Professors use “Course Info Software” to post their courses on the Web with chat rooms, discussion boards, and the syllabus. Such technology adds a whole new dimension to education and adds new resources for students. Our School of Public Health has actually taken a distant learning focus, and that stems from its long tradition in international public health. The school has a state-of-the-art distance learning facility, where students can take courses from any part of the world and pull up their computer screen to see the professor in a New Orleans classroom interacting with other students. Things are changing quickly, and that’s part of the excitement. The community is working together to make sure change is embraced by everyone. There is no shortage of people willing to help.
It has become clear in this rapidly changing information age that the University of New Orleans can’t really teach its students specific skills anymore. Even if we could keep up to date, the skills they learn now will be completely obsolete in one or two years. Those skills are yesterday’s news. So what the students really need is the ability to learn on the job. To be successful in the new technological marketplace, you must be able to adapt and learn very quickly.
As a university, we must give students hands-on experiences with appropriate equipment that will challenge them. In the last six years, we’ve added significant new hardware to enhance the learning experience. For example, we recently networked all of our classrooms. Boom! Now we can use technology to let our students see how they would do a job if they were actually working as a marketing manager or an accountant. It’s a much more effective teaching technique.
UNO is expanding the number of courses it offers in the areas of management information systems. Five or ten years ago, we would have never considered a course in electronic commerce. But now we’re adding a number of courses to the curriculum that allow students to learn about specific kinds of e-commerce business and how those differ from traditional retail or service businesses. We’re also developing a series of new curricula scheduled to launch in the spring. That curricula will relate to the technology industry in New Orleans with The Navy Information Technology Center as the focal point for a new technological economy in the community. Our new curriculum will have two components. One area will be geared toward business managers who want to learn more about technology. Courses will tackle management information systems, programming language, database management, telecommunications and project management. Those courses are designed for professionals with a business degree or business experience but who simply don’t speak the same language as the techies they work with. The other curriculum consists of traditional business courses in management and marketing, accounting, and finance geared toward students with a technical background. It’s designed for somebody with a computer programming degree who has to manage other people, prepare budgets, and understand how budgets work. These people may have great skill as programmers, but they don’t have a clue how to run a business. Many of them want to start their own businesses — that’s the trend in the high-tech field.
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