Hate it, like it or love it, the New Orleans public school system?has been heavily Black and mostly Black-run for quite some time — until 2005, when White folks from outside New Orleans and some local Black folks decided it was time for the state to take over the school system via an entity called the Recovery School District.

Read the Q&A: New Orleans School Superintendent: On charter schools, and the district's Leah Chase School

In the years that followed the state takeover, the school system went from central governance by an elected school board to virtually every school being governed by a separate, privately appointed board.

Dr. Avis Williams, the system's superintendent since July 2022, did her homework as a superintendent candidate. She knew (in my words) it was a messy situation here. She knew there was a big difference between our all-charter system and the traditional systems she’d served previously.

At least, she thought she knew the scope of the challenge that awaited her.

“I will say it changed significantly,” Williams told me as we sat at a children's lunch table before a recent community meeting at what will be the Leah Chase School. She said she had to learn what it means to be a charter authorizer, to consider what charter autonomy looks like, and to dig deep into data to identify quantitative and qualitative impacts. She learned that her role here "was not the same as a traditional superintendent role.”

Williams held school board, school leader and school system conversations about what it might look like to have district-run schools before she focused on any particular school. The district, she learned, wasn’t ready yet. The system she inherited consisted of a central office designed to choose charter organizations, not to run schools.

Leah Chase

Leah Chase, the legendary chef and restaurant owner, is one of the finalists on a list of potential new school names for some New Orleans public schools.

At a January school board meeting, “I gave them my very well-thought-out opinion and facts around it, you know, where we were at that time,” she told me.

She did not recommend running schools.

Williams recently learned more about the system's history, and the story behind the Leah Chase Building and the Lafayette Academy charter school housed there. The charter management organization running Lafayette lost its contract — and no other charter organization stepped forward to run it.

It was decision time. Either the school system would run Lafayette itself, or the school would close.

Williams was moved by a conversation she had with Stella Chase Reese, who runs the famed Dooky Chase Restaurant with other family members. The Marquis de Lafayette building that houses Lafayette Academy was renamed after Reese's mother, Leah Chase, the iconic chef and civil rights activist, in 2021. “She expressed to me that the family was really grateful” for the building name, Williams said, but “it’s still not the same as a school.”

Though she had concerns, Williams knew what had to be done.

Come August, the Leah Chase School will open with kindergarten through fifth grades in the Leah Chase Building as a district-run school.

Before and during a recent community meeting, Williams’ team took stock of the building, counting classrooms and seats, looking at entrances and exits, and more. They have only four months to get ready. The superintendent’s biggest concern is one shared by other districts: finding enough “effective,” “quality” teachers.

The district seeks teachers as it looks for Chase school leaders. The school curriculum is being developed. Central office support is being structured.

Today's New Orleans public school system reflects the Recovery School District's bias in favor of charter schools?in the years after Hurricane Katrina. That bias was supposed to be an "experiment," but nearly 20 years of decentralized oversight has produced a structurally segregated system. The experiment has failed too many New Orleans children.

I like and support charter schools — where they are appropriate — unlike many who spew only hate toward them. But I oppose a one-size-fits-all, charter-only school district.

No other public school district has copied the New Orleans model, and for good reason.

Williams is overseeing a historic moment for the district and the city. The change will take a lot of work to succeed. She welcomes public feedback. Other community meetings are planned for April 17 and May 19. There will be a virtual meeting, too.

“We’re going to do it, and it’s going to be amazing,” Williams said.

Williams won’t say when the district might take on more schools, she’s certain it will happen — in time.

I join many others in counting on Williams and her team to create a milestone in the life of the New Orleans public school system by making Leah Chase a top-tier school.

Our city’s children deserve nothing less.

Email Will Sutton at wsutton@theadvocate.com, or follow him on Twitter, @willsutton.