08.29.10

New Orleans' School Miracle

Hurricane Katrina nearly wiped out a city. But out of the rubble came the rebirth of a public school system long plagued by abysmal test scores and even worse teacher morale. Sarah Carr reports on its remarkable education revolution.

Three years ago, Lafayette Academy was—for a moment—the poster child for everything wrong with charter schools, whose numbers have more than tripled nationwide in the last decade.

The school had Pepto-Bismol pink walls, hallways that stunk of urine, and disastrous morale among the teachers. In its first year as a charter school, half of the teachers quit, and more than two-thirds of the fourth-graders failed the exam required to advance to the fifth-grade.

In New Orleans, the storm that upended life in the city, as it wiped out entire neighborhoods, became a moment of opportunity for educators and officials to fix an already broken system.

Yet, on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a transformed Lafayette is cited as an example of charter schools’ promise: This year, before school opened this August, a team planted flowers around the now well-maintained building. Teacher morale has soared, and every fourth-grader has passed the high-stakes exam on the first or second try.

For years, researchers and policymakers have been mired in intense—and at times vicious—debates over whether charter schools improve student learning.

The story of Lafayette Academy suggests that we may be asking the wrong questions.

“There is a lot of debate that is consumed with arguments about whether charters—overall— are good or bad,” said Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “I don’t find it particularly productive. Anyone who has spent any time in this field knows that there are great charter schools and weak ones. What would be helpful is to understand why.”

Lafayette and, indeed, New Orleans in general is instructive when considering these questions because, since Katrina, the city has a higher percentage of children in charter schools than anywhere else in the country, and their quality runs the gamut. Nearly 70 percent of the city’s children are enrolled in charter schools this fall, and educators say that New Orleans might become the nation’s first all-charter city within the next few years.

Charter schools differ from other schools according to the specific laws of the state. But, in general, a charter school is run by a board of directors that has flexibility to set its own curriculum and calendar, and make its own decisions when it comes to the hiring and firing of teachers.

In New Orleans, the storm that upended life in the city also enabled a band of officials to make a series of controversial, radical changes in an effort to improve the city’s historically troubled schools.

In the aftermath of the hurricane, state officials took control of most of the public schools, firing all the teachers and putting the schools into the state-run Recovery School District—an entity created before Katrina to suggest recovery from academic failure, not recovery from the hurricane. Since then, officials have rapidly moved to turn the city’s traditional schools into charters.

View photos of New Orleans over the last five years.

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Considering the growth in student achievement over the last five years, experts say many factors – both tangible and intangible – may be at play. “We talk about post-traumatic stress, but there’s also post-traumatic growth,” said Andre Perry, the CEO of a network of charter schools. “There’s an empowerment that comes from being held responsible—and I don’t mean that from some conservative, ‘pull yourself up by you your boot straps’ mentality. But when you have to hire contractors, negotiate with FEMA, rebuild your house, these things change you.”

In many ways, New Orleans has become a textbook case for the kind of urban education reform favored by the Obama administration as well as influential education foundations and nonprofits, such as the foundation started by The Gap store founders and Teach for America: a technocratic, data-driven approach to running schools that focus on how best to define and measure teaching and learning.

Although much remains to be understood about how the dramatic restructuring has affected the city’s public school families, who are predominantly black and poor, a recent report from the Brookings Foundation found that nearly 60 percent of the city’s students last year attended schools that met the state’s quality standards, compared with 30 percent in 2004.

Perry, one of the authors of the Brookings report, notes that it could take decades to understand, on a city-wide level, whether the reforms work, for whom and why.

It is easier to draw lessons if you focus on a single school, like Lafayette Academy. During its first year as a charter school, 2006 to 2007, an out-of-state company called Mosaica Education ran Lafayette, an experience that one veteran school administrator described simply as “hell.” The company failed to clean the buildings, and never aligned the curriculum with the state standards that students would get tested on, according to several teachers and administrators. (The company has disputed these claims but didn’t return a call seeking comment for this story.)

Educators who went to work at Lafayette that year, “were all really angry,” said Cordelia Lamb, who served as school disciplinarian under Mosaica. “We were all fired—and this is what were coming back to?”

The charter’s board, however, quickly moved to fire Mosaica and hire New Orleans native Mickey Landry to run the school, and during the last three years, Landry has worked closely with educators like Lamb to turn the school around. In addition to improving the physical surroundings, the school director has made a concerted effort to be visible around the school, chatting with teachers and students alike, creating a sharp contrast to the school director employed by Mosaica, who, teachers and educators say, rarely left his office. One teacher recalled that when the former director finally visited her classroom a month into the school year, a first-grader said, “There’s a white man in the room. Who is that?”

In New Orleans, most of the relatively small number of charter schools that have struggled the most have been run by organizations based out-of-state, remote operators who have sometimes insisted on their own curriculum or admissions process.

By contrast, the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, a national network with several thriving charter schools in New Orleans, gives its principals considerable autonomy and a local school support center. As a result, it has the feel and responsiveness of a much more local franchise.

Two decades after the first charter schools opened, we know this for certain: The quality of charter schools runs the gamut and, with the administration and wealthy philanthropists pushing them with promise of real cash, they are here to stay for now.

Which leaves the question of Lafayette. Was Mosaica’s failure an isolated problem or emblematic of a larger flaw with the system?

James Huger, a local businessman and the chairman of the school’s board, says Mosaica’s failure stemmed from specific decisions the company made, like hiring an ineffective school director. However, that—in his view—doesn’t mean that for-profit companies can’t successfully run schools in multiple states. Businesses such as McDonalds have, with great success, replicated the same model all over the world, he notes.

I’m not sure building good schools can be reduced to a formula and exported in the way that selling cheap burgers can. So Huger and I might never agree entirely. But to me that’s a more productive tension than debating endlessly whether charters are an anathema on the face of public education in America, or its salvation.