Even before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the city and the state had been the focus of school reform. The Recovery School District project aimed to turn around underperforming schools on a grand scale. But Katrina gave officials a reason to wipe the slate clean in poverty stricken New Orleans. Hope Against Hope (Bloomsbury Press, 2013), by Times-Picayune reporter Sarah Carr, examines those reform efforts from the perspective of the teachers and families they affected. I spoke with Carr about what she learned and what other reform-minded cities can take from the experience.
There’s a dramatic scene in the book’s prologue that crystallizes much of the tension that runs throughout the rest of it.
Yes, that scene is centered on the debate over the future of one school, the Craig School. There was a dispute between two African American men who are both considered community leaders in New Orleans. One hoped to turn the school over to a charter operator because of its poor academic performance. The other saw that as taking the school out of the community’s hands and putting it in the hands of outsiders.
I thought that scene reflected these historic tensions about whether or not societal change can successfully be imposed by outsiders. You can trace that debate back to historic dialogue between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois in the early 20th century, about whether white teachers and community leaders can be successful in educating low-income black children or whether they really need to be educated by people who look like them and come from the same community.
In normal circumstances, but especially following a disaster, a school is one of those things that helps hold a community together. But that was all taken away with the city’s mass firing of teachers in 2005. How did that impact the community?
Well, it definitely impacted the teachers directly. I think it was 7,500 employees who were fired. They really did form the core of the black middle class in the city in a lot of ways. Not only did they lose their homes in many cases, but they lost their income. There was this demoralizing sense that they weren’t welcome back in their hometown. As a result, many of them never came back to the city, so they lost a decent chunk of the city’s black middle class.
As to how it has affected the broader community, I think that’s a more complicated question. On the bright side, it has definitely opened the door for an influx of really energetic, motivated educators. But on the downside they’ve lost a lot of experience from teachers and educators with a knowledge of the kids in the social and cultural context in which they live. I don’t think there are enough schools that draw on both those strengths, and have a mixture of young educators from outside New Orleans and veteran educators who worked in the schools before Katrina.
You profile three people in the book, including an “old school” educator and an idealistic young teacher, but the standout is a student named Geraldlynn. She’s unremarkable as far as her performance, but she’s the kind of student at the center of the reform experiment. What drew you to her specifically?
It was partly for the reason that you mentioned, that she is fairly average and she’s not at one extreme or the other. I didn’t want to focus on a star student or one who I felt was the most troubled. Too much journalism and writing on school reform focuses on those extremes.
But apart from that, Geraldlynn was very reflective and articulate, and was able to see what was going on at a deeper level than a lot of kids. To be able to write that story, I needed a student who was perceptive and would be able to reflect on what she saw and heard in a fair amount of depth.
The KIPP Renaissance High School and Sci Academy’s reliance on data and discipline are a big part of your story. While this model has produced good test scores, is it also producing good students capable of critical and creative thinking?
That’s a great question and it really is the core issue. I don’t think they are there yet. Ben Marcovitz, the principal at Sci Academy, articulated that tension. He said they are very structured in their program—which helps get kids up to grade level so they can pass the state standardized test—but there is a point at which it becomes a detriment. They get so used to structure that once they are outside that environment they don’t know how to function or how to question authority and become independent learners.
Some of the better schools are trying to change their curriculum and approach, particularly in the later years so the kids have more independence and more exposure to the challenging reading and curriculum they’ll experience in college. But remember, Sci Academy just graduated its second class, so it’s too early to tell how those kids are going to do in college and how many of them will make it through.
One of the other themes in your book is poverty, even before Katrina. In some ways it seems that fixing the schools was like slapping a fresh coat of paint on a condemned building. It doesn’t really get to the root issue. What more needs to be done?
It was nobody’s bad intent or design, but what happened in New Orleans is reflective of this idea that fixing the schools alone is enough in terms of lifting communities out of poverty. I don’t think the approach to poverty alleviation has been holistic enough in New Orleans. It’s hard in a city where you have a shortage of living-wage jobs, a broken health-care system, and communities with high rates of violent crime to expect schools to lift families out of poverty on their own.
I think there are more tangible, easy steps just in terms of increasing kids’ recreational opportunities and putting more of a focus on making sure families are involved in education changes. And there needs to be some expansion of mental health-care systems. That’s not reinventing the wheel, but it could be done relatively easily and would help a lot of these families in the short term.
You note that New Orleans was a test case for school reform on an unprecedented scale. What can other cities learn from this?
One of the things that Louisiana did well is that it set the bar very high for charter operators from the start. They’ve turned down more prospective charter school operators than they’ve approved. It’s in places like Ohio where, for a time, they let anyone who wanted to open a charter school do so that you’ve seen the weakest performance in the charter realm.
On the negative side, though, I think there has been too much emphasis on one model in New Orleans. Most of the schools are inspired by the KIPP model, this highly structured environment, focused predominantly on low-income children of color. I think there are kids that this model is going to miss. There hasn’t been enough emphasis on recruiting diverse charter operators who really want to think about and approach education in different ways. In part, that’s because of the emphasis on test scores. The KIPP-style school has demonstrated, if nothing else, that it can produce short-term test score increases. But in the long term, it will be bad for the community if there aren’t more diverse schools.
Another thing is how much school leadership mattered at the site level. The principals had so much power to hire and fire, to set their calendar, and really control the way education happened in their buildings. A teacher can really thrive under a good school leader—or crash and burn under a bad one. One of the most important things a city can do is to make sure they have the strongest person at the school building level.
Spending a lot more time in the schools also made me realize that so much of the debate about school reform, charters, and teachers’ unions is framed in ideological terms. But I felt that many of the tensions that I observed in New Orleans were much more sociological. They stemmed from very different beliefs about not only what school culture and education could be, but also what families should be getting out of it. I believe there needs to be more attention paid in the media and by policy makers about these sociological tensions, rather than so much emphasis on ideological political debates.
Is there a particular scene or image that stays with you now?
There are many, but one in particular is a scene with Geraldlynn, her mother, and stepdad at the start of her freshman year of college. They were discussing their hopes and ambitions for her, and her stepfather is talking about the lack of living-wage jobs for people who don’t have a college education. They were very honest and articulate about the challenges Geraldlynn and her siblings faced. At most levels her family knew exactly what she needed to not have to live in poverty like they did. A lot of people have asked me, “Well, aren’t her parents the exception, and most poor families aren’t invested in their kids’ education?” But I found that the majority were. And, in some cases, because they knew so much of what was at stake, they were even more invested in their kids’ education than many middle-income families. I think that challenged not only societal stereotypes, but maybe a few of my own going into reporting the book.