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Three years later, looking for lessons in New Orleans' schools

Three years ago today, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans. Since then, the city has struggled — valiantly at times, less so at others — to rebuild. As Paul Tough’s New York Times Magazine cover story from two weeks ago reminds us, nowhere has the rebuilding meant such a “radical experiment in reform” as in the city’s school system, where currently half of students attend charter schools, many of which are being run in the KIPP model, and many teachers come straight from college with far more energy than teaching experience.

In the summer of 2002, I taught journalism to highly motivated 6th graders from the New Orleans public schools as part of the national Summerbridge program, now called Breakthrough Collaborative. Very few of my former students, now entering their senior year of high school, still live in New Orleans. If they did, they would likely attend one of the city’s selective schools, the only schools still run by the original school district. A “Recovery School District” supervises most of the new charter schools and has taken over dozens of the city’s previously failing schools. Kids whose family members aren’t keyed in to the charter options wind up in those failing schools.

According to Tough’s article, school reform in New Orleans embodies the tensions between the Education Equality Project, many of the tenets of which are being executed faithfully in the city, and the Broader, Bolder Approach, which holds that poverty and non-educational ills — of which New Orleans students face many — must be solved in order for schools to reach their potential. Not willing to wait for improved health, housing, and welfare services to help their students’ families, school leaders in New Orleans have taken a fast-track approach to school reform. Despite some reformers’ instincts otherwise, there’s no reason to experiment on this scale in cities that haven’t been devastated by disaster. But we can certainly learn a lot from the outcome of New Orleans’ experiment. We should pray that Gustav, on track toward the Gulf Coast right now, doesn’t wipe out the prospect of seeing the experiment through.

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