State of the Union January/February 2007

Reading, Writing, Resurrection

Hurricane Katrina destroyed one of America’s worst school systems and made New Orleans the nation’s laboratory for educational reform. But can determined educators and entrepreneurs transcend the damage of the flood—and of history?
THE BUSINESSMAN:
MARKETING A "GREAT PRODUCT"

O

Classroom

James M. Huger

n a rainy August night, James M. Huger, a thirty-eight-year-old scion of Uptown New Orleans gentry, stood before a group of parents to pitch his new charter school, Lafayette Academy of New Orleans. Among the new schools, Lafayette had been one of the most prolific advertisers—on radio and television as well as in the streets. This was because Huger, whose business interests ranged from real estate to construction to parking lots, understood the marketplace better than most. Under the New Orleans schools’ new governance, the money—state and federal—would follow the students, and so every charter school needed a critical number of students just to break even. Recognizing that the power to choose lay with the parents, Huger had scheduled a series of open houses to woo them. “I’m a real-estate developer; I don’t know the first thing about running a school,” he told them, but he promised that his Choice Foundation would create an excellent one—a “great product,” as he put it.

Huger’s avocation, he says, is free enterprise—capitalism, and the principles that make it work. By his reckoning, competition and choice made America great, and they could transform New Orleans’s schools too. Give parents the right to leave bad schools, he believed, and good ones would emerge. Less than a year before Katrina, he had founded the nonprofit Choice Foundation to promote this idea, but he hadn’t progressed far. Little did he know, he would say later, that he should have been praying for a major hurricane.

That hurricane had placed Huger before these parents and brought about what he described to them as a “total revolution in education.” Lafayette Academy’s building was still under repair, so for the open house, Huger had commandeered the auditorium of his own alma mater, the Isidore Newman School, a private educational redoubt of the city’s elite. Newman’s student body had never been more than one-fifth nonwhite (even as the city itself became two-thirds black). This stint in the auditorium was as close as many of these parents were likely to come to a Newman education. But Huger was promising something almost as good: “a private-school education at no cost to you,” as one of his staff put it.

Huger had partnered with Mosaica Education Inc., a for-profit educational management firm that administers ninety charter schools in the United States and abroad and has developed an innovative, interdisciplinary curriculum. He had hired both a chief administrative officer—with thirty-seven years of experience in Department of Defense schools—and a seasoned Orleans Parish principal. They regaled the parents with talk of the Socratic method and critical thinking, of one computer for every three students, and of individualized learning plans—in short, a “gold standard.” And if gold were not incentive enough, there were goodies: donated backpacks and school supplies for everyone at the open house. Huger—white, well-educated, well-off—came across as someone who had never wanted for much, but he wanted the endorsement, or more accurately the enrollment, of the mostly black, less advantaged parents arrayed before him.

He had it. At the evening’s end, parents scurried to register, and by school’s start, Huger was king of the marketplace: Lafayette had nearly 800 students, more than any other elementary school in New Orleans. Its conditions, though, were not entirely his to set. Huger would have preferred that his school have selective admissions, by which students are screened on criteria like test scores and grade-point averages. He also would have preferred more of what he delicately called “diversity”—as in white children. But under the guidelines, choice ran only one way: Huger would have to educate any child who chose him.

THE OUTSIDERS:
‘MISSIONARY WORK’

In August of 2006, Robin Jarvis had an impressive title—acting superintendent of the Recovery School District—but no office to match: she was working out of a few classrooms and, on occasion, her car. Her portfolio was large: she was to reconstitute the seventeen schools the state would run in the fall, and oversee the charter schools authorized by the state (there were separate city-authorized charter schools) and the real estate (102 buildings) the state had acquired through the takeover. Mindful of the legendarily corrupt, bloated school bureaucracy of Orleans Parish before the storm, state officials wanted a lean operation, so Jarvis’s staff numbered about a dozen. That meant, to a great degree, that the success or failure of this experiment rested on her business-attired shoulders.

The state had not planned on running the seventeen schools itself; it had thought more charter operators would fill the vacuum. But only ten of forty-four applications for new schools had passed the state screening process (and three of those ten schools would later have their charters withdrawn). So it was left to Jarvis, a forty-three-year-old redhead, to start a new school district from scratch and fulfill the legislative mandate to operate its schools in the manner “most likely to improve the academic performance of each student.” Given how far behind the children were, and given their post-Katrina trauma, someone had described her job to her as “missionary work.” To a Baptist minister’s daughter, that sounded about right.

Jarvis’s graduate thesis had been on educational leadership, and she had been a teacher, then a principal, then an assistant superintendent in the state Department of Education. She thought she knew, as a result, what the schools needed, and she conveyed her plans with composed assurance. She wanted a culture of high expectations. Class size would be restricted to twenty or twenty-five, depending on the grade, and the school day for teachers extended to eight and a half hours. Experts from the University of Toronto and elsewhere would provide professional development. Jarvis would handpick principals, who would handpick teachers from a pool that had been selected through a screening process decided on by Jarvis and her staff. In a sense, although the schools she was running were not charters, Jarvis had the freedom of a charter-school operator—but also the burdens. Most charter schools take a year to prepare before opening, but each of the various New Orleans charter operators was struggling to launch one or two schools in only three to five months; in that same period, Jarvis was trying to launch seventeen. And she was an outsider: her home, Baton Rouge, was about eighty miles away, but an immeasurable distance in “culture” (to invoke a word she and others used with more regularity than specificity).

For a bureaucrat, Jarvis displayed unusual political skills. Her humor was disarming, her forthrightness refreshing. She needed that politesse, not least because she was a white woman leading the state takeover of a largely black school system. New Orleans had always been, and remained, a profoundly racialized place, attuned to gradations of color and their implications for status, power, and resources. Schools were a place to both enforce and challenge the racial order. The progressivism of the northern reformers who founded New Orleans’s public schools extended to admitting immigrants—but not blacks. Reconstruction had brought a brief period of enforced integration, but then, with the restoration of local power, came segregation. It persisted until 1960, when four African American girls integrated the New Orleans elementary schools. But again integration was short-lived. White flight began in earnest in the 1970s, and by 2004, the students in the city’s public schools were 93 percent black, as were most of the system’s teachers and employees. Jarvis’s every step, or misstep, would be analyzed through the prism of race.

Racial politics had always contributed to the system’s poor performance, but that was not the only factor. The schools had long been underfunded by the city’s tax- resistant planter and merchant classes. An insistence on maintaining not only racial but also gender segregation into the 1950s had further stretched the system’s resources. A 1909 study of urban schools placed New Orleans’s white schools at the bottom of nearly every national ranking; another survey thirty years later found little change. Middle-class blacks had followed whites out of the system long before Katrina. By 2004, 75 percent of public-school students were receiving free or reduced-price lunch, and fewer than half the students who started kindergarten graduated from high school. (The only exception to this uniform failure had been the city’s magnet schools, which used admission criteria—grades and test scores—to cream off the best students. These students were far more likely to be middle class—both black and white—than those in the regular public schools, and parental involvement followed apace. The magnet schools also drew many of the best administrators and teachers, and consistently produced the best results.)

But if Jarvis faced a daunting legacy, she also had an unusually free hand to erase it. She had no huge bureaucracy to contend with, and New Orleans, perhaps alone among American cities, no longer had a teachers’ union to reckon with. For much of the city’s educational history, the teachers had been the heroes, stalwarts who soldiered on, underpaid, amid racial tugs-of-war. But as they grew in strength, thanks in large part to the United Teachers of New Orleans, critics came to see them as villains: protected by tenure, shuffled from school to school, they were blamed for many of the schools’ ills. In a stroke, Katrina had defanged the union. In the Recovery School District both principals and teachers were now being hired on one-year contracts, promising new accountability. And all teacher and principal applicants, including those who had worked in Orleans Parish schools, would be hired only after passing both a skills-assessment test and an interview. “I have to ensure I have the very best-quality teachers,” Jarvis explained on the witness stand in civil court, fending off a lawsuit that teachers had brought against the test. “It is what we are doing for the children.”

But through the summer and into the fall, high standards kept colliding with limited resources, human and otherwise. The pool of teachers was too small, a reflection, in part, of trying to revive a school system in a city that remained half-dead. Rents had risen as much as 70 percent since Katrina, to levels prohibitive for old and new teachers alike. Eighty percent of the city’s licensed child-care centers were gone after Katrina, impeding parents’ return to work. Government grants for home repair moved at a trickle. The continuing lack of a rebuilding plan—or rather, a surfeit of rebuilding plans, but a lack of actual rebuilding—had exiles in Houston, Atlanta, and elsewhere holding off on return. And the Recovery School District had not helped itself by waiting until the summer of 2006 to begin hiring teachers.

Many teachers had lost their homes and were living in trailers. They were fighting for insurance payments, caring for elderly parents traumatized by the storm, gutting their homes. The same people expected to shoulder the burden of reinventing the public schools, in short, were reinventing their lives. Being fired had been humiliating, and having to submit to a skills test was degrading, and some simply stayed away.

Because the state was not releasing the skills test to journalists, I signed up to take it myself. Along with English skills at the eighth-grade level and math at the fourth-grade, the test included multiple-choice questions about “best practices” and educational theory, and an essay. I wasn’t convinced that it was a reliable indicator of whether someone would make a good teacher (I became even less convinced when I passed), but I supposed it could weed out those who couldn’t handle basic math or English—which turned out to be one-fourth of those who took it. This further depleted the pool: there simply were not enough qualified teachers—at least as defined by the test—to go around. In post-Katrina New Orleans, Jarvis’s desires for both small classes and excellent teaching were proving incompatible.

Daniel J. Hudson

Daniel J. Hudson

In a way, the gap between demand and supply gave teachers more power than ever. They had their pick of schools; at training sessions, principals circled like suitors at a Jane Austen ball. One morning, as the Recovery School District’s principals gathered for training, one of them, Daniel J. Hudson, studied a candidate’s résumé. “You can stop looking at that résumé,” another principal said with a friendly smirk. “She’s on my staff.” Hudson crushed the paper.

A burly onetime football player who had last worked as a principal in Washington, D.C., Hudson was part of an infusion of new blood into the city, whether Hispanic laborers sweating to repair a school or educators like him who came to run one. New Orleans had always had unusual generational depth—families whose residence in the city extended back centuries. Katrina had broken this lattice of relationships, dispersed its pieces, and begun assembling a new one in its place. Hudson, in the midst of a year off when Katrina hit, decided to come help New Orleans reach into the ashes to “pull out the phoenix.” At fifty-nine, he figured he had ten working years left. With Jarvis’s endorsement, he would spend as many of them as he could as principal of Sarah T. Reed High School in New Orleans East.

Hudson’s task was to execute Jarvis’s ideas about how to make a good school. In theory, Hudson had full freedom to choose his teachers; he just had to find them. “One thing that’s going on is that folks can’t pass a simple test—children’s level,” Hudson told me. He thought the state should hold firm in upholding qualification requirements, despite the holes in his staff (he still needed four science teachers, to start).

On September 8, I saw Hudson in the Recovery School District’s newly opened headquarters. After stumbling across a crowd of applicants waiting to take the skills test, he began working the room. “Any science and math teachers?” A man nodded. “Certified? Certified science and math?” The man nodded again. Hudson looked ready to dance a jig. He gave the man his number and told him to call “any time, day or night,” when (not if) he passed the skills assessment. Hudson pressed on: “Any male PE teachers?”

His school was just hours from opening.

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