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A conversation with Sarah Carr 

Sarah Carr has reported on education for more than a decade, including chronicling New Orleans' post-Katrina schools for The Times-Picayune. In Hope Against Hope, she follows an inner-city student navigating charter schools, a veteran principal returning to a drastically different education climate, and an ambitious Teach For America alum. "Throughout the book I was really impressed by the openness of the schools I worked with, and the educators and families that let me witness both their successes and warts and challenges," she tells Gambit. "I had a lot of respect for the people featured in the book, and a lot of admiration for the work they're doing. I've reported on education in other cities where there's been a very closed door to reporters. I was impressed that was not the case in New Orleans."

Gambit: What in this reform process is working?

New Orleans and Louisiana more generally have been smart to set a pretty high bar in terms of which charter applicants get approved. It's in states like Ohio where everybody and their brother can open charter schools where you see the lowest charter performance overall. It's really important to have high standards on the front-end" if you don't, it's kind of a lose-lose scenario: You either have students attending low-quality schools that are open indefinitely, or you put them through the trauma of closing or transitioning a new school operator.

Principals are empowered in the New Orleans landscape. They hire and fire and have a lot of control over the curriculum, a lot more direct oversight of the schools, and an ability to make changes as they didn't in the past. … In cases where you have quality principals, the new landscape is really empowering and successful.

Gambit: Did you find anything that is glaringly not working?

There are some charter operators really making an effort to serve all students and serve some of the most challenging students. But overall, some of the most challenging students" whether ones with severe special needs or ones who are coming out of alternative schools or have a history of chronic behavioral problems" are still falling through the cracks. … I'd like to see a better and stronger focus on some of the most vulnerable and challenging students. It's important to stress improvements in the schools alone are not enough, particularly improvements in test scores. The students I followed grappled with so much, it really was outside of the school's control. They had parents who worked 80-hour weeks, some grappled with homelessness, some had to watch friends or relatives die" it's not fair to teachers to ask them to cope with all of that, and it's not fair to poor families to tell them, "Schools with higher test scores are all that we have for you. We're not going to do much of anything to improve your healthcare or ability to earn a living wage or community safety or a whole life outside of school."

There's a difference between advocating for it and asking them to take time to prioritize it. Where it would be great to see more collaborations between schools and associated areas, like recreation and mental health and all these outside sectors that directly affect school's work, but really there are a lot of institutions across the city that then need to step up to make that happen. It can't all be in the hands of the schools.

Gambit: What is the state of education journalism now in the city?

We've just seen The Advocate and The Times-Picayune hire new education reporters in the last couple of months. It's really just beginning to shake out.

There's more competition on the education beat than when I started covering schools. It's not that there was nobody else covering education, but there wasn't competition from another daily paper like there is now, like with the New Orleans edition of The Advocate, and you also have designated education reporters at The Lens. That could potentially be healthy in a way to get more types of stories and more perspectives on education. The biggest fear and question I have is whether education writers at some of these outlets will really be given the time and support to do really in-depth and investigative journalism that just takes weeks and weeks and sometimes months and months of reporting. … I worry that the daily demands and blogging demands will be so strong on some of the education writers it will be really hard to carve out the time for more long-term enterprise. I know everybody covering the beat right now is working really hard. I hope it turns out for the best.

Gambit: Did you make any discoveries or learn anything you didn't expect to?

Even though I had done projects in the past where I've spent a lot of time at a single school or a group of schools, and I had done immersion reporting, this was to a completely different level and degree. ... I could see the effect a strong school leader and a strong school staff had on a lot of kids, even the most challenging and hard to reach kids. You could see lives being transformed when families and staff gelled together around a common vision of what education should be. On the other hand, I saw how incredibly hard it is, in particular how hard it is in a city and area where all these other areas of shortage and infrastructure challenges intents a generational poverty. It left me optimistic about what a single school could do, but also questioning more broadly whether "fixing" the schools is enough to revitalize a city in the long run.

Gambit: How are students, like Geraldlynn, grappling with the pressure of planning for college and beyond as early as middle or grammar school?

Some students gravitate to that, others are somewhat repelled by it. … Some are just scared" the parents haven't gone to college, they don't know what it's about, the whole idea of it seems overwhelming. It's important to stress that in the past schools weren't focused enough on college, because the graduation rates were so slow, at 5 to 8 percent. Now there's the opposite criticism, that they're too focused on it. The best thing might be a middle road.

There's a huge economy now for students who have some post-high school work, whether it's a two-year degree or a technical degree but not necessarily a four-year liberal arts degree. Legal analysts, dental hygienists" a lot of these are real-growth industries, opportunities for students to make a living wage going forward even if they don't have a four-year degree. It'd be nice to see some programs evolve along those lines to balance out the new high schools working really hard to raise college attendance and graduation rates.

Gambit: Can you discuss the conflicts between Teach For America and "traditional" teaching philosophies?

There's a rough divide where you have schools led by veteran principals who worked in the pre-Katrina schools who tend to hire more veteran teachers, and then you have schools led primarily by transplants to the city, many of whom are Teach For America alums, who tend to hire more Teach For America members and alums. Ideally you'd like to see more schools blending those two very general staffing profiles and build on the strengths of both. There are school operators willing to do that, increasingly. There's some reason for hope, but overall there's been a little too much segregation on those lines between schools.

Youend up focusing on battles instead of working together to make the schools as good as they can be. I feel too much attention has been focused on people showing up with signs to picket at meetings, and the kind of things that generate headlines, not so much the hard work of making sure the parents and teachers and people living this reality are bought in to the educational experience they're getting. That's an even bigger challenge than appeasing protestors and the like.

Gambit: And that's a challenge for education reporters.

At all different levels there's a lack of understanding how other people live. It's not that I don't think protestors showing up is important" sometimes they have valid concerns" but so much of the debate here and elsewhere has been depicted in very ideological terms, and there's so much more sociological tensions that are just as important that people need to grapple with.

The story of school reform should really be understood more as a human one than a political one, and I feel like the ideologues on the extremes of the debate over charter schools and teachers unions have hijacked the conversation and left the public with a distorted view of what's going on.

It's easy to put forward the perspectives of people on competing sides of an issue. At least with the debate over schools, I found a lot of the teachers and families I followed had an experience that's much more in the middle and much more complicated than a lot of those talking points.

Gambit: Can you elaborate some of the unintended racial consequences of largely white teachers influencing mostly black schools?

The first and most obvious one is preceded by the displacement and firing of the predominately African-American teaching force (after Hurricane Katrina), so from the beginning there's that context over everything. In terms of the way it shapes what happens in schools, there are wonderful teachers of all races and classes working in New Orleans schools" white teachers from privileged backgrounds who connect really well with predominantly black low-income students, and others who have not done so well.

The biggest thing moving forward is that not only is there this question of the capacity of some of the teachers and principals to understand the social context in which their students live, but you don't want black students to associate leadership and education with a very, very white teaching force. This is an issue of concern for a lot of school leaders, and it should be. You want students to see and be taught by and get to know a diverse group of teachers and school leaders.

Gambit: How are schools preparing for the reality of violence in their neighborhoods?

It's important to note that shootings that happen in schools are rare. It's easy to forget that with Sandy Hook happening to recently. While school safety is a very legitimate and valid concern, to me the bigger issue is the gun violence that so many students have been exposed to indirectly or directly outside of school. ... That isn't something kids would have to live with, and it impacts their ability to focus on school in all kinds of direct and subtle ways. ... Teachers and school staff need to make sure they have the support in place to talk to students who have experienced trauma. There are some schools doing a wonderful job at that, and others that have a long way to go.

Gambit: The book illustrates some parents' frustration and confusion with things like minor infractions and discipline for uniform violations.

There were some who were really repulsed … and were annoyed their kids were getting suspended over and over again and maybe pulled their kids out of a school because of that, but there were others who wanted that intense structure and routine for the kids and believed that was the environment where they could be most successful. One common thread I saw was parents who cared deeply for their kids but didn't have the time because of work schedules, or having to work double shifts just to make ends meet. They didn't have the time to spend as much time at school in supporting their kids' education as they would've liked. ... Yes, there's been this concerted effort to improve the schools, but are we giving families more broadly the support they need.

Gambit: Is that support blossoming anywhere?

Not for families working in the service sector. Those with some exception are still low-wage jobs, and people have to work insane hours to earn a living wage for their kids. A family can be deeply invested in their kids' education, but if they have to work from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. it's hard for them to play the role they'd like.

Gambit: What about for the children with parents working those kinds of jobs?

There are a lot of individual programs working on these, like the Partnership for Youth Development and The Roots of Music. There are lot of bright spots in that arena, but there needs to be more collaboration between the schools and more coordination among them, particularly with the city.

What do you think of the remaking of the New Orleans public education system since Hurricane Katrina?

  • A success
  • A failure
  • A mixed bag

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