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Hope Against Hope 

In an exclusive excerpt from her new book, education reporter Sarah Carr traces the transformation of New Orleans public schools following Hurricane Katrina

In this excerpt adapted from Hope Against Hope, Sarah Carr's new book about the remaking of the New Orleans public education system, Carr traces the changes back to the days after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, when the ruins of the city's public schools signaled opportunity for parents, students, teachers — and others.

click to enlarge Sarah Carr - PHOTO BY SUSAN POAG
  • Photo by Susan Poag
  • Sarah Carr

Geraldlynn's mother, Raquel Dillon, likes to recall the early summer afternoon in 2006 when good fortune knocked on her door. Neighbors struggled to surmise the purpose of the lanky white stranger who approached Raquel's shotgun house on Columbus Street. He looked to be in his late twenties and had a ruddy complexion and light hair that curled despite the close crop. Clad in khakis and a T-shirt and carrying a black laptop bag, he did not have the look of a cop. Best anyone could guess, he came to sell flood insurance, or point residents in the direction of nearby mobile food vans. It seemed implausible that anyone too important would make a personal visit to the home of a hotel housekeeper and short-order cook at a time when even the city's most powerful residents jockeyed for attention from officialdom. Nine months after Hurricane Katrina struck, the area's black population slowly trickled home. Raquel's neighborhood in the city's 7th Ward hadn't started to gentrify like some other areas, so it seemed unlikely the visitor lived nearby.

  Adam Meinig, the lanky stranger, viewed his mission as finding those families most neglected by the city's leaders and institutions. That winter and spring, the Colorado native met with newly returned families in motel parking lots and on the floors of gutted homes, pitching a new middle school he planned to open that August. It wasn't a hard sell, even though Meinig brought only his word and a clip from an Oprah episode touting his program, part of a national chain of charter schools called KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program). Meinig would be principal of one of the first two KIPP schools to open in the city.

  As the steamy afternoon turned into evening, Raquel sat on the brick steps in front of the green door leading into her house, talking with Meinig and her two daughters. On first glance, the whole family could have passed for schoolchildren. The girls had inherited their mother's petite stature and features. Raquel, who was in her early thirties, stood just under five feet tall and weighed about one hundred pounds. Sometimes strangers and acquaintances underestimated her as a result. But her small stature and surface timidity belied an exceptional strength of character and capacity for spirited resistance.

  Geraldlynn, 10 years old at the time and the target of Meinig's visit, could tell he was a stranger to the 7th Ward, and probably New Orleans, based on his accent. He caught her off guard when he started grilling her with questions.

  "What do you want to do when you grow up?"

  "What kind of education will you need?"

  "What year will you go to college?"

  "Do some math and answer with conviction, like you know it's true:

  "WHAT YEAR WILL YOU GO TO COLLEGE?"

  Geraldlynn spent much of the conversation fretting about her hair — a hot mess after hours of playing in the humid streets. She liked Meinig's slow cadence, though, and his tendency to repeat himself, since distractions like a screeching car alarm punctuated the conversation. Geraldlynn perked up when Meinig described annual school trips to cities like New York. But he lost her interest when he mentioned the school hours: 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., plus Saturday school.

  Her mother appreciated Meinig's detailed plans, including the longer school day and the thorough description of classes. It sounded better than the school Geraldlynn had attended since the family returned from Houston just months after Katrina. At James M. Singleton Charter School, Raquel overheard young students cursing out the teachers when she visited, and Geraldlynn never once brought home homework. Meinig's questions evoked an ambition Raquel had rarely heard voiced by her own teachers in the 1980s and early 1990s, or her two daughters' teachers in the years leading up to Katrina. Moreover, no one else had knocked on her door asking permission to teach Geraldlynn. Compared to the hell of evacuating a flooded city, the heartache of missing home, and the frustrations of restarting her family's life there, saying yes to Meinig seemed so easy. So when he asked mother and daughter to sign their commitments to the KIPP regimen — of which Raquel had a good first impression but fuzzy understanding — she unhesitatingly agreed.

  "Sometimes," she recalls, "you have to give a person a little bit of trust."

  Unbeknownst to Raquel and thousands of other public school families, officials took a series of actions in the wake of the flood that would fundamentally alter nearly every aspect of the city's education landscape. Critics called the changes disaster capitalism at its most flagrant. Supporters called it the flood's only silver lining. The story that unfolded complicated both assertions.

  In September 2005, just days after the flood, the school board placed its thousands of employees on unpaid leave. Three months later it effectively voted to fire them, a controversial step that provoked years of tense litigation and helped lead, over time, to a significant expansion in the number of educators recruited from out of town. In November, the state legislature removed most of the city's public schools from the control of the locally elected school board and placed them in the Recovery School District. The state never planned to run schools in the long term, however. Instead, key officials intended to turn them over to charter operators.

  Those actions effectively stripped both the locally elected school board and the teachers' union of their authority, paving the way for an unprecedented remaking of an urban school system.

  The principles of the New Orleans school overhaul do not differ significantly from those guiding contemporary school reformers across the country. Most of them sought and still seek to reduce the power and influence of elected school boards and teachers' unions through the proliferation of charter schools (which have their own boards and tend to hire nonunion teachers), mayoral control or state takeovers (which often strip the elected boards of any real power), and efforts to make teaching more akin to a private-sector profession (where employers have increased control over whom they hire and fire and employees are more accountable to a bottom line, in this case, test scores).

  But in New Orleans, the changes happened virtually overnight.

Most poor residents like Raquel and her family heard nothing when the state legislature approved the measure that seized nearly all of the city's public schools from the elected school board. They never received word of the school board's vote to fire its teachers. They knew little of the charter schools that sprouted across the city, or what would distinguish them from the schools of their youth. New Orleans grew into a mecca for supporters of a parent's right to choose from an array of schools. But ironically, the new landscape originated in a series of actions more characteristic of a despot.

  It is a testament to Raquel's calm temperament, and to her disenfranchisement, that she never expected to be consulted, or even notified, of the changes that would alter the course of her daughters' education. She and her husband, Langdon, noted quite pragmatically that it would have been difficult to gather all the public school parents together in one space in the months after Katrina, much less get the word out about a meeting. They felt grateful Meinig had stopped by that summer day.

  The officials who sought a complete overhaul of the New Orleans education system in the flood's wake marshaled plenty of evidence to support their case: the failure of nearly two thirds of the schools to meet the state's minimum criteria for academic performance; the school district's impending financial ruin; nearly $70 million in federal money not accounted for properly; the FBI investigators who moved into the school system offices to probe financial irregularities; crumbling facilities where hallways smelled of urine; the near complete abandonment of the public schools by the city's middle and upper classes, and the shocking disinvestment of those with power and money that ensued; the frustration and anger of many of those left behind; and the undervalued children who, taking stock of it all, not infrequently gave up.

click to enlarge In Hope Against Hope, Sarah Carr follows KIPP students through the 2011-2012 school year.
  • In Hope Against Hope, Sarah Carr follows KIPP students through the 2011-2012 school year.

  Over time, two opposing narratives explained the schools' failures. One held that the traditional school system was inherently flawed, its structures — a centralized bureaucracy, democratically elected school board, and empowered teachers' union — outdated and its foundations rotten. Others countered that the system had been set up to fail: Politicians and the public had starved the schools of the support and money needed to thrive after the city's white families decamped for private and suburban schools. But, they argued, the system's foundations remained solid.

  Diagnosing the problems proved simpler than explaining the causes, however. Politicians and citizens grandstanded about white racism, the breakdown of black families, the selfish oblivion of the business community, or the intransigence of the teachers' union. More thoughtful observers hesitated to parse the causes of the troubles in New Orleans schools too neatly. Those who sought the education overhaul loved to tell the story of the pre-Katrina high school valedictorian who could not pass the state exit exam after multiple tries. But had the system failed her because of low expectations? A racist school accountability structure? Burnt-out teachers? Decades of damaging underfunding? Or some combination of them all?

  For most of Raquel's life, and all of her daughters', the United States has been confronted with diminishing economic mobility and worsening inequality. She grew up in a change-averse city marred by these trends well before Katrina's devastation. Since the late 1970s, income inequality rose across the country. In the twenty-five years before Katrina struck New Orleans, more than 80 percent of the total increase in income fell in the hands of the richest 1 percent of Americans. A 2008 report by the United Nations found that New Orleans and a handful of other American cities suffer from the same level of inequality as African cities.

  Meanwhile, Louisiana has never been known for liberal social services or for its ministrations to the poor. Since Raquel's first daughter, Jasmine, was born in 1995, the welfare rolls fell by 61 percent nationally. In Louisiana, they dropped by more than 86 percent. Comparatively speaking, New Orleans families like Raquel's have not relied on government aid for both practical and philosophical reasons. If unemployed, Raquel could receive a maximum of $284 a month in cash assistance from the state for herself and her daughters, one of the lowest rates in the country and hardly enough to pay the bills. Instead poor New Orleans families have gotten by — or not — by working low-paying, nonunionized jobs in the city's large service industry: myriad hotels, bars, restaurants and a casino. Particularly before Katrina scattered much of the city's population, they also benefited from strong ties to community, neighborhood and family that provided an alternative safety net of sorts. After the hurricane, countless grandmas, grandpas, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunties and cousins never moved back to New Orleans. That meant those who did return had fewer relatives and friends to turn to if they needed emergency child care, could not pay rent for a couple months or lost their homes and possessions in a fire.

  In the last quarter-century, America has invested in single-pronged, isolated strategies to curb poverty, such as school and welfare reform. Critics have described them as so-called silver bullets that overlook poverty's many dimensions and manifestations, while defenders have called them politically pragmatic and shrewd. In the 1990s, the government tried to overhaul welfare by placing women in job-training programs and helping them to find work, but undertook few other reforms to assist them. By contrast, the British government under Tony Blair unleashed a series of changes aimed at reducing child poverty. The changes, modest by European standards, not only focused on pushing welfare recipients into jobs. They also instituted the first national minimum wage (at a higher level than the minimum wage in America), provided generous new tax credits for working families, expanded free preschool programs and extended paid maternity leave.

  The effort to reinvent New Orleans after Katrina offered no exception to America's targeted, one-dimensional approach to poverty. Raquel and Langdon saw no significant change in their working conditions, pay, or access to health care and social services in the months and years that followed their return to the city. They had not expected anything better, though, and returned because, as Raquel put it, "When you're used to home, you're used to home." But any changes were for the worse, like the cuts to holiday pay rates at the hotel where Raquel worked; the closure of Charity Hospital, which ministered to the poor; or the steep hike in the city's average rental costs, which priced the family out of most houses and, for a time, the city itself.

  Katrina struck the Gulf Coast at a time when the digital age had simultaneously eroded traditional lines of authority and, some argued, laid bare the shortcomings of American institutions across the country. Since its inception, the American public education system has struggled to educate the poor — at times scarcely attempting it. But that was never so evident as after the turn of the millennium, when No Child Left Behind required the public release of data showing just how well (or not) the nation's public schools did by poor students, rich students, white students, black students, Hispanic students, Asian students, disabled students, rural students, urban students and suburban students — at least on the single matrix of an annual standardized test. Of course the government did not try to reduce to a single number or grade the quality of a child's health care, diet, home environment, peers, community resources, recreational options or parents. So in some eyes the blame for the dismal results posted by many poor minority students fell largely on the schools.

  At the same time, the Internet collapsed long-established hierarchies relating to the media and where to turn for information and expertise. For better or for worse, the structures and institutions that had come to define America no longer seemed so sacrosanct. The state officials who pushed through the changes in New Orleans tended to justify their actions with specific outrages: the FBI investigations of school district finances, for instance, or that endlessly repeated story of the high school valedictorian who couldn't pass the state's exit exam. But they operated in the broader context of a country whose citizens felt newly emboldened to question what had been taken for granted — particularly when it came to the fundamentals of the nation's largest public institution. The reinvention of New Orleans schools was an extreme example of the growing and controversial conviction that a changed educational structure on its own could be used to combat poverty in America. Under this line of thinking, "fixing" the schools will best alleviate poverty, not a more expensive and complicated blend of welfare reform, housing reform,health care reform, criminal justice reform, higher taxes and increased government spending.

— Adapted from Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City and the Struggle to Educate America's Children.

© Sarah Carr. Used with permission of Bloomsbury Press.

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