Blog

Education ‘Revolution’ in New Orleans By Zoe Conway, BBC News

It is a charter, or independent, school that Mr Gangopadhyay, a Californian, founded last year.

Armed with clipboards and flyers, these are the door-to-door salesmen of free education. Mr Gangopadhyay sells his product with an almost missionary zeal.

“We need to penetrate these neighbourhood housing developments and let people know that we really are going to make sure that every child goes to a high quality college, to make sure they become leaders in society,” he says.

Mr Gangopadhyay is one of the many young teachers to have come into this city in the wake of Katrina, the devastating 2005 hurricane that claimed the lives of more than 1,800 people and flooded much of the city.

Altruism may be one reason why they are here, but also the opportunity to try out new ideas in a low-performing school district that was almost completely destroyed in the storm.

‘The future is now’

Two-thirds of the city’s children are now enrolled at independent schools, which receive state funding but are free from some of the rules and statutes that apply to other public schools, in return for producing results as set out in the school charter.

They are non-selective institutions, run by a mixture of businesses and non-profit organisations.

Charter schools are not unique to New Orleans but no other city has gone this far, this fast.

At the nearby Sci Academy, the teachers are having their morning staff meeting. They shout at the top of their voices “the future is now”.

The 20-something Ivy Leaguers stand in a circle, psyching themselves up for their day by slapping their thighs and clicking their fingers.

These teachers are performance driven people. The Sci Academy has been open for less than a year and it is already getting results.

Despite the fact that almost all the students here qualify for free school meals, they just came top in the district’s English exam.

Ben Marcovitz is the the principal. At 30, he is one of the oldest members of staff and holds much power over the quality of education at the school.

“I see a teacher who is not working out, that teacher doesn’t have to stay. I see a teacher who could use improvement I can help develop that teacher. I see that the school day needs another course in math, I can add that course,” he says.

“I can take a look at everything that’s going right and wrong and act on it, provided that I raise the accountability that I have to those who are granting me the charter.”

Burn out?

Typically of charter schools, the staff here are not unionised and work a longer school day than teachers in traditional public schools. I don’t want the majority of my staff to work more than 10 years Paul Vallas, New Orleans Recovery School District superintendent

“We’re working 12-hour days, on a regular basis. I generally reserve all day Saturday and then plan to do some work on Sunday,” says Margot Bouchie, a 26-year-old teacher.

Ms Bouiche says she and her colleagues drink a lot of coffee. But what happens when the adrenalin and the caffeine wears off. Do they burn out?

It is a question that is bothering some within the charter school movement – but not Paul Vallas.

Mr Vallas is superintendent of the school district here and is seen by many as a mentor to the US education secretary, Arne Duncan.

“I don’t want the majority of my staff to work more than 10 years. The cost of sustaining those individuals becomes so enormous,” he says.

“Between retirement and health care and things like that, it means that you are constantly increasing class sizes and cutting programmes in order to sustain the cost of a veteran workforce, so I think you want a mix, you want a balance.”

The problem of “burn out” does bother union representative Cheryllyn Branche. She is the principal of a traditional public school, Benjamin Banneker. It turned down the opportunity to become a charter school and has been improving its test scores since Hurricane Katrina.

“If you can’t get someone to stay in this profession to really hone their craft, learn their skills, and really make a difference in the lives of children, then you are not doing something that’s realistic and long term,” she says.

Spreading the word

The conditions under which these charter schools have flourished in New Orleans are undeniably unique – in the wake of Katrina the teaching union was crushed, and an entire workforce changed overnight as idealistic young teachers swarmed in.

But can the gains made here be replicated elsewhere? Education secretary Arne Duncan wants to spend billions of dollars spreading charter schools across America.

Jay Altman, a director of the New Orleans Charter operator, FirstLine, believes that much of what has been achieved in the city could also work in Britain.

Mr Altman, a former adviser to the UK education secretary under Tony Blair, says there are many educators in the UK who would relish the opportunity to design their own schools.

Related Posts

Eric Parrie Teacher Feature 16-17

Eric Parrie, a Social Studies Teacher at George Washington Carver High School, is the third Collegiate Academies’ Teacher Feature for the 2016-2017 school year. Eric is a larger than life character engag…

Victor Jones Teacher Feature 16-17

Victor Jones, English Teacher at George Washington Carver Collegiate, is the second Teacher Feature of the 2016-2017 school year. Victor uses his big personality and bigger vision to support his students…

Leah Lykins Teacher Feature 16-17

Leah Lykins, AP Environmental Science Teacher at Abramson Sci Academy, is the first Teacher Feature of the 2016-2017 school year. Leah empowers her students to engage with their data in deep, meaningful…

Sara Mich Teacher Feature 15-16

Sara Mich, a Sci Academy English Teacher, is the first Teacher Feature of the 2015-2016 school year. Sara’s strong focus on constant personal and scholar growth creates a classroom where students achieve…

Phil Gallia Teacher Feature 15-16

Phil Galia, US History teacher at Carver Collegiate, is the second Teacher Feature of the 2015-2016 school year. In class, Phil supports his scholars in forming and expressing their own opinions, while a…

Ben Ifshin Teacher Feature 15-16

Ben Ifshin, one of Sci Academy’s Biology teachers, is the third and final Teacher Feature of the 2015-2016 school year. Ben Ifshin’s class has a deep empathy for student experience, combining joy with su…

The Season for Gratitude

Our scholars (really, all high school kids) need intense academic preparation to be college-ready. From phonics and pre-Algebra to AP Literature and Calculus, the intellectual work of moving from middle…

What We Can Learn From Singapore

In the past several decades, Singapore has rapidly climbed up the international education totem pole. According to the George Lucas Educational Foundation, Singapore’s schools have developed a reputation…

Scholars’ Families Join the CA Team

This summer, I had the great pleasure of sitting down for an interview with Lakethia Hampton, the aunt of one of the girls on the Sci Academy volleyball team. Having coached volleyball for the past four…

Smart Cities: New Orleans

The first Maker Faire in New Orleans was held over the weened. It was hosted by a new school incubated by 4.0 Schools and New Schools New Orleans (NSNO)– Bricolage Academy. Matt Candler, founder of 4.0…