Monday, July 30, 2007

It takes a storm

When I visited New Orleans a year ago, I found little in the way of good news except charter schools. Katrina was the long overdue death blow to the dysfunctional school district so reform was the only way to go. Forbes of August 13 includes "Katrina's Surprise: In the hurricane's aftermath, a charter school in New Orleans defies the odds and thrives."

This is very good for New Orleans and will develop into an example that could well benefit the whole country -- much of which still debates "saving the public schools."

... Nicknamed the Little Red Schoolhouse and perched on dry
land in the French Quarter, comfortably above sea level, the school now brims
with energy, ambition and rising test scores among its 420 students, more than
90% of them from low-income African-American families. Remarkably, it thrives in
a still toppled city in the midst of one of the worst school systems in the

"It took a hurricane to speed up and really jump-start the
reform efforts in New Orleans," says Gary Robichaux, principal of McDonogh 15
(named for a slave owner who over a century ago left an endowment for building
public schools in New Orleans). "Before, we were tied up in what became a
complex bureaucracy. Now we have the autonomy to do what we need to get done to
make our schools successful."

For months after Katrina's assault many children now under his
watch showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder: scared to leave their
parents, angry or tearful, unable to focus. Some relived the hurricane over and
over in their heads, while others cowered in thunderstorms. In art therapy they
drew pictures of corpses, flooded houses, lost pets and people escaping in boats
and cars.

Today McDonogh 15 is more accustomed to happy hallways
bursting with the colors of Mardi Gras and the strains of adolescents playing
New Orleans jazz in the school band. Student uniforms come in green shirts for
prekindergarten through first grade, gold for second grade through fourth and
purple for fifth through eighth grades, each shirt bearing an uplifting slogan
("No short cuts. No excuses." "Work Hard. Be Nice.").

The school day runs extra long, from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., plus
a half-day every other Saturday. Discipline is strict, but classes are livened
up with clapping and chanting--"Read, baby, read!" Students go home with two
hours of homework each day, and they can call their teachers' cell phones with
any questions. The heavy emphasis on reading is leavened with daily creative
arts classes that include French and jazz band. Good behavior earns the kids
"paycheck points," which add up to such rewards as invites to a school dance or
a trip to SeaWorld in San Antonio.

In just one year since opening in August
2006 McDonogh 15 students have made great strides. About 85% of kids grades
three through eight began the school year two or more grade levels behind, on
one reading evaluation. Now all but 29 children are at grade level or better. In
September 2006 the reading skills of McDonogh 15's eighth-graders were better
than only 22% of eighth-graders nationwide, and now they read better than 41%.
The class' math scores soared, from the 21st percentile in September 2006 to the
80th percentile in May 2007, meaning they now outscore 80% of the nation's
13-year-olds. Other grades posted equally impressive

It is a surprising departure from a deplorable history. The
school district in New Orleans was failing, financially and educationally, even
before Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. It ranked second to last in the state,
and some high schools had twelfth-grade dropout rates approaching 40%. A school
corruption probe that began in 2003 brought convictions of 23 people on charges
of kickbacks and fraud, including a former school board head, two teachers and a

In the hurricane's aftermath the state took control of 107 of
the city's 128 schools. Now, in what some are calling a grand experiment, 31 of
the 58 public schools that have reopened in New Orleans are operating as charter
schools, freeing them from school board oversight and letting them set their own
curriculums and hire and fire at will. In New Orleans charter schools now
educate half the city's 27,000 students, a larger portion than anywhere else in
the country. Nine more charter schools have the go-ahead to open in the

"It's a stunning transformation of public education, given
that there was nothing there to begin with that could provide a model," says
Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington,

McDonogh 15 is one of 55 public charter schools that make up a
nationwide network known as KIPP ("Knowledge Is Power Program"), dedicated to
serving low-income and minority students with a rigorous curriculum. It was
founded in 1994 by Michael Feinberg and David Levin, who had spent two years
working in the Teach For America program. Since then Gap founders Doris and
Donald Fisher have donated $45 million.