The Battle to Save New Orleans’ Schools

One of America’s most audacious education experiments is under way in the Crescent City—and the outcome could transform how we teach.

Children arrive on the first day of school at Arise Academy, in New Orleans. (Photo: Pableaux Johnson)

Aug 17, 2015· 9 MIN READ
Katy Reckdahl is a New Orleans–based writer. Her work has appeared in The New Orleans Advocate, The New York Times, and The Atlantic, and other news organizations.

NEW ORLEANS—In early August, Krista Brown hosted a community event at her school, Arise Academy, which is at the edge of a largely black working-class section of the city’s Ninth Ward neighborhood. The school’s technology teacher worked the DJ booth and played songs like Pharrell’s “Happy” while children pedaled bicycles around the school’s backyard. Brown, who is white, mingled comfortably with neighbors while youngsters stood in line at a food truck for sno-balls slathered with some of New Orleans’ favorite summer syrups—tiger’s blood and orange nectar.

It’s been a rapid ascent for Brown. She arrived in New Orleans five years ago, fresh out of Virginia Tech, eager to join the idealistic young Teach for America staffers who’d flocked to the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The storm forced New Orleans into one of the most audacious and riskiest urban education experiments in America. Now, at 27, Brown is Arise’s principal. In many ways, Brown—and her school—represent the dramatic changes under way.

For decades before Katrina, New Orleans’ public school system was one of the most abysmal in Louisiana—which has ranked among the nation’s worst education performers. By August 2005, when Katrina arrived from the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans public school children were frequently being given out-of-date textbooks—if they received textbooks at all. Parents were asked to send their children to school with toilet paper and soap. Buildings were dilapidated. Fewer than 50 percent of students graduated from high school. Then came the post-Katrina floodwaters, which covered more than 80 percent of the city. For weeks after Katrina, black mold climbed up the walls of flooded schools. Some buildings sat empty for months while thousands of teachers—and some 65,000 students—were scattered across the country.

FULL COVERAGE: Project Katrina: A Decade of Resilience in New Orleans

Activists who’d driven education reforms in New York, Atlanta, and Washington saw fertile ground for charter schools in New Orleans. The schools had been pioneered in the late 1980s, with the basic idea that teachers and administrators should be freed from traditional school district bureaucracy to test new ways of operating and teaching in classrooms, becoming models for other schools. In exchange for that independence, schools were required to meet performance goals outlined in a founding charter. In 1991, Minnesota became the first U.S. State to allow charter schools. Now, 42 states and Washington have them. They receive public funds and as such are considered public schools, but they’re often privately run. Some charter schools have attracted investment from corporations and Wall Street hedge funds.

In the weeks after Katrina, nearly every aspect of public life was reconsidered. The state of Louisiana effectively seized control of nearly all of New Orleans’ public schools from the Orleans Parish School Board. The governor at the time, Kathleen Blanco, said, “We cannot afford to rebuild schools that do not give students the quality education that they need.” All but 16 of the city’s top-performing schools were declared failures and basically turned into charter schools. The city’s public school board fired its more than 7,000 teachers and employees, many of them African Americans who since the civil rights era had formed a critical part of New Orleans’ black middle class. Change—for better, or worse—had arrived.

Drive across New Orleans today, and you’ll see dozens of gleaming new schools, many of them built with nearly $2 billion from the federal government. Ninety-one percent of New Orleans public school students attend charter schools—a higher proportion than anywhere else in America. For context, consider that slightly less than half of the schools in Detroit and Washington are charters. Yet it’s unclear whether the children in New Orleans’ new schools are doing significantly better. The schools are certainly celebrated. For example, in a 2009 address in New Orleans, President Barack Obama said, “Because a lot of your public schools opened themselves to new ideas and innovative reforms, we’re actually seeing an improvement in overall achievement that is making the city a model for reform nationwide.”

President Barack Obama talks with students at
Martin Luther King Charter School, in New Orleans, in October 2009.
(Photo: Kevin

By some measures—standardized test scores, graduation rates, college enrollment after high school—progress has been made. But the truth is, it is too soon to declare the experiment a success. Earlier this year, in a TEDxNewOrleans talk, Jay Altman, a pioneer of New Orleans’ education reform movement, offered the following observation: “The schools have improved enormously in the last 10 years. But what we’ve really done is gone from an F to a C. We’ve gone from unsatisfactory to satisfactory. And now, how do we create great schools? How do we go from satisfactory to good to great?” In 1998, Altman helped open New Orleans Charter Middle School, the first such school in the city. He now runs Firstline Schools, a network of five open-enrollment schools.

Since Katrina, there’s been concern among some longtime residents that the charter schools have mostly hired white teachers—nearly 54 percent—to instruct a student population that is nearly 87 percent black. In recent years, federal complaints have documented shirked services—for students who qualify for special education, are seen as behavioral problems, or don’t speak English—in part because there is no central school-district office providing such services.

Most of New Orleans’ highest-performing schools in 2015 were superstars a decade ago. That tells you how difficult it is to build high-quality schools from scratch. Nearly all of those top-performing schools have advantages—selective admissions standards that were grandfathered in from before Katrina that give preferences to students from certain zip codes, for example. Preferences are also given to children of university employees and students who pass entrance exams. At least one school requires that students maintain a C average or above as a condition for continued enrollment.

By comparison, nearly all new charter schools—including Arise—are officially classified as open-enrollment schools. In theory, they must accept any child, regardless of neighborhood or ability, so long as there’s an available seat.

In many ways, the success of New Orleans’ education experiment hinges on whether principals like Brown can boost student test scores at schools like hers. “As principal,” she told me, “that’s my prime responsibility.” Here’s the ultimate question: Can she fix Arise?

Krista Brown grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Her father retired from the U.S. Navy, and her mother worked for credit unions. She attended Catholic schools until the sixth grade, when it became clear her family could no longer afford tuition. So she transferred to a public magnet middle school and then a top public high school. Neither of her parents graduated from college, but they expected her to do so. “My parents worked extremely hard,” Brown recalls one afternoon. “They saw firsthand that no matter how hard you work, if you don’t have a college degree, you miss out on opportunities.”

She enrolled at Virginia Tech and studied communications and human development. To earn extra money, she started tutoring athletes and found her calling. “A lot of the guys that I got to know and really love were in college but were missing so many fundamentals—math and reading,” Brown recalls. She decided she wanted to help students catch up earlier, before finding themselves unable to graduate from college.

Shortly after graduation, Brown signed up for Teach for America. Soon, she was in New Orleans, teaching elementary math at a charter school in one of the city’s upscale neighborhoods. In her first year, she struggled with classroom management. An experienced teacher began mentoring her. The second year was better. As her two-year Teach for America commitment ended, Brown started hearing about a school called Arise.

Arise started modestly, in 2009, with kindergarten through second grade, and then added classes until this year, when it reached eighth grade. Louisiana doesn’t pay for universal pre-K education, so most of Arise’s kindergartners enter without any formal education. Most have never written their own names. Some have never held a book. Research shows that older students entering the school are typically behind in their studies by one to two years, and sometimes even three years. Getting them up to speed takes daily small-group reading intervention sessions combined with intensive use of individually tailored computer-learning programs, a common charter school tool.

It helps to know that in New Orleans’ post-Katrina education landscape, traditionally powerful school districts oversee and regulate a network of charter schools, but do not necessarily run them. Charter school operators must meet certain test-score standards to stay open. Beyond that, they are autonomous—free to hire their own staffs, create their own budgets, and negotiate their own contracts. In theory, this independence should puncture bureaucracy and lead to more innovative teaching. In practice, it’s become clear in New Orleans that a “system” of charter schools can mean a hodgepodge of rules and gaps in services, especially for struggling students. Parents trying to choose between dozens of schools for their kids can be overwhelmed by a blur of school slogans and propaganda. To deal with some of these concerns, in recent years the overseeing districts jointly created a fund to serve special-needs students. They also pledged to jointly collect data and use uniform policies and rules for expulsions—which in 2007 were found to be used too frequently.

Krista Brown, principal of Arise Academy, in New Orleans. (Photo: Pableaux Johnson)

In 2012, Brown was hired to teach math to fourth graders at Arise. Finally, in her third year of teaching, she flourished. “I could actually start to build better relationships with kids,” she says. She noticed that the students at Arise were different from those she’d previously taught. For starters, Arise students’ uniforms were slightly less crisp. One reason: Her previous school didn’t provide bus service. So, by necessity, a high proportion of that school’s students came from families that owned cars. In other words, “it was more selective, though unintentionally,” Brown says. Charter school critics have long alleged that some of these schools are deliberately selective and violate the spirit of open enrollment. To thwart less able students, charters may limit school buses, ask parents to return to school multiple times to sign forms before enrollment is complete, or charge students annual enrollment fees—which, of course, some families can’t afford.

The Arise Brown entered faced many challenges. Last year, for example, on a statewide measure of student test scores, Arise earned a D on an A-to-F scale. In a nutshell, that D means Arise is ranked just above failing schools, which are at risk of losing their charters and being shuttered by the state. To remain open, Arise must show “continued growth.” Brown insists the grade doesn’t fully take into account the school’s efforts to broaden its electives to include dance, music, and martial arts, or the arrival of a full-time social worker and a psychologist—positions that some charter schools have abolished. The grade, Brown says, “doesn’t reflect the high-fives and the hugs we receive from kids—especially those who struggle.” Nevertheless, at the elementary level, test scores are the only indicator Louisiana uses to assess student learning.

Earlier this year the principal position opened, and Brown was asked to apply for the job. On the morning of July 27, she stood at the school’s shiny front doors in nearly 100-degree heat. It was the first day of school and her first as principal. “Good morning,” she said, as parents walked by, escorting children to their classrooms, as is tradition on the first day of school here. This is a critical time for Arise. Traditionally, before Katrina, principals were elder statesmen with advanced degrees who might have some gray hair. Today the principal’s role is most often served by energetic young stars like Brown, who describes herself as “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.”

Part of Brown’s strategy for fixing Arise involves changing who is leading its classrooms. She estimates that about half of her school’s 75 teachers are experienced New Orleans instructors, and the rest are relatively new arrivals. Roughly half are African American. Arise’s primary assistant principal is an African American woman who grew up here. One recent day, as the staff prepared for the new school year, Rai Bolden, an African American woman who teaches English and language arts, led a workshop for teachers about what it means to be a child of color in New Orleans. Bolden frequently reminds her colleagues they’re working with the community—not on a community. Brown notes that her staff is more diverse than those of most other charter schools. She says that because 97 percent of her students are black, Arise must have a diverse leadership team: “If not, what message does that send?”

Arise Academy is housed in a building once known as Washington School.(Photo: Pableaux Johnson)

What may be Brown’s biggest challenge is shared by other open-enrollment charter schools: Its student body reflects the city of New Orleans, where nearly four out of 10 children live in poverty. Most of Arise’s roughly 500 students come from low-income families. More than 95 percent are eligible for free lunch, slightly more than schools citywide. That’s why Arise serves three meals a day and recently added supper with the help of a food bank. “If they’re not given a meal at the end of the day,” Brown says of her students, “they may not eat until the next day.” Essential classroom supplies—crayons, construction paper, and pencils—are freely given to students. The school has an on-site washer and drier and a stash of spare uniforms for students who need them.

Poverty complicates more than hunger does, in ways examined in a seminal 1960s U.S. government study. The study, known as the “Coleman Report,” found that student achievement was based on “one-third in-school factors, two-thirds family characteristics.” My back-of-the-envelope analysis using data from the Cowen Institute—a nonpartisan education research center founded at Tulane University after Katrina—shows that at New Orleans’ eight A-rated schools, an average of 46 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. At the city’s 16 D-rated schools, the proportion of economic disadvantage jumped to 93 percent.

The year is off to a promising start. Arise is in a renovated redbrick building with gorgeous hardwood floors, modern classroom electronics, and fully functioning central air conditioning—a necessity in this humid city. Behind the school is a new playground with a rubberized surface that can be used for basketball, tennis, or volleyball.

On the first day of class, Brown wore a light-blue blazer and gray slacks and walked through the hallways, hugging students. When the bell rang, she walked into each classroom and asked teachers if they needed help. As the principal left one classroom, the mother of a newly transferred second grader pulled her aside. “I couldn’t read at this age, and I’m seeing the same things in her that my parents saw in me,” said the woman, who was dressed in a work uniform. “Can you help my child get back on track?”

The moment was a powerful reminder of why Brown is here. “My ultimate fear,” she says, “is that Arise could close because we didn’t increase student achievement enough.” Brown insists she is optimistic but concedes, “I’m also anxious—because the stakes are so high.”