Positive Outlook Aids New Orleans School Recovery

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The first in a three-part series.

Principal Adam Meinig and Students at KIPP Believe i

Principal Adam Meinig talks to students at the KIPP Believe charter school in New Orleans. Larry Abramson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Larry Abramson, NPR
Principal Adam Meinig and Students at KIPP Believe

Principal Adam Meinig talks to students at the KIPP Believe charter school in New Orleans.

Larry Abramson, NPR
Math Teacher Scarlet Feinberg i

Scarlet Feinberg teaches math to fifth-graders at the KIPP Believe charter school. hide caption

itoggle caption
Math Teacher Scarlet Feinberg

Scarlet Feinberg teaches math to fifth-graders at the KIPP Believe charter school.

More in This Series

Read more of NPR's three-part report about the progress of New Orleans schools since Hurricane Katrina:

Overview: Bringing Back New Orleans Schools

Some New Orleans schools are still struggling with broken infrastructure and other problems as the end of the first real academic year since Hurricane Katrina approaches. But the sounds of progress are loud and clear at the KIPP Believe College Prep charter school.

The school opened its doors last fall without any instruments. Now, 90 fifth-graders are aspiring to join the city's musical tradition.

Keith Hart, KIPP's new music director, is still teaching his students the basics, but he demands that they use what they know.

They might be ready to swing by next year's Mardi Gras if students' progress in math class is any guide. Last September, the fifth graders — nearly all from low-income families — were struggling with basic addition. Now, their teacher, Scarlet Feinberg, has every student multiplying and reducing fractions at rocket speed.

"We have almost every single fifth-grader doing a hundred multiplication facts in three minutes," Feinberg says.

Feinberg urges her students to speak up, to act like the college-bound students she wants them to be and, above all, to stay focused.

But the ghosts of Katrina are hard to escape. Katrina badly damaged the school's roof, which was replaced last year. Then, in February, the school was hit by a tornado that tore another hole in the roof. But even in this, Principal Adam Meinig and his students found something uplifting.

"I got a voice message the day of the tornado that was one of the cutest things I've ever heard," Meinig says. "It was a student who said, 'Mr Meinig, two quick questions. I know a tornado hit the school. One is that I know you guys sometimes work really late and even sleep at the school, so I want to make sure everyone's OK. And secondly, I want to know where we're having school tomorrow.'"

As the students gather in the cafeteria one day for a "Brain Power Lunch," they talk about how they'll measure up against other KIPP schools in upcoming tests. KIPP, which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program, has 52 schools nationwide.

Organizers aim to run the school like a family: The group is responsible for the success of each individual.

At the meeting, two students who have been arguing are asked to speak. A girl named Taylor steps up and apologizes to the entire school.

"Not just the school, but New Orleans. We're supposed to change New Orleans, and how I'm going to change New Orleans if I'm fighting all the time?" she says.

The other students respond to her apology by snapping their fingers in a round of quiet KIPP applause.

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