For Charter Schools, New Orleans Is Citywide Lab

Students in Scarlet Feinberg's fifth-grade class at KIPP:BELIEVE College Prep,

Students in Scarlet Feinberg's fifth-grade class at KIPP Believe College Prep, a charter school in New Orleans. KIPP is a San Francisco-based charter company that runs two schools in New Orleans and 52 schools nationwide. Larry Abramson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Larry Abramson, NPR

More in This Series

This is the second in a three-part series on the rebuilding of New Orleans' school system.

IN DEPTH

Rebuilding New Orleans, One Neighborhood at a Time: A neighborhood-by-neighborhood survey reveals a city slowly fighting to return.

Teen Photographers Take Aim at 'My New Orleans': See the city's recovery through the eyes of its youths.

In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina destroyed thousands of homes and ruined countless communities. But the storm has also created new hope for the city's school system, long regarded as one of the worst in the nation. New Orleans has become the country's leading laboratory for charter-school experiments. Many educators and parents hope that a rejuvenated school system might help draw residents back into the city.

A New Purpose

Drive through the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans and you'll see boarded-up homes and FEMA trailers. But there's one bright spot here: Pierre A. Capdau Charter School on Franklin Street:

The school's mission has always been to provide a path to college for kids who ordinarily would not be able to get that far. And now that Katrina basically wiped out the city's education system, this school has a new purpose — to help lead the recovery of this one neighborhood by drawing families back into this area.

At a glance, this class looks like other well-run elementary classes. But this charter is run by the nearby University of New Orleans. Principal Christine Mitchell says the connection with the university provides additional resources that the old system could not.

"If I wanted someone to come out and talk to my teachers... I had to pay for it, but with UNO, I don't have to pay for that," Mitchell says. "They come out and talk to the teachers and work with the teachers for free, because of the connection, and they come out willingly."

New Orleans parents and educators have hope and choices for the first time in a long time. What they do not have is results. Most schools are starting with a blank slate — it will be a couple of years before test scores will show which schools are doing a good job. Robin Jarvis, superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District insists she will yank charters from schools that are not on the path to success.

If You Believe

At the KIPP Believe College Prep school, teacher Scarlet Feinberg is putting her new students through their paces. These fifth graders have to get past some addition flashcards before they can enter the classroom. For many of the fifth graders, it's clearly a struggle to demonstrate the second-grade-level skill.

In the classroom, Feinberg is relentless in her efforts to make up for years lost in the old Orleans school system, and the months of instruction lost to the storm.

KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) is a San Francisco-based charter company that runs two school in New Orleans, and has 52 schools nationwide.

Like other KIPP schools, this one relies heavily on a call-and-response style of teaching. It's one way to keep the attention of ten-year-olds who are expected to stay focused for KIPP's nine-and-a-half-hour long school day. The kids are kept so busy; they hardly have time to act out or lose attention — they wait eagerly for Feinberg to snap her fingers so they can respond in unison.

Many of the teachers here are young; Feinberg is in her third year. Charter schools have the freedom to hire whom they want, and for this school, being young and enthusiastic counts for a lot. Feinberg knows that she and the school face tremendous pressure to improve the test scores of the city's most challenging students.

"But it's great pressure, I mean it's pressure that makes you work harder, that gives you a sense of urgency every day that they must learn these skills," Feinberg says. "If you don't produce the results that need to be produced, it's very possible that you could lose your job."

That lack of job security has turned teachers against charter schools in many cities. The threat has been dulled in New Orleans — the state has taken over failing schools, so teachers unions lost their citywide contract, and much of their clout. The teachers who are working at schools like KIPP Believe don't have time for much of a social life.

"The teachers I have gotten have been people who can give 110% of their life right now over to teaching..." says Principal Adam Meinig. "We're here on Saturday on Sunday, painting the walls and unpacking furniture."

The federal government has sent millions of dollars to help jump-start charter schools in New Orleans, and the city is being watched closely by charter-school supporters nationwide. Local school reformers, like Sara Usdin of New Schools for New Orleans, say the challenge is to stay away from policy debates about the merits of charter.

Usdin says that regardless of who is funding or operating the schools, "What we absolutely have to focus on is what's happening in schools with kids."

At lunchtime, the KIPP BELIEVE kids review their times tables by reciting a chant they repeat throughout the day. They may not know it, but their ability to master basic skills may determine the shape of education in New Orleans.

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