ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Summer vacation is wrapping up for kids in New Orleans. This week and next, more than 33,000 public school students head back to class, more than half of them to charter schools.
Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has become a laboratory for charter schools. Seven new ones will open this month, supported by millions of dollars in federal and private grants. The funding and the atmosphere of reform continue to draw educators to New Orleans. NPR's Andrea Hsu spent some time with one new principal as she geared up for her first day.
ANDREA HSU: Channa Cook says people are often surprised when they find out she's the principal. She's 28, she's got a pierced nose, and she's wearing flip-flops.
Ms. CHANNA COOK (Principal, Sojourner Truth Academy): How are you? Sorry, I'm (unintelligible) starting and that's fun. Turn around a little bit.
HSU: Cook has found her way to the home of Lantrau Westbrook(ph), one of 120 founding students of Sojourner Truth Academy. Their principal asks the question she's been posing to all the new students: Who's your favorite teacher? Westbrook can't think of anyone. Finally, she names her social studies teacher.
Ms. LANTRAU WESTBROOK: She wasn't as mean as the other teachers.
Ms. COOK: Not mean?
HSU: Channa Cook says most of her students have nothing good to say about school. Now, she's been given a chance and a $1.3 million budget to try to do something about it. And in the days before school starts, she's out making this promise.
Ms. COOK: We're promising every single family, every single student at our school college. She has to not only apply to college, but she has to get into college.
(Soundbite of people talking)
Unidentified Woman: Sounds good.
Ms. COOK: Sounds good, huh?
Unidentified Woman: Yeah.
HSU: Cook has doubters including, sometimes, herself.
Ms. COOK: Every time I say that, I get chills. And the parents, a lot of them, tears well up in their eyes. That, to me, is really powerful. But it also means that I am accountable to this family. And that keeps me up at night.
HSU: It's easy to see why. This year, 35 schools in New Orleans are listed as failing. Before Katrina, roughly 95 percent of public school students fell below basic proficiency in Math and English on high school exit exams. Channa Cook used to teach high school English and literacy in Los Angeles, but she'd never thought about bringing that experience to New Orleans until last year spring break. She came to New Orleans to volunteer for a week, painting classrooms and organizing libraries. She left wanting to open a new school.
Ms. MORGAN CARTER (Development and Communications Director, New Schools for New Orleans): She always stuck out as someone incredibly vibrant and incredibly committed to this work.
HSU: Morgan Carter is with the group New Schools for New Orleans. They invited Cook and decided to grant her startup funds and help with the charter application. They were intrigued by her idea to teach social justice as a core part of the curriculum. Now, Sojourner Truth has eight teachers, a dean of students, a social worker and a few other staff. Cook says her team is solid. What worries her are the logistics. This year, for instance, they're sharing space with the Federal Head Start.
Ms. COOK: How will it look for 120 high school students to be moving in a hallway possibly at the same time as 40 to 63-year-olds?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. COOK: Seems a little terrifying.
HSU: And that's just downstairs. Upstairs, Sojourner Truth Academy will share a hallway with the Orleans Parish Juvenile Drug Court. That's a program built as an alternative to incarceration for minors who have committed drug-related offenses.
Cook and her staff will stand in the hallway between classes to make sure their students don't end up in the wrong place. Their students will be at school from 7:30 to 5:00 every weekday. Group breakfast is mandatory, so is community service. Cook stands by these plans but admits she's new at this.
Ms. COOK: I'm really candid about that. Like, I've never been a principal before. I've also never planned a school and I never thought that a 200-page document that I submitted to the State Board of Education would be approved. But honestly, it was damn good.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. COOK: You know what I mean?
HSU: Of course, it's only good if it works.
Andrea Hsu, NPR News, New Orleans.