New Orleans as Phoenix

One of the interesting thought experiments of the past decade is the question: what if you could redo an entire school district including a large percentage of independently managed schools with different models, instead of the usual one-size-fits-all central bureaucracy that has permeated most urban districts. From the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina rose that chance.  The story will be some time before it is finished, but here is the start:

NEW ORLEANS — The devastation of Hurricane Katrina four years ago brought with it many changes for this city, but perhaps its most enduring mark may be the new charter school system that came cascading in during the storm’s aftermath.

Take, for instance, the students at Langston Hughes Academy. Once struggling to meet state testing standards, they’re getting a lot of help to try and do better. Their learning environment has changed to one with electronic blackboards and teachers hailing from Ivy League schools.

The talk here is not about where to go after school, but where to go to college.

“There are higher expectations now and no excuses,” said John Alford, the Harvard-trained leader of the school. “Kids are starting to see college more as a reality, a real option.”

Langston Hughes Academy is one of 52 charter schools operating in New Orleans, which also has 37 traditionally run schools. Nearly 60% of the city’s public school students attend charter schools — the highest percentage of any American city. School district officials hope to raise that percentage to 75% in the coming years.

New Orleans’ school district’s performance score — a tally of test scores and other performance measures — jumped from 56.9 pre-Katrina to 66.4 last year, according to state Department of Education figures. Statewide, the average during that same period stayed roughly the same: 87.4 pre-Katrina and 87.2 last year.

The numbers suggest the city still has some catching up to do with the rest of the state. Determining how New Orleans stacks up with the rest of the nation is difficult to assess since the tests are particular to Louisiana and comparisons cannot be reliably made with similar tests in other states.

Even so, the revamping of New Orleans schools, some of the worst-performing in the nation pre-Katrina, is catching the attention of educators nationwide, said Tony Miller, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. “If these types of practices can be taken across the country, especially in some of the more challenging urban environments, that would make a difference in improving education,” Miller said during a recent visit to New Orleans. “You’re seeing some of those results here.”

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