Healing a city's schools

22nd June 2012 at 01:00
Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans devastated. But in the aftermath came an influx of idealistic young teachers and a charter school system that has caught Michael Gove's interest. William Stewart reports

Not long after the levees broke and floods from Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Shelita Jones experienced another "big wave" hitting her native city. The first wave - of polluted, toxic water - cost the teacher her job, damaged her home, changed her community for ever and left many of her pupils traumatised.

But in some ways the second wave was to have an even more lasting impact. It was made up of teachers: idealistic young college graduates from all over the US, who arrived in New Orleans determined to help the city recover by improving its schools. "It just happened all of a sudden, all these people coming in," Jones recalls.

They were the vanguard of a revolution that has swept the city's state education system in the wake of the 2005 hurricane. Today around 80 per cent of New Orleans schools are independent but publicly funded charter schools and the proportion is still growing. Other conventional state schools have been given charter-style freedoms and the city's local education authority, or school board, has all but disappeared.

Prominent anti-capitalist author and activist, Naomi Klein, has portrayed the New Orleans changes as an "educational land-grab" by opportunist free marketeers taking advantage of a natural catastrophe to carry out an "orchestrated raid on the public sphere". But enthusiastic supporters have likened it to the fall of Eastern bloc communism and argue it will inevitably outperform the state-run monopoly it has replaced.

Whatever the truth, several other US cities are now understood to be considering adopting the New Orleans model, which is also starting to have an impact on this side of the Atlantic. The Louisiana city has become a venue for trainee state school leaders from England looking for inspiration (see box, page 34). More significantly, those behind the current mass academy conversion of thousands of England's schools see the New Orleans experiment as a more concentrated version of their reforms and are watching its results closely.

Low expectations

Sam Freedman, policy adviser to education secretary Michael Gove, visited the city earlier this year as part of a trip organised by the Teaching Leaders charity.

"I think all schools there will be charters in the next couple of years, so in a sense it is more like what we are doing than what the rest of America is doing," he told TES. "We are looking at a lot of the same questions."

Before Katrina, New Orleans - one of the poorest and most unequal cities in the US - ran its state schools along typically American lines, with a highly centralised local bureaucracy. "The school district, just one central office, was responsible for 150-something schools," recalls Jones, who started working in New Orleans schools 13 years ago.

Most heads were constricted in a way no state school in England has been for more than 20 years. And while charter school principals may enjoy much greater autonomy than conventional US state schools, they do not possess many more freedoms than those long taken for granted by the average community school in England.

"The district would choose your textbooks, choose which reading programmes you were going to use and what behaviour method you adopted," Jones remembers. "There was for the most part no clear vision and no clear direction of what schools should be doing or what they should be like. Teachers weren't well supported."

There had been some changes around the edges from the mid 1990s, as ambitious reformers such as Jay Altman - who headed Ark schools in England from 2005 to 2007 - started to set up charter schools in the city. They were determined to prove that all pupils could achieve, regardless of background, if schools did the right things.

But that stubborn link between socio-economic status and underperformance went largely unthreatened as New Orleans remained the lowest-performing school district in Louisiana, itself one of the lowest-performing states in the US.

"Expectations were extremely low," Jones says. "You had some teachers who really had a passion for what they were doing, but they had to focus more on just how to get these students to survive, get to school and make them feel comfortable when they got there - buying them clothes, paying for them to eat, having them stay at their home - versus truly trying to impact on students' achievement."

And other teachers appeared to have no ambitions at all. "I am not sure whether these people had never experienced success or they didn't know what it looked like, or they just really didn't believe in the kids," Jones says. "But it was like: `We work in New Orleans, so these kids are not going to finish school.'"

Today Jones believes that her city's schools system is better as a result of the reforms that followed Katrina. But they were changes she would personally suffer for. The teacher was eight months pregnant when she evacuated to Houston, Texas, to escape the hurricane. She returned after just three weeks.

"Once parts of the city were clear I dropped everything and came back," Jones recounts. "The school wasn't even open yet. There were no schools. Some of the people who were at my school before, we would go in every day to try to clean it up and try to convince board members, city leaders, whoever, that it could reopen. But when we got to school we were greeted by armed guards."

When the city's overwhelmed school board decided schools would remain closed indefinitely, the state stepped in and began the process that would see New Orleans move rapidly to a majority charter system. But it wanted to start with a clean slate, so all existing teachers lost their jobs.

"I don't think it was fair," Jones says. "Most of us lost everything (from Katrina). I was fortunate enough to come back to my home, but a lot of us weren't. I was about to have a new baby and then I have no job. You expect that people who you work for - especially in a field that should be nurturing - would understand what you have experienced."

Traumatic memories

Jones did eventually go back to school, but initially as a counsellor rather than as a teacher, and had to start picking up the pieces of a catastrophe that has left pupils traumatised.

"These kids had been walking through water with dead animals and people in it. Some parents had died; babies were lost," she says. "When the school finally reopened, I had a set of brothers who came back and they were constant disturbances, there were so many problems with these kids.

"I experienced Katrina, but not the way they did. What I learned was they took a yellow school bus from New Orleans: a lot of school buses were stolen to try to help people evacuate out of the city because there was no transportation. They had gone out of the city and the bus flipped over. And it flipped over on the kids' dad. And they watched their dad die."

That wasn't the only post-Katrina shock Jones faced at work. As schools began to reopen, the influx of young teachers through programmes such as Teach for America started to arrive.

"This big wave came through," she says. "It just happened all of a sudden, all of these people coming in from everywhere else, and they are telling you: `This is how you do it.' It started out quite offensive. The majority of people who were here before were very passionate about what they did for the kids.

"It was very hard to just watch people come from everywhere else and say: `OK, you guys were screwing it up. You weren't doing a good job. We're coming in and we are taking over.' But those who have grown like myself to accept this change, we see where it is benefiting our kids."

It is that change in staff that Neerav Kingsland - senior officer for the New Schools for New Orleans charity - believes has been key to the success of school reforms he has likened to the fall of communism.

"The lazy teacher who will not close the achievement gap for a $2,000 bonus does not exist," he has said. "Incentives matter. But the quality of people matters more."

Westminster ministers examining New Orleans for lessons are unlikely to view such a massive transfusion of new teachers as a feasible option for their much larger-scale national academies project, even if they thought it desirable. But Freedman, Gove's policy adviser, did find plenty to encourage him in the "Big Easy". Charter schools there, despite being in competition, actually work together quite closely and tend to adopt the same "no excuses" model, the adviser found.

"It was quite interesting given that one of the standard criticisms of a competitive autonomous system is that you will get fragmentation and everyone will do different things and you will get a mess," he says. "Actually they were taking ideas from each other all the time."

But the experience of Jones, who will begin as an assistant principal at a Knowledge is Power Program New Orleans charter school next term, suggests that it does not always work that way. The charter school organisation she worked for immediately after Katrina was led by mainly native New Orleanians - it "looked a little bit the same" as what had gone before and it was reluctant to ask outsiders for help.

"That was killing our young leaders because all around us we had this big push and we weren't part of that," Jones recalls.

`No need for profit'

Jones says that the reluctance of some charter schools to work together can make a good education very difficult in a city where the instability of some families means that pupils frequently switch schools.

Then there is the high level of accountability in the New Orleans charter system. This is generally seen as a positive, but Jones says there are also unwelcome side-effects. When an underperforming school loses its charter, neighbouring schools have to cope with a sudden influx of new pupils, sometimes from rival areas.

Nevertheless Freedman was struck by the "pretty broad support" he found for the changes. "In a lot of the other parts of the States the reform argument is still very bitter," he notes. "But at New Orleans level there is no real opposition. Both political parties support it, the public support it by 70 per cent in the opinion polls and you don't have any teacher unions."

That lack of charter school union representation is another point that rankles with Jones. "The unions should not be able to save those who are not performing," she concedes. "But people who do a good job, they deserve to be protected.

"People would say: `If they are doing a good job nobody is going to get rid of them.' But that is not necessarily true."

She is also upset that some charter school associations have opted out of teacher pension schemes. "Just think about going into work for 25 years and now you're telling me you're not putting into my retirement system," she says.

Yet overall Jones remains a supporter of the post-Katrina reforms: "As far as providing students with high expectations all round - whether it is behavioural or academic or instructional - the schools have grown tremendously."

So have many of their results, although the improvements should be treated with caution. A small majority of charter schools are outperforming their conventional counterparts. But that does not mean that they have come anywhere near to breaking the link between pupil background and achievement.

That will not stop English reformers from taking a close interest as the system develops. And after Gove's suggestion this month that "we could move" towards free schools being run for profit, one observation from his adviser about New Orleans charters does seem particularly relevant.

"They didn't have for-profit schools, nor did they need any profit to make it work," Freedman tells TES. "It is very much driven by philanthropy."

Monumental change

Paddy O'Brien was shocked and inspired by what he found in New Orleans charter schools.

"There was the realisation that there was such an (educationally) low starting point for schools over there, even before Katrina," the head of English at Rokeby School in Newham, East London said.

"But a relatively small group of people who are very passionate about education have made some monumental changes in a very short space of time."

O'Brien was among 12 teachers from England visiting the city with Teaching Leaders, a charity that trains outstanding middle leaders working in "challenging" schools.

He says that some of the teaching and learning he saw in New Orleans was still "very basic", but he plans to adopt the methods used by teachers there to ensure that the values, vision, culture and ethos of a school are properly instilled in pupils.


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