'Katrina was a chance to provide deprived pupils with the best'

12th November 2010 at 00:00
Pioneer of US charter schools and English academies tells aspiring leaders that hurricane rid New Orleans of one of the country's worst performing education systems

"I work in a city where one-third of students have post-traumatic stress syndrome."

Jay Altman's message is deliberately blunt. He wants to show his audience of aspiring school leaders that it is possible to introduce widespread educational achievement to the toughest communities.

The schools he runs serve an area blighted by massive natural disaster, "extreme poverty", violence and the trauma experienced by refugees the world over. But it is not Haiti or Pakistan; it is a major city in the world's most advanced industrialised economy.

When Mr Altman first arrived in New Orleans it was supposed to be one stop on a post-college tour, "living out of a pick-up truck, enjoying music and bar tending".

But he was seduced by the "Big Easy" and took a teaching job. He quickly became part of a wave of idealistic young Americans which also included the founders of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program). They spent the mid-1990s setting up schools, determined to prove that all pupils could achieve, regardless of background, if their teachers did the right things.

Between 2005 and 2007, Mr Altman brought that philosophy and an infectious enthusiasm to London as education director for the Ark chain of academies.

He also helped to set up Future Leaders, the scheme that trains teachers to lead secondaries in England's most deprived areas - and the reason he was back in England this year speaking to aspiring heads.

But his spell abroad coincided with Hurricane Katrina, so it was only a matter of time before he was drawn back to his adopted city to help it recover from the 2005 catastrophe.

The effects are still raw. "In a lot of inner-city schools there are always students who have post-traumatic stress because of violence and trauma in their neighbourhoods or families," he says. "But it is a fairly small proportion usually.

"After Katrina, the proportion of students dealing with these issues was huge. It was worse on the younger kids. New Orleans had huge extended family networks, but after Katrina they got disrupted.

"Grandma doesn't live next door any more, your auntie doesn't live down the street any more. So now people are back but it is not the reality that existed before. Imagine you are a five-year-old and that happens to you."

This is on top of the existing problems of New Orleans, a city where Mr Altman says in most schools around 90 per cent of pupils are on the equivalent of free school meals, the murder rate is the highest in America, and where one of his schools saw a student killed in each of its first three years.

If Katrina brought untold trauma to New Orleans, Mr Altman believes it has also created huge educational opportunities.

The hurricane effectively wiped the slate clean on what he says was one of the worst state school systems in the US. Today, more than 60 per cent of schools in the city are charter schools like the three he runs.

And conventional state schools have been given charter-style freedoms.

Critics like Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein have described the changes as an "educational land-grab" by free marketeers exploiting a disaster to depress teachers' wages.

Mr Altman says salaries have actually "skyrocketed" as ambitious charter schools compete for the best staff, and he points out that more than 90 per cent are operated on a non-profit basis.

He believes greater autonomy combined with a strict accountability, which has already seen under-performing charter schools closed, could see New Orleans become the "first city in the country where every kid goes to a good school" within a decade.

Katrina has also led to the growth of the reservoir of young talent attracted to the city, keen to make a difference.

Among those already living there was Natasha Baker, Mr Altman's chief academic officer, who also addressed the aspiring Future Leaders.

"When I was 12 my brother was murdered," she told them.

"My older brother is a recovering crack-cocaine addict, my other brother is physically ill, and I'm the youngest of five raised in a single-parent low-income household.

"I went to college because I didn't want to be poor any more, I didn't want to be in a gang and I didn't want to end up like my sister who has four kids, who is a high-school drop-out and who is struggling really hard right now to raise three or four kids by three or four different men."

Her message is clear: if she can succeed then so can anyone, providing their teachers help them. Ms Baker says the thing that struck her most during her visit to schools in England was that "poverty is universal". And so was her message to the Future Leaders.

"If anybody here goes into their position thinking that these kids, it's their fault if they are sleeping with their heads down on the desk, that it's their fault if they don't complete homework, if anyone goes from here thinking that all kids can't learn, then it's your fault - not theirs," she told them.

"You have to be adults. It is time for us to take responsibility."



Future Leaders, the scheme that trains teachers to head challenging urban secondaries, is currently recruiting for 2011.

The 75 successful applicants will receive a year-long placement helping to lead an urban school. The scheme also includes mentoring, residential courses and the chance to visit schools that have succeeded in cities like New Orleans and New York.

Future Leaders is expanding to include Nottingham, Derby and Leicester, and will continue to cover London, the North West, the West Midlands, Yorkshire and the Humber, and the south coast.

The deadline for applications is 30 November. Visit www.future-leaders.org.uk.

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