Are Charters the Reason New Orleans' Schools Are Succeeding?

"REBIRTH: New Orleans" tells the story.

When my colleagues and I began reporting on New Orleans' public schools just weeks after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I had no idea that such a remarkable story would emerge. In the seven years since the devastation, the city's public schools have been transformed—from a failing system where not even one-third of 8th graders in New Orleans could pass a state reading test, to a school district composed mostly of charter schools that, taken together, outpaces every other district in Louisiana. Reporting from schools, homes and board meetings, we witnessed mistakes and outright failures but also great accomplishments.

Our documentary, REBIRTH: New Orleans, draws upon years of reporting to weave the stories of students, teachers, parents, education leaders, activists and critics into a human saga of what happened when a city's education system was turned upside down.

REBIRTH: New Orleans introduces viewers to people they will quickly grow to care about, particularly two students: Will Brittne Jackson, the 19-year-old senior, be able to pass the state graduation test, the one she has failed multiple times, now that a dedicated Teach for America teacher is pushing and pulling her? Will Bobby Calvin, an engaging high school junior, be able to adapt to his charter school's incredibly rigid discipline code, or will the young principal adjust his own worldview?

I have no doubt that, when you watch REBIRTH: New Orleans, you are going to fall in love with some of the people (particularly the kids) in the film. You may find yourself rooting for the young principal of a charter high school, hoping that he will see the light. Or you’ll be crossing your fingers that Daniel, Kady and Colleston, the three young teachers from Teach for America, will not only survive—but prosper.

Who knows, you might find yourself yelling at the screen because you empathize with the frustration of a parent with a special needs child, or cheering with the mom of a KIPP student who finally gets it.

But it's my bet that Bobby and Brittne will grab your heartstrings. When you meet Bobby, an engaging young man with a smile that lights up the room, he's on the verge of being suspended or expelled from New Orleans' top performing charter high school. He can't seem to get with the program, meaning he's always violating the school’s very strict dress code (socks must match!) and code of behavior. The school's principal brings in a "tough love" team to try to help the kids adapt, but you may find yourself hoping the principal will change his ways instead!

The resolutions to those stories—and more—are in the film, but I won't spoil the ending.

With nearly 40 years of education reporting under my belt, I have to say that this is the most important education story I have ever covered. It's a fascinating story about community, leadership, and educational access, with national significance. The city is currently 80 percent on its way to becoming the nation’s first all charter school district—a development that could change our country’s public education system as we know it.

But what's happening in New Orleans isn't only relevant to teachers or education reformers. This is a documentary for anyone interested in children or our nation’s future, because other districts could emulate New Orleans, not simply by adopting charter schools but by committing to a set of familiar virtues: high standards, integrity, hard work, time, resources and more.

Learning Matters is a nonprofit company, and we've set up a Kickstarter to raise finishing funds for the film. Joining our team not only provides great tangible rewards—from DVDs to exclusive screenings—but also will give you the satisfaction of knowing that you've helped produce this important story.


Click here to add supporting REBIRTH: New Orleans to your GOOD "to-do" list.

via Alan Levine / Flickr

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