Monday, December 26, 2005

Learning How to Hope

An accurate assessment of the old New Orleans schools -- and a nice mention of KIPP in the latest Newsweek:
Most encouraging, the hurricane blew away the New Orleans school district, a cesspool of corruption and neglect that made local schools among the worst in the country. With the entrenched bureaucrats and teachers-union hacks scattered to the winds, the state legislature took the opportunity to strip them of all their power.

This offers what Tony Recasner, the principal of the New Orleans Charter Middle School, calls a "magic moment" for major change. Almost all the schools that will begin reopening in 2006 (mostly in the fall) will be charter schools, where everyone works on one-year contracts (full accountability) and the principal can actually run the school. "This gives us an opportunity to fix each school as it comes back on line," says Recasner, who already has an impressive track record of academic achievement in his school. "We get to create something from our own imagination and ask: what is this going to be?"

The answer, ideally, would be a series of KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools. The nearly 50 KIPP schools around the country have an astonishing record of academic success with low-income students, not with shortcuts but with a disciplined "be nice, work hard" program. While KIPP has only one New Orleans school planned and not nearly enough leaders in its pipeline yet, Recasner and the other avatars of local school reform are eager to adapt the model. The challenge is to get the right leadership in. And because the system will go from 60,000 students to about 20,000 next fall, New Orleans will have the perfect size for a true national experiment with school reform.


Learning How to Hope

Amid the heartache—feelings that can lead to tears in an instant—a few rays of winter sun are slipping through.

Dec. 26, 2005 - Jan 2, 2006 issue - New Orleans in December is cool and dry, and the 20 percent that wasn't flooded seems normal enough. But the pictures don't even begin to convey the scope of what 17 days of standing water will do to the delicate ecosystem of a metropolis. More than 50 million cubic yards of debris have already been picked up, including 100,000 useless refrigerators—that's 34 normal years of garbage in just three months.

Every day brings more mounds of tangled possessions and sundry junk, the stuffing of a city. I rode with a nonprofit group called Share Our Strength past the thousands of abandoned cars and handwritten WE TEAR DOWN HOUSES signs at intersections that still have no working stoplights; past the still-mysterious levee breaks and reopened Wal-Marts; past mile after eerie mile of homes and stores that for a moment look habitable enough, until you see the thick layers of dust and mold and grimy water lines four or six or eight feet up, a sure indication that the place is a total loss.

So the gutting of New Orleans has begun, but not the renovation....

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