Education ‘revolution’ in New Orleans
By Zoe Conway, BBC News
Mar. 12th, 2012
In a low-income New Orleans housing project Niloy Gangopadhyay and his team are recruiting for success: the Success Preparatory Academy.
It is a charter, or independent, school that Mr Gangopadhyay, a Californian, founded last year.
Armed with clipboards and flyers, these are the door-to-door salesmen of free education. Mr Gangopadhyay sells his product with an almost missionary zeal.
"We need to penetrate these neighbourhood housing developments and let people know that we really are going to make sure that every child goes to a high quality college, to make sure they become leaders in society," he says.
Mr Gangopadhyay is one of the many young teachers to have come into this city in the wake of Katrina, the devastating 2005 hurricane that claimed the lives of more than 1,800 people and flooded much of the city.
Altruism may be one reason why they are here, but also the opportunity to try out new ideas in a low-performing school district that was almost completely destroyed in the storm.
'The future is now'
Two-thirds of the city's children are now enrolled at independent schools, which receive state funding but are free from some of the rules and statutes that apply to other public schools, in return for producing results as set out in the school charter.
They are non-selective institutions, run by a mixture of businesses and non-profit organisations.
Charter schools are not unique to New Orleans but no other city has gone this far, this fast.
At the nearby Sci Academy, the teachers are having their morning staff meeting. They shout at the top of their voices "the future is now".
The 20-something Ivy Leaguers stand in a circle, psyching themselves up for their day by slapping their thighs and clicking their fingers.
These teachers are performance driven people. The Sci Academy has been open for less than a year and it is already getting results.
Despite the fact that almost all the students here qualify for free school meals, they just came top in the district's English exam.
Ben Marcovitz is the the principal. At 30, he is one of the oldest members of staff and holds much power over the quality of education at the school.
"I see a teacher who is not working out, that teacher doesn't have to stay. I see a teacher who could use improvement I can help develop that teacher. I see that the school day needs another course in math, I can add that course," he says.
"I can take a look at everything that's going right and wrong and act on it, provided that I raise the accountability that I have to those who are granting me the charter."
Typically of charter schools, the staff here are not unionised and work a longer school day than teachers in traditional public schools. I don't want the majority of my staff to work more than 10 years Paul Vallas, New Orleans Recovery School District superintendent
"We're working 12-hour days, on a regular basis. I generally reserve all day Saturday and then plan to do some work on Sunday," says Margot Bouiche, a 26-year-old teacher.
Ms Bouiche says she and her colleagues drink a lot of coffee. But what happens when the adrenalin and the caffeine wears off. Do they burn out?
It is a question that is bothering some within the charter school movement - but not Paul Vallas.
Mr Vallas is superintendent of the school district here and is seen by many as a mentor to the US education secretary, Arne Duncan.
"I don't want the majority of my staff to work more than 10 years. The cost of sustaining those individuals becomes so enormous," he says.
"Between retirement and health care and things like that, it means that you are constantly increasing class sizes and cutting programmes in order to sustain the cost of a veteran workforce, so I think you want a mix, you want a balance."
The problem of "burn out" does bother union representative Cheryllyn Branche. She is the principal of a traditional public school, Benjamin Banneker. It turned down the opportunity to become a charter school and has been improving its test scores since Hurricane Katrina.
"If you can't get someone to stay in this profession to really hone their craft, learn their skills, and really make a difference in the lives of children, then you are not doing something that's realistic and long term," she says.
Spreading the word
The conditions under which these charter schools have flourished in New Orleans are undeniably unique - in the wake of Katrina the teaching union was crushed, and an entire workforce changed overnight as idealistic young teachers swarmed in.
But can the gains made here be replicated elsewhere? Education secretary Arne Duncan wants to spend billions of dollars spreading charter schools across America.
Jay Altman, a director of the New Orleans Charter operator, FirstLine, believes that much of what has been achieved in the city could also work in Britain.
Mr Altman, a former adviser to the UK education secretary under Tony Blair, says there are many educators in the UK who would relish the opportunity to design their own schools.