This is how to do it -- schools in post-Katrina New Orleans

Excellent encouraging article from the Wall Street Journal:

The Big Easy's School Revolution
At John McDonough High School in this city's Esplanade Ridge district, the new superintendent points to a broken window boarded up with plastic. Nobody thought to fix it properly. "Why? Because these are the poor kids," says John White, who arrived in New Orleans this spring. "The message is: 'We don't care.'"

John Mac is one of the worst schools in New Orleans, which makes it one of the worst in America. It scored 30 out of 200 on a statewide performance scale when 75 counts as "failing." In a school built for 800 students, 340 are enrolled. Virtually all are African-American. A couple years ago, an armed gang burst into the cafeteria and assassinated a student.

Mr. White looks in on classrooms. In one, groups of seniors chat loudly and puzzle over a basic algebra problem. In another the teacher struggles to start a conversation about a USA Today article that few students had read. A girl in the corner sits with a jacket over her head, headphones in both ears.

"Just to put that in context, that's a criminal act against these kids," says Mr. White, after walking out. "It's unacceptable to not have a well-planned, rigorous lesson. It's fundamentally unacceptable." He pauses and refers to the algebra class. "I just can't get over that. You have these kids doing sixth-, seventh-grade math in a normal and typical school system [and here] in a 12th-grade year. And not doing it well. Well, we're going to change that."

And he does -- more:

Hurricane Katrina wiped out resistance from politicians and unions and improbably made the Big Easy a national laboratory of educational reform.

Four out of five kids in New Orleans attend independent public charters. The schools under Mr. White's supervision are open to all students no matter where they live. "In other cities, charter schools exist in spite of the system," Mr. White says. "Here charter schools are the system."

The results are encouraging. Five years ago, 23% of children scored at or above "basic" on state tests; now 48% do. Before Katrina, 62% attended failing schools; less than a fifth do today. The gap between city kids and the rest of the state is narrowing.

And the teachers are seeing the light:

Five years ago, the district turned the school over to a local charter association founded in a living room. Mary Laurie, the principal at Walker, has worked in New Orleans schools for decades and "walked the union line" in the 1990 teacher strike. "We said we were doing it on behalf of children, but we meant on behalf of adults," says the African-American educator. "For too long, we did not do a good job and we have to own up to it."

Ms. Laurie knows what she likes about the new system: "autonomy, autonomy, autonomy." At Walker, she decided to separate the girls and boys in class the first two years. She pushed dance and the arts. The marching band is now one of the best in the South. She brought back Advanced Placement courses after a 20-year absence and restarted a student newspaper. The school stays open until 7 p.m. and on weekends for students so it can be a "safe place" from the hard streets, she says. Kids wear IDs and uniforms. The halls are spotless and freshly painted. The classes look disciplined but lively.

And of course, the professional grievance mongers are none too happy:

The Southern Poverty Law Center, in a lawsuit against the Recovery District, alleges that special-needs kids are systematically excluded and badly served by charters. Independent schools blanche at the high cost and can't draw on help from a central school system. Mr. White says the district is in talks with the Center, and defends the charters, which he adds have found "innovative" solutions for special-needs students. Walker, for example, specializes in kids with verbal problems. In an all-charter system, no students will be excluded. And before Katrina, 11% of special-needs students tested at grade level, 36% do now.

Screw them -- they had their place but have expanded their scope to become yet another example of Pournelle's Iron Law.

Very cool story -- lots more at the site.

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