This collection of stories, provided by Teacher For America, ran as a special advertiser supplement in the April 20th, 2016 issue of Education Week.
Innovating in Louisiana
“I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it,” Broome says of the family business. She had studied political science at George Washington University and then worked as a legislative aide in the U.S.
Senate. But she became frustrated with politics, she says, and felt “disconnected from real people.” So she joined Teach For America and was assigned to a class of Baton Rouge sixth graders, some of whom were already 16 years old and struggling academically.
Her students made rapid gains in test scores. But Broome saw that the odds were heavily stacked against them and knew they needed more help than they could get during school hours.
“I was continually frustrated by wanting to give my students the world and not being able to do so,” she says.
So in 2011, with the help of other Teach For America alumni, she founded THRIVE BR, a residential charter middle school in Baton Rouge where students learn to be independent, responsible, curious, solutions-oriented critical thinkers, in addition to the fundamentals. It is now the highest-performing middle school in the city.
Katrina Exposes Inequities
Then came Katrina. The historic Category 5 hurricane slammed into Louisiana in August 2005, killing 2,000 people, damaging 110 school buildings, leveling neighborhoods, and forcing families to flee. The hurricane revealed the stark inequities belying the feel-good image of the city known as the Big Easy. As President Barack Obama said in a speech in New Orleans when he was running for president in 2007, “Everyone knows the disaster and the poverty happened long before the hurricane hit. . . All the hurricane did was make bare what we ignore each and every day, which is that there are whole sets of communities that are impoverished, that don’t have meaningful opportunity, that don’t have hope, and they are forgotten.”
Within months of Katrina, the state decided that, rather than reopen 100 schools that had been under the jurisdiction of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), they would become charters supervised by the RSD. In response, the OPSB laid off all of its 7,500 employees, including more than 4,600 teachers. Large-scale structural changes required reimagining how New Orleans students would be educated. Over time, national foundations and the federal government would kick in hundreds of millions of dollars to help with the rebuilding and the transformation.
But the first order of business was reopening schools and reconnecting with students as they returned. Charter schools began opening right away, some of them started by veteran principals of successful schools who returned to their old buildings and reunited with as many of their teachers as they could.
Although some veteran teachers were hired at new charter schools, many teachers found that the years they had put in did not earn them seniority rights and chose to find jobs elsewhere or retire. Only about 10 percent of the city’s teachers returned for the beginning of the 2006 school year. By 2013, about 975 of the 3,200 teachers in New Orleans had been teaching there prior to the hurricane. Another 740 were teaching elsewhere in Louisiana, according to a 2015 report from Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance. This same report also stated, the percentage of teachers who were African American fell from 71 percent in 2001 to about 50 percent in 2014.
TFA alumni and corps members, including those who had only been in their assigned schools for a matter of weeks, came back early to reclaim their lives and help with the recovery. Fifty corps members were assigned to help run disaster recovery centers. TFA alumni were among those who opened dozens of charter schools to meet the demand, attracting alumni from other areas to teach in Louisiana. In 2005, South Louisiana was home to about 80 alumni, most of whom were teachers. Ten years later, more than 1,100 alumni work in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and nearly all of them are involved in education in one way or another. Fifty-seven alumni lead schools or are system-level administrators. Seven of 10 students in New Orleans attend a school with a TFA corps member or alumni on the faculty. Many alumni are social entrepreneurs who created nonprofit organizations that support students and schools by addressing specific needs.
Change Brings Tensions
In the face of all these developments—the change from traditional schools to charter schools, the destruction of beloved schools, the decline in the number of African American teachers, and the uncertainty and upheaval that followed the hurricane—TFA seemed, for some in the community, to symbolize their loss of control. Adding to that, these local challenges are happening against the backdrop of polarizing national debates on how to improve educational outcomes for students that have divided educators and others.
Those tensions are a day-to-day reality for alumni and corps members, says Kira Orange-Jones (South Louisiana ’00), TFA’s executive director. In 2011, she won a seat on the state board of education representing Orleans parish and several suburbs. During the campaign, she says, “not a day went by that I wasn’t outright blamed for laying off teachers.”
Orange-Jones says the layoffs were poorly handled and that she can understand the anger “in a city that has a long history of racial inequities and divisions.”
However, she rejects the charges by some that alumni and corps members are profiteers or carpetbaggers, pointing out that the organization has had a presence in South Louisiana for 25 years. It’s also the case that TFA has focused on recruiting corps members that will stay in Louisiana, including those who grew up or attended college in the area. About two-thirds of the alumni in Greater New Orleans were also corps members there.
It is inarguable that TFA alumni became much more visible and influential after Katrina and helped make it what some have called the epicenter of school reform nationally.
Alumni Making a Difference
John White (New Jersey ’99) was appointed to run the RSD in 2011, and was elevated to the state superintendent of education post a year later. In that role he has staunchly defended the state’s college and career readiness standards against gubernatorial opposition; led implementation of a performance-based teacher and principal evaluation process; and successfully advocated for legislation to base tenure decisions on effectiveness, create more charter schools, expand a voucher program, and strengthen school and district accountability. Thirty of White’s staff members are TFA alumni.
Sarah Newell Usdin (South Louisiana ’92) influences policy as an elected member of the Orleans Parish School Board, a position she ran for in 2012. But it was her founding of a nonprofit organization called New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO) in 2006 that has had an even greater impact on the quality of education provided in New Orleans.
The initial goal was to recruit teachers to return to New Orleans. Since then, however, the organization has used millions of dollars in federal, state, and private grants to launch 31 charter schools, among them some of the highest performing in New Orleans, that serve about 12,000 students, or one in four in the city. The organization, a pivotal player in improving instruction in the city, also provides fellowships to principals to help them become more effective leaders of teachers, guides school turnarounds, sponsors leadership opportunities for teachers, and helps schools transition to the Common Core State Standards.
Usdin, who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, did not intend to make education her career after graduating from Colgate University; she thought her two years as a corps member would be but a stopover on her way to a career in another field. But, she says, she gradually recognized “how desperately education was needed to address the inequities and disparities” in Louisiana. As a teacher, she had seen that “the system was full of amazing educators who were very competent but who were working in a broken and irrational system. The good ones shut their doors and hoped for the best.” Students were being held back as well, by a lack of opportunity and low expectations. She saw the need for an organization that would help teachers focus on academic excellence.
The structural changes are also profound. In 2005, 98 percent of public school students attended campuses that were part of NOPS; a decade later, 94 percent of public school students are enrolled in charter schools that operate independently. That makes the support services provided by NSNO and other organizations all the more important.
“New Orleans is so different now,” says Douglas N. Harris, director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans and the Education Research Program at the Murphy Institute at Tulane University. “There are new ideas percolating, and it’s happening in part because these [TFA alumni] are hanging around . . . You put together a blank slate of a school system with a lot of smart, ambitious people and you can have a major impact.”
The changes in policy and practice have helped bring about notable improvements in student outcomes. In 2004, just 31 percent of New Orleans students performed on grade level on state assessments. By 2014, that percentage had doubled. The city’s on-time graduation rate went from 54 percent in 2000 to 73 percent a decade later. Now, only 13 percent of New Orleans students attend “failing” schools, down from 60 percent a decade earlier.
Maggie Runyan-Shefa (Mississippi ’97), NSNO’s current co-CEO, says she is excited about the progress made so far. However, she recognizes that, with only one in five elementary and middle school students achieving mastery of mathematics, English language arts, and other subjects, much more needs to be done.
Runyan-Shefa is also acutely aware that, due to the disruptions that have occurred, including shutting down or changing the names of high schools with large and loyal alumni groups, many community members and parents have felt shut out. “Given the state of our school system now compared with where it was 10 or 15 years ago, how do we make sure that we have a school system for everybody and that everybody feels engaged with—but also feels really proud of?” Runyan-Shefa asked in an interview posted online by the U.S. Department of Education. “The gains that the students have made in the [p]ast decade are really exciting—and so how do we make sure that … parents feel they can be a part of [their schools]?
A Call for Collective Action
Krystal Hardy (South Louisiana ’07) was recruited in 2014 to become principal of Sylvanie Williams College Prep, an academically struggling charter school in downtown New Orleans. She grew up in Selma, Alabama, where her father was a carpenter and her mother worked at various jobs, including driving a school bus and working as an instructional aide. She attended Notre Dame on a scholarship before joining Teach For America.
Hardy says she is seeing more collaboration among the stakeholders in the city to share best practices and solve problems. “There are generations of kids who have been failed [in New Orleans],” she says. Despite the progress that’s been made, “there is still work that needs to be done. We are at a crucial point. We need to speed up the innovation.”
For those efforts to succeed, she says, “We need to partner with the community in ways we haven’t done yet, so they don’t see change as having been done to them, [but] instead of being done with them.”
- Year Teach For America began placing corps members: 1990
- Corps members teaching in New Orleans and Southern Louisiana, 2015-16: 382
- Alumni teaching in New Orleans and Southern Louisiana schools, 2015-16: 417
- Alumni in the region: 1,163
- Alumni who are principals or other administrators in New Orleans and Southern Louisiana: 57
- Percent of alumni serving low-income students and families in education or other related fields: 88
- Of note: Over 200 alumni are social entrepreneurs who created or lead nonprofit organizations that support students and schools by addressing specific needs.
Orange-Jones, the TFA executive director for the region, could not agree more. She says she is “proud of the role Teach For America teachers and leaders have played, alongside so many others” in helping students in New Orleans make “nothing short of extraordinary” academic gains.
Yet, she says, the “heroic work of individuals” can take the system only so far. “Public education in the city has moved only from a failing system to a C system, when what we want to create is an A system. It is humbling how much further we have to go.”
To get there, she says, will require collective action, meaning corps members and alumni working more closely with one another and with the community. To bring that about, Teach For America is emphasizing racial and economic diversity in its recruiting of corps members, as well as teaching all corps members the “skills and orientations that we think are important for really, truly partnering alongside others in the broader community to create the next wave of solutions that the kids in our community need.”