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Sarah Carr's book, "Hope Against Hope," looks at the efforts to reform New Orleans' troubled schools after 2005's Hurricane Katrina. / Handout

In the months following Hurricane Katrina's path of destruction through New Orleans in 2005, state officials took control of nearly all of the city's 117 schools.

They sidelined the school board, fired teachers, bulldozed damaged buildings and swept most surviving schools into a little-known entity called the Recovery School District (RSD).

It was a move that has generated nearly eight years of debate on the future of urban education and poverty, as federal, state and private investments underwrite an explosion of educational experimentation in New Orleans. At its heart, the experiment asks one key question: Can we wipe away the effects of poverty by giving children access to a new kind of public school?

In most cases, that school is independently run but publicly funded; it's a charter school that relies heavily on young, unproven but idealistic teachers to propel kids into college and, eventually, into the middle class.

Former state superintendent Paul Pastorek called it "an opportunity to re-create education as we know it." Skeptics, noting the contributions of hedge fund millionaires and big foundations, have dubbed the effort "disaster capitalism."

Longtime education journalist Sarah Carr spent 5 ½ years documenting the changes and says the truth lies somewhere in between.

Inside schools, "the war over education no longer seems so stark and clearly defined," Carr says. "Edges blur. Shades of gray abound, and simple solutions prove elusive."

Her new book, Hope Against Hope, traces the effort mainly through the eyes of three main characters: a seasoned charter school principal, a young teacher and, most prominently, Geraldlynn Stewart, a New Orleans girl who was 9 at the time of the storm.

Geraldlynn puts her faith in a series of schools run by KIPP, the network of popular charter schools that focus single-mindedly on sending students to college.

Geraldlynn is smart, funny and deeply idealistic, constantly questioning teachers and their rules. At one point, she tells Carr that she wishes adults would call her out when she does something "really" wrong, not just mildly wrong. "If I show up with everything on but my tie, they are like, 'Better go back home.'"

Now 16, Geraldlynn refuses to conform to anyone's high-minded ideas about "school reform." Even as her junior year begins, she's having second thoughts about KIPP, telling her mother she wants to transfer to a high school with a prom.

Embedded for more than a year at Geraldlynn's school and a handful of others, Carr admits that reformers have asked KIPP to accomplish the impossible: "to educate teenagers traumatized both by Katrina and the daily realities of life in a city with decrepit physical infrastructure, bare-bones welfare services, inadequate health care, grossly oversubscribed mental health and drug treatment programs, one of the nation's highest violent crime rates, and corrupt - at times, racist - law enforcement."

On the other hand, she said, those who would experiment with public schools need to be more thoughtful about what she calls the "human cost" of failure. "There were some kids I saw that, even a couple of years out from Katrina, were still getting bounced from school to school to school as they were closed or transitioned out or taken over by different operators," she said. "I'm sympathetic to the argument that schools that persistently fail need to be closed down, but at some point there needs to be some degree of stability."

Carr, who came to New Orleans in 2007 as a staff reporter for TheTimes-Picayune, the city's daily newspaper, wrote the book as "an attempt to sort of humanize a story that's been recklessly politicized." In particular, she found that the big-picture rhetoric of reform barely registered in the lives of teachers and families.

The media and policymakers are "often too fixated on the personalities and debates at the top and lose sight of how they're shaping - or even whether they're relevant to - schools and classrooms," she said. "I spent a year immersed inside a few New Orleans charter schools and I can't even remember (then-RSD superintendent) Paul Vallas' name coming up more than once or twice - if that."

She acknowledges several positive developments but notes, "To the extent that it's a success story; it's a story of micro-level successes."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Book: Solutions elusive for New Orleans schools

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