At the time of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans, like many large cities in the U.S., had been mired for years in a school system broken by financial woes, inner-city crime, student discipline problems and low graduation rates. When Katrina flooded most of the schools, it offered the city the chance to reinvent its crumbling educational system, essentially starting with a clean slate. Most of the city’s schools were taken over by the Recovery School District (a statewide district created in 2003 with the intention of turning around troubled schools), which applied radical new strategies to education, including handing many schools over to charter operators.
Sarah Carr examines how well the experiment has worked in her new book, Hope Against Hope. The veteran journalist explores how the charter schools attempt to bring a fresh approach to a school system that has decayed over the decades. What Carr discovers is that while the schools are brand new, all the other factors affecting the education system remain the same: children living in poverty; dysfunctional families; gang and drug problems.
What makes Hope Against Hope more than a dry sociological study is Carr’s decision to view the situation through the eyes of three people with a stake in the outcome: a principal, a teacher and a student. This approach humanizes the story, and places Hope Against Hope in the same class as other groundbreaking books such as Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities and Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here.
The three protagonists in Hope Against Hope are Mary Laurie, principal of O. Perry Walker High School; Aidan Kelly, a teacher at SCI Academy; and Geraldlynn Stewart, a 14-year-old student at KIPP Renaissance High School. What all three soon discover is that reinvention doesn’t necessarily translate into renaissance. There are plenty of struggles. Laurie, an African-American woman who has spent her whole life in New Orleans, witnesses current and former students killed in gang crossfire. Kelly, a young, white Ivy League graduate, slowly loses his innocence and enthusiasm. Stewart, a bright African-American girl with college aspirations, finds it hard to focus on school when she sees crime on her neighborhood streets and a lack of discipline in her classroom.
But as the book’s title suggests, there is hope here: Despite the challenges they face, Laurie, Kelly and Stewart carry on. Just as the overhaul of the New Orleans school system is no quick fix, the principal, teacher and student are intent on succeeding against all odds, no matter how hard the struggle, or how long it may take.