Cities Don’t Need Outsiders to Save Their Schools

From Newark to New Orleans, there is a bias against the idea that black excellence should lead reform

If you’ve followed coverage on New Orleans’ recovery, you’ve read how the city has become a beacon for young people. It didn’t take long to see the narrative’s principal actors are mostly white, bright, service-driven men and women compelled to serve the city by the horrific images projected in the aftermath of Katrina.

Not long after good Samaritans from around the world volunteered their time to remove flood-soaked rubble, paint school walls and expedite court cases – among numerous other good things – New Orleans became a hot, hip place to live and work. If you’re young, broke and single, come to New Orleans. New Orleans has been named one of the 15 best cities (other than New York), for creative twentysomethings. Despite the fact that New Orleans has always been hot (literally and figuratively) for creative folk, a brand and narrative was put forth, and that brand attracted young and educated people (mostly white, middle-class).

In New Orleans, data seem to support a similar urban narrative to cities like Detroit, Memphis and Newark, where there is a tendency to want outsiders to be cast as saviors because there is mistrust and sentiment that locals are the Benedict Arnolds of change. There is also a bias against the idea that black excellence should set the narrative.

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New Orleans has become whiter and richer since the storm. Five years prior to Katrina – in 2000 – 67 percent of the population was black, 27 percent white, 3 percent Latino and 2 percent of Asian descent. As of 2013, the black population fell to 60 percent while other populations climbed – whites rose to 31 percent, Latinos and Asians climbed to 6 and 3 percent respectively. The same is true regarding the teaching corps. Before the storm, approximately 73 percent of the members of teaching corps were black. Now 51 percent of schools’ faculties are black.

Certainly, those New Orleanians who could return to their beloved city sparked recovery. But 10 years after the storm, the pilgrimage of incoming teachers and entrepreneurs has become the city’s yardstick of urban progress and resiliency.

Without question, the educational system pre-Katrina needed more innovation and talent. However, new people and ideas need not come from outside, and sustainable change chiefly requires contributions of durable members from the city.

Exhibit A – Rene Lewis-Carter, principal of Martin Behrman Charter School, represents a model of progress that has been hidden by the assumption that innovation comes from the outside.

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Debate winner Aria Davis stands next to a proud Rene Lewis Carter. Photo: Andre Perry

Just in time for the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Lewis-Carter has been named a finalist for principal of the year in Louisiana. The New Orleans recovery script did not call for a local black woman to play a role as education rescuer, but Lewis-Carter’s performance proves that reform can come from the inside out.

Lewis-Carter is as homemade New Orleans as good gumbo. She and her family grew up on the West Bank of the city, which is just “cross the river” from the popular French Quarter. She still lives within blocks of Behrman Elementary. Lewis-Carter graduated from Ehret High School and Our Lady of Holy Cross College, which both sit within miles of Behrman. She eventually became a principal at Harriet Ross Tubman Elementary School in New Orleans, where she worked up until the levees breached. Like 7,500 other New Orleans employees, Lewis-Carter was fired.

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In December of 2005, as schools attempted to reopen through charter schools, the Algiers Charter Association turned to new, but proven local leaders to run their schools. Lewis- Carter was hired as principal of Martin Behrman.

According to the New Orleans Parent Guide, the school like many others in New Orleans is 95 percent black and 88 percent on free and reduced lunch. By Lewis-Carter’s count, of her 56 teachers, 47 are black and “seasoned.” It’s a black, local school that essentially “saved” itself.

  • Behrman, which is a “B” school according to the State, has consistently ranked near the top among all elementary schools in the city and consistently scores above the state average.
  • Behrman can boast of 100 percent passage rate on the Algebra I year-end test.
  • It’s a Louisiana A+ Model School for the Arts and Axis/KidsmART Model School for the Arts in 2014
  • Behrman, which is no longer in recovery, received last year the second highest charter renewal decision you can receive – seven years.

In a city in which selective admissions skew results, an achievement test score is not required for admission. And no students were expelled from Behrman this year or last.

For anecdotal evidence, I offer up my niece who graduated from Behrman last year. When hearing about the teacher of the year consideration, on May 29 my sister-in-law wrote this in a Facebook post:

Yes! Yes! Yes! Talk about deserving the honor!!!!! PRINCIPAL CARTER is the last of a dying breed. A princiPAL. She puts the bar high, and then loves her babies until they hit the mark. On Aria’s first day of 3rd grade, as a new student at Behrman, we learned that Behrman was a B+ school whose kids were intent on becoming an A+ school. When we left at the end of 6th grade, it was an A- school. All 4th and 8th graders have mandatory after school tutoring EVERY DAY to prepare for LEAP. The school has so many extras curricular activities, I can’t list them all. Aria was on the debate team, which consistently won city-wide competitions.

Every morning, the kids recite a long self-affirming poem. The final line is:

Second to none. I AM number one! (Emphasis on “am”). It’s a mindset thing, and Principal Carter has effectively changed the mindset of an entire community. For this, she has my deepest, most sincere respect. Not bad at all for a little hood public school in Algiers that was failing pre-Katrina. We need more educators like her.

Ostensibly, Lewis-Carter primarily receives praise from parents and children, but it’s time that her accolades signal a changing narrative of what causes change.

Related: A race to close the achievement gap without burning through teachers

In many ways, the narrative could read to say black women led the recovery charge. Homegrown school leaders like Sharon Clark of Sophie B. Wright Charter School, Doris Hicks of Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School and Mary Haynes-Smith of Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary prove everyday that excellence can come from the inside out. And let’s not forget the educators who may not have been born in New Orleans but are New Orleanian through and through. Mary Laurie of O. Perry Walker High School was part of the education rue before the storm and the flavor is so good after. I would have liked to have seen these people nominated as well.

Again, change requires new people, ideas and frameworks. We are all in this together. However, sustainability demands local capacity building. New Orleans has improved because locals (and many happen to be black) made changes. We have talent and innovation that was born in the Crescent City.

Maybe urban recovery can correlate with spikes in sales from Anthropologie, Forever21 and American Apparel. However, sustainable reform is about building capacity of local talent for the short and long term.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).