Rebirth from ashes: New film captures New Orleans' radical school reforms

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 18 2012 10:15 p.m. MST

PBS correspondent John Merrow (right) talks with Khalil Osiris, founder of Circle of Courage Mentoring Program in New Orleans while filming for his new documentary on the rebirth of the city's school system.

Learning Matters

On a sunny afternoon early in the fall of 2007, PBS reporter John Merrow sat with Helen Miller, a single mother of five, on the steps of her home in New Orleans’ hurricane-devastated 9th Ward talking about her teenage son, Antoine.

The hurricane had decimated the city just two years before, and among the destruction in its wake was a public school system in disarray. Miller's son was struggling to get through the eighth grade, even though he was old enough to be a high school junior.

“I'm afraid that my son will end up as a statistic: dropped out, on drugs, selling drugs, or dead,” Miller told PBS that afternoon in 2007. “I don’t want to see Antoine that way.”

Merrow was in town covering the city's efforts to radically transform its public schools. For all the problems Hurricane Katrina left behind, it also, paradoxically, leveled the status quo and created an opening for change. Merrow spent the next five years watching the city remake its public education system. His series of reports morphed into a documentary film, "Rebirth: New Orleans," which is now in post-production.

“The film's main character is the city of New Orleans,” Merrow said. “But we profile several schools, including a charter school that gets shut down and then reopens.”

For Antoine, the experiment wasn't enough. A year after visiting his home, Merrow learned that Antoine had dropped out. When he returned to the home to visit Antoine's mother, he found the house abandoned. Antoine had disappeared and no one knew where he was.

Antoine is just one of multiple stories the film highlights, many of which have better endings. One of the great satisfactions of his work, Merrow said, is “you get to know people and you get to see them change.”

“I’m proud of this film because, while charter schools are the vehicle for some remarkable change, they are not the key,” Merrow said. “The keys are hard work, integrity, high standards, time, resources, willingness to learn from your mistakes, and willingness to let others take the credit.”

“If the film has a message it is that positive change is possible. You can see that the worst school district in the country is now a mediocre school district. But the trajectory is such that in a few years, it could be the best urban district in the country.”

Painting a picture

Charter schools are the backbone of the New Orleans experiment. By 2011, more than 80 percent of New Orleans public schools were charters.

Merrow described charters as “public schools, open to all and paid for with tax dollars. They are free from board control, and often from teacher unions. And so, unlike traditional public schools, charters make their own decisions about curriculum, staffing and student rules.”

Merrow was not the only one tracking the post-Katrina New Orleans schools experiment. Another vocal proponent of charters is President Barack Obama. “This community has used the crisis as an opportunity to experiment with new ways of learning,” Obama tells a New Orleans audience in a scene in the film. “New Orleans offers a very clear picture of what all American public education just might look like in the future."

Balanced perspective

Charter schools are controversial, and data on their results have been mixed. But there is reason to hope they may be bearing fruit.

A 2011 study by Stanford's Center on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that on average, charter students in Louisiana were progressing faster than their counterparts in traditional public schools.

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