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

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

The studies compared “virtual twins” for 77 percent of Louisiana charter students, using multiple demographic factors. On all dimensions — including race, income, and special education status — charter students made more progress months over the school year than did their counterparts.

But the New Orleans experiment is not all positive. Merrow's documentary tackles problems with inexperienced teachers in the popular Teach for America program, as well as disparate treatment of disadvantaged students in charters. He notes that the average public school enrolls 12 percent special education students, but at charter schools the average is just 8 percent.

Overall, Merrow resonates with the freedom charters have to motivate teachers and adjust to students’ needs. He’s critical of the national emphasis on test scores, as well as the “teacher bashing” that often attends it. “It’s not that you have an enemy,” Merrow said, “It’s that we are all united to fight for something.”

Where are the boys?

In one of Merrow’s school visits, a female student at Sophie B. Wright Middle School tells him she transferred there mid-year. At her old school, she says, “the principal couldn’t control the students, and there was fighting. So I told my mama I didn’t want to go there.”

“When I came here, I felt it was much better,” she adds. “The teachers were showing you a lot of attention, and making sure you understand your work.”

“Where are all the boys?” Merrow asks the class. The girls laugh and point down the hall. It turns out that one of the first actions taken by Sharon Clark, the school’s new principal, was to separate the genders so that students could focus on their work rather than “showing off.”

A charter principal who can separate boys from girls in middle school has a lot of authority. Clark likewise makes curriculum choices and controls the budget, and she can also do something that is very difficult in traditional public schools: fire a teacher. “I call it ‘freeing up a teacher’s future,’ ” Clark says with a wink.

Maverick journalism

“Rebirth: New Orleans” is the story of how one city’s struggles may help transform a nation’s educational system. The film is now in post-production, and among the remaining tasks is to integrate a score by Wynton Marsalis, the New Orleans jazz legend who donated music for the film.

But funding was an issue. Rather than relying on the somewhat restrictive foundation grants that usually support his work, this maverick journalist is funding this film about innovative schools with an cutting-edge funding strategy: Merrow is crowdsourcing his funding at Kickstarter.com. He reached his goal to get $50,000 in small donations with 10 days to spare.

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