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

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.

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 He reached his goal to get $50,000 in small donations with 10 days to spare.