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The charter solution

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Before Katrina, barely more than half of New Orleans students graduated. In the 2013-14 school year, three out of four graduated -- right in line with Louisiana's statewide graduation rate. (AP photo)

NEW ORLEANS — In the early morning hours of Aug. 29, 2005, Tom and Carolyn Crosby drove through the night to their cottage by Florida's Gulf Coast to escape Hurricane Katrina. At 6 a.m., they arrived, turned on the television and found good news: The worst of the hurricane was supposed to miss New Orleans.

They went to sleep, ready to drive straight back to New Orleans as soon as possible to reopen their charter school, the International School of Louisiana. But at 2 p.m., they awoke to terrible news.

"There was a whole new world," Tom told the Washington Examiner.

Ten-foot floods in some neighborhoods. Winds nearly 100 miles per hour. More than 1 million homes damaged and 1,833 people killed.

Economically, Hurricane Katrina — which hit 10 years ago on Aug. 29 — is the worst natural disaster the United States has ever seen. It caused $151 billion in damages. The next-costliest disaster since 1980 caused less than half as much damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Between the immediate evacuations and those in the hurricane's aftermath, Katrina displaced more than 1 million people.

Among those spread across the country were 372,000 school-age children, enough to fill about 15,000 classrooms. They needed to find schools. Thousands of those students came from low-income families and were already at risk of falling behind or dropping out before their lives were thrown into chaos.

The nationwide charter school community, Tom and Carolyn Crosby included, wasn't going to sit by and let that happen.

After the storm

Charter schools aren't traditional public schools, but they are funded by the government. They don't charge tuition, and they cannot be selective about whom they admit. When a space opens up, a new student is selected though a random lottery system. But compared to traditional public schools, charters have more independence in their operations and curriculum, which is why so many families find charter schools desirable.

By the end of the first day after Katrina hit New Orleans, the Crosbys managed to confirm that half of their students and staff were safe. By the end of the first week, all were accounted for except for two or three students. Eventually, they confirmed that all their students and staff had survived, but they were scattered across the country.

With their lives turned upside down, and unsure whether their home in New Orleans was still standing, the Crosbys set out to reopen their school as fast as possible.

In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, most New Orleans residents didn't know whether their homes, relatives, friends or jobs still existed. Given all the uncertainty, it would have been easy and even understandable for them to put off questions about children's education until everything else was settled. But the national charter community did not want that to happen, so it set out to make educational arrangements as seamless as possible.

"All across the country, schools just responded," Kara Kerwin, now president of the Center for Education Reform, told the Examiner. "It was a nationwide effort to help families," and charters were able to do it because of their independence and agility. Kerwin provided access to hundreds of pages of emails and documents from that period. They tell the story of the charter movement's efforts to help families in the wake of Katrina.

Within days of the hurricane, charter schools from California to Idaho to Pennsylvania were offering open seats to evacuated students. The school year had just begun, and all of the arrangements had to be made on the fly. The Los Angeles Leadership Academy had 10 spots open in the sixth, seventh and 10th grades. It worked with local churches to make sure evacuee families had homes. In Florida, 1,500 seats were available across 23 schools.

To connect evacuee families with schools, the Center for Education Reform coordinated with other groups and schools to set up a national phone hotline. Eight days after Katrina hit New Orleans, the phones opened. It ran seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. The center ran public service announcements over the radio to spread the word. The center coordinated the hotline, and businesses donated to support it financially. People even called in to the hotline to offer their teaching skills or to help in whatever way they could.

Staff from the Shekinah Learning Institute, which has multiple campuses in San Antonio, recruited students at the Astrodome, which was being used to shelter thousands of displaced families.

By Sept. 14, a new school was set up in the Baton Rouge River Center. The school served about 50 evacuee children, although that number changed as some families left and new ones entered. The Children's Charter School and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation each put up $20,000 to get the shelter school off the ground.

Before Katrina

Before Katrina, the public schools in New Orleans were a shameful example of government incompetence. Then-state Rep. Steve Scalise called the system, run by the Orleans Parish School Board, "one of the worst-run public school systems in the country," in an email to his constituents.

"Before Katrina, New Orleans had what many people would argue was the most-challenged school system in America," Kenneth Campbell, who was director of charter schools for the Louisiana Department of Education from 2007-10, told the Examiner. Campbell said academic performance and expectations for students were incredibly low.

Before Katrina, barely more than half of New Orleans students graduated. In the 2013-14 school year, three out of four graduated — right in line with Louisiana's statewide graduation rate.

Nearly two-thirds of New Orleans students attended a failing school before Katrina. Today, just 7 percent do.

In the 2004-05 school year, the average ACT score in New Orleans lagged the state average by 2.8 points. At the close of the school year in 2014, the gap had narrowed to 0.8 points.

The quality of education has dramatically improved since the storm. So have the district's other problems, which were huge. One was official corruption — bribery, extortion, bank larceny, kickbacks and more — so pervasive that the FBI had its own desk set up within the Orleans Parish School Board offices. Just a couple of examples: One middle school teacher pleaded guilty and another was convicted of conspiracy for altering payroll records to get extra cash. Two other school workers were convicted and another pleaded guilty in the same scheme.

"It was a system that was kind of out of control in a lot of different ways," Campbell said. "It certainly didn't have a vision towards improvement."

"You had a system that was academically bankrupt, it was financially bankrupt and it was facilities-wise, bankrupt. That was before the storm," Paul Pastorek, Louisiana's superintendent of education from 2007-11, said at the 2015 American Federation for Children National Policy Summit.

After Katrina, the whole system had to be quickly rebuilt from the ground up, both in terms of facilities and student populations. Administrators had no idea how many students or teachers would return. But that didn't stop reformers from setting ambitious goals: an all-choice school district with high-quality schools.

Rushing to rebuild

Before Katrina, the International School of Louisiana had two campuses. At one campus, the school rented rooms in a synagogue in New Orleans' Lakeview neighborhood. The flooding in Lakeview reached 10 feet in some areas. Flooding was so bad that a pit in the synagogue's worship area had wild fish living inside it a full month after the storm. The synagogue was eventually torn down.

The other campus building was flooded with at least five feet of water. The building survived, but it was in no shape to serve students at the time. So the Crosbys set out to find new grounds.

A parent from the school had been volunteering at a church in Kenner, just outside New Orleans. The church agreed to rent out its Sunday school classrooms and its parking lot, which was used as a playground and a site for trailers to be used as additional classrooms.

The Crosbys' efforts were slowed by bureaucratic red tape. For example, the school didn't have any children with disabilities, but government regulations still required ramps for every trailer. The Federal Emergency Management Agency at first agreed to pay for the ramps, then reneged. "That was a big expense," Tom said.

Every physical improvement required a bid from at least three contractors. But contractors were in such high demand that they often would not submit bids without receiving hundreds of dollars in payment, and there was often a months-long wait until work could begin.

Despite all the obstacles, the International School of Louisiana reopened to 75 students on Oct. 31, just 63 days after Katrina struck New Orleans. It was the first public school to reopen, four weeks before any traditional public school. All of the students had been ones that attended the school before Katrina, with more returning every day.

In mid-October, the city-run school district decided to reopen its first schools as charters. The decision came despite ferocious opposition. At the public meeting where the decision was approved, critics said reopening schools as charters was akin to a "public lynching."

Critics were concerned about the process: An executive order from the governor waived several rules for the charters, some said they didn't have enough time to review the proposal to switch to charters, others just didn't want to hand over public schools to be operated by someone other than the locally-elected school board. Another critic accused the district of "giving away the schools" while dead bodies were still being counted.

By November, the state-run Recovery School District would take over 114 of 131 schools run by the OPSB. The Hynes School was one that reopened as an independently-run charter school within the district.

"[Before Katrina], the school was definitely a place of great academic excellence, although the building suffered a lot of deferred maintenance," Michelle Douglas, now the principal of Hynes, told the Examiner. Even before the storm, the roofs leaked and halls were used as classrooms. Then Katrina hit, Lakeview flooded and it took Douglas over a week to get back to Hynes, where she had just become an assistant principal. "We just found it completely devastated with seven or eight feet of water." The building had been stripped of its copper by thieves. It was eventually torn down years later.

In the immediate aftermath, the Hynes School needed a new campus, and it was up to Douglas to find it.

Adjusting to a new normal

The Crosbys had the International School of Louisiana back up and running, but growing pains remained.

FEMA initially told them it could reimburse the school for trailers, plumbing, electricity, the handicap walkways and more. Months later, FEMA reversed course and told the Crosbys they weren't eligible for any FEMA funds, since their previous leases didn't hold them responsible for the cost of hurricane repairs.

They weren't able to hire their English teachers back, so the Crosbys taught the subject themselves. After-school programs took on an extra importance, because parents commuting back from the city were usually delayed by severe highway damage.

At the end of the school year, the Crosbys decided to resign from school administration, although they continued teaching. "With all that, and all the headaches and everything like that, we both say it was our best year of teaching ever," Carolyn said. "The parents were out of this world, the kids were great, it just felt good."

Douglas, of the Hynes School, also knows the struggle of working with FEMA. "When you rebuild with a FEMA project, there are many stipulations, there are many requirements," she said. "There is soil testing. There's a number of public charrettes, if you will, to have input in what the building should look like."

Hynes would overcome those barriers to become the first OPSB-rebuilt school in January 2012.

Katrina forced the school to close for the rest of the school year, but it would reopen in August 2006 on two different campuses in New Orleans' Uptown neighborhood. "We had nothing. We had no furniture, we had no books," Douglas said. Staff was slim, too: teachers, a janitor, a secretary and herself.

Besides the physical obstacles, there were emotional ones, too. Twenty-eight Hynes staff members lost everything in Katrina. Across the system, schools were dealing with students who returned without their parents. One out of five students in New Orleans was not living at home with his or her parents. Every year when hurricane season began, students lived in fear that another Katrina-level disaster was on its way. "Those kids were challenged beyond belief, and yet they did amazingly well in academic achievement," Pastorek said.

Extracurriculars were part of the Hynes method to helping kids heal — a welcome distraction from the sad state of New Orleans. Clubs, sports and other activities gave kids something to do while playgrounds were still being rebuilt.

Staff healed by investing all of their time and emotion into Hynes. "This is how we were dealing with our grief," Douglas said. "We just threw ourselves into this project. Whatever we had to do, we did. And it was hard. But when you have nothing, you're willing to risk it all, because you have nothing."

That included switching from a district-operated traditional public school to an independently-operated charter school. Had Hynes stayed under district operations, it would have been closed for five school years instead of one.

"We've done it all," she said. "We've moved twice. We've shared with two different schools. We have rebuilt a school. And now we stand proud, with 681 students, a pretty significant waiting list, and this is who we are."

Today, charters flourish

Despite the mass devastation of 2005, signs that Lakeview was once flooded with over 10 feet of water are scarce today. The suburban neighborhood is filled with homes, grassy yards, restaurants, shopping centers and everything else one would expect under normal conditions. Perhaps the only distinguishing factor is that almost every building seems to have been built in the last 10 years.

A high wall and a small road separate Hynes Charter School from the Orleans Avenue Canal, the only one of three New Orleans drainage canals that held during Katrina. Today, the school is located in the same area that its old building stood before Katrina.

The new school building has features that would make many schools jealous, but Douglas insists that the secret behind Hynes' success is its school pride. "Building that school spirit out of the classroom only enhanced our experience in the classroom," Douglas said. That extends to the parents, as well.

The school holds events such as picnics and assemblies to build a sense of community. That way, parents don't just see their child's teachers once a year at a parent-teacher conference.

That involvement reaches into the classroom. Dawn Lobell, a teacher at Hynes, said she's been teaching for 17 years but that Hynes is the first place where she knows the parents of every single student. "We are a part of their family now," Lobell told the Examiner.

The results at Hynes have been nothing short of miraculous. In the 2013-14 school year, nine out of 10 Hynes students were at or above grade level proficiency, compared to seven out of 10 across Louisiana. Of the 1,300 public schools in Louisiana, Hynes is in the 92nd percentile on its state report card.

Douglas emphasized that student behavior and character development are just as important as grades. At the end of the school year, students with good behavior at Hynes are eligible for a special field trip. This year, some students went to Sector 6, a giant trampoline playground, or Kidsports, another giant playground. "We were always at about 60 or 70 percent of our kids being eligible to participate. Lately we're hitting the 90 percent mark," Douglas said.

Each grade level at Hynes has three sections of students, one of which is a French immersion section. Native speakers from France, Canada, Belgium and Chad lead these sections. Most of the students don't speak French at home, but by the second grade they are immersed in the language at school, with only two hours a day taught in English.

Disadvantaged students are able to thrive at Hynes. Almost half of the students come from low-income families that are eligible for the federal free or reduced lunch program. Eighty-four percent of those students are at or above grade level, only slightly lower than the 88 percent figure for all students.

One in 10 students is in special education, with 74 percent of them at or above grade level. Each student with special needs gets an individualized educational plan. Hynes accommodates the needs of these students without segregating them from their classmates.

All the students have plenty of space to play during recess. Hynes has built two $200,000 playgrounds — not with FEMA money, but with funds raised from the local community. All of the school's bumper stickers on cars in the surrounding neighborhoods tell the story of Hynes pride.

Not every school in New Orleans is like Hynes. But with 90 percent of the schools operating as charter schools, they have the flexibility and the potential to achieve what Hynes has. The failing and corrupt old system is gone, and something unquestionably better has replaced it.

"The academic performance of New Orleans' schools has improved remarkably over the past 10 years," Patrick Sims and Vincent Rossmeier, two policy analysts from the Tulane University Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, wrote in a report covering public education in New Orleans since Katrina. "With increasing test scores and graduation rates, everyone involved in education should feel proud of the progress made thus far."

What's to come?

There's no shortage of incredible stories of charter schools going above and beyond to help kids after Katrina. The Knowledge Is Power Program opened its first New Orleans charter school weeks before Katrina. Many of its students evacuated to Houston, enough that KIPP New Orleans West College Prep opened its doors there a month after Katrina.

"A lot of [teachers] within 24 hours of getting the call packed up their car and came to Houston," Jonathan Bertsch, KIPP New Orleans' Director of Advocacy, told the Examiner. "We were still in the very early stages of getting the school together, so they didn't know for sure that they were going to have a teaching job, but they came and wanted to do what they could to help."

The Houston school's 400 students had all been evacuated from New Orleans, and came from a variety of schools. The school operated for a couple years while New Orleans was rebuilding.

"It shouldn't have taken a hurricane. It shouldn't have taken an act of God to do something about it," Kerwin said. "The devastation and what happened really shed a light on how dysfunctional the system really was."

Students that had been almost certainly destined for failure simply by having been born in New Orleans today have the chance to succeed. "There's nobody that can argue that children are not getting a much better education today than they were getting prior to Hurricane Katrina," Campbell said.

In May, the first group of kindergartners that started at Hynes after Katrina will graduate the eighth grade and head off to high school. With a long waiting list, Douglas said she's considering whether Hynes should open a second campus soon.

New Orleans isn't perfect, but there are lessons that can be learned from its education reforms. The old one-size-fits-all education model is a failure. Flexibility for school leaders can empower them to accomplish amazing things, even in the face of unprecedented adversity. Giving families a choice of where to send their children helps keep schools accountable.

Most importantly, when an education system fails students, don't wait until God intervenes to fix it.