Prior to Katrina, New Orleans was ineffective at educating the majority of its children. By virtually any metric, the public school system was woefully underperforming, both in terms of educating students and managing schools. In a strange twist of fate, the arrival of Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005 provided an opportunity to wipe the slate clean. Although the pain and destruction that the hurricane caused cannot be forgotten, there is room for hope in the wake of tragedy.
New Orleans currently has the highest percentage of charter schools of any urban school district in the country. With over half of its 54 public schools operating as charter schools, New Orleans has become a focal point of the education reform movement in the United States. If the Crescent City can emerge from Katrina with a more effective school system than it had prior to the storm, two things will happen. On the micro level, the children of the city will benefit tremendously. On the macro level, proponents of charter schools will have the large-scale example they need to push increased reform in other districts around the country.
New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO), a non-profit focused on supporting the fledgling charter school network in the ravaged city, is dedicated to ensuring that the reforms are successful. Founded by Sarah Usdin, former Director of Louisiana for Teach For America, NSNO’s mission is “to accelerate the transformation of New Orleans public schools by cultivating the best practices of high performing schools, promoting academic and operational excellence, and developing sustainable governance.”
Kristy “Powdered Sugar Warrior” McBride (OG), John “Massive” Cannon (NA), James “Good Enough for Government Work” Reinhart (KSG ’08), and I worked directly with NSNO for two weeks. Our mission was simple-rewrite the organization’s business plan. Armed with an updated business plan, NSNO could more effectively solicit large grants from national foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
When asked about his experience in New Orleans, Cannon spoke for the entire group, “It was freakin’ awesome. Loved it.” A strong show of support, especially from a Notre Dame grad who witnessed LSU annihilate his alma mater in the Sugar Bowl during the trip.
Our silo thoroughly enjoyed the experience for several reasons. First, Matthew Candler, CEO, provided us with initial direction and ongoing support, but he gave us autonomy to reshape his organization’s strategy. The project was a truly collaborative effort between our team and NSNO’s leadership. Second, although we barely knew each other before the trip, we quickly became a cohesive, effective team. Not only did we work well together, but we also laughed a lot in the process. Who knew that writing a business plan, drinking bad coffee, and watching Saturday Night Live’s “Taco Town” skit over and over would make our winter break so memorable? Finally, we walked away feeling like we had a positive impact, albeit a small one, at an organization that genuinely appreciated the support.
Spending two weeks in New Orleans gave us an appreciation for the enormous amount of work that still needs to be done to rebuild the city. However, spending time with driven leaders like Sarah Usdin and Matthew Candler, among many others who we met, gave us hope that it can be done.