Hope Against Hope

Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America's Children

By Sarah Carr

Bloomsbury. 336 pp. $27

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Reviewed by Martha Woodall

In Hope Against Hope, veteran education reporter Sarah Carr takes a penetrating look at what happened to schools in New Orleans after the city was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Instead of giving a broad overview of the city's altered educational landscape, the former New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter offers a more personal, ground-level perspective.

She focuses on three people: Geraldlynn Stewart, 14, whose mother juggles two low-paying jobs; Aidan Kelly, a recent Harvard University graduate who is in Teach for America; and Mary Laurie, a veteran principal.

Beginning in August 2010, Carr follows them over the course of a tumultuous year at three schools, all of them charters. The trio's experiences and varied vantage points provide insight into the economic, social, racial, and political currents roiling the city and reshaping public education as the neglected, high-poverty school district is mostly dismantled and replaced by charter schools.

The same forces are in play in districts across the country, including Philadelphia, where nearly 30 percent of students in taxpayer-funded schools attend charter schools.

"Many of the most powerful people in the country have a plan for the future of education in America," Carr writes, "one focused on more charter schools, technocratic governance, weakened teachers' unions, and the relentless use of data to measure student and teacher progress. New Orleans offers a test case, on an unprecedented scale, of how this vision plays out - of what works, what does not work and for whom."

Katrina did not cause the shift to charter schools, Carr points out - the disaster merely accelerated it. The Louisiana State Legislature created the Recovery School District to take over failing schools two years before Katrina, and the turnaround model it favored was remaking them as charters.

When Katrina struck on Aug. 28, 2005, the Recovery District had five new charters in the city. By July 2012, when Carr wrote her epilogue, New Orleans had 88 public schools, and 66 of them were charters.

Throughout the 2010-11 school year, Carr observed academic challenges, struggles to maintain classroom order, efforts to inspire students, and the stress of trying to balance real instruction with the need to prepare students for standardized tests that would determine their futures and the fate of their schools.

Paul Vallas, the former CEO of the Philadelphia School District who took the reins of the Recovery District in 2007, has a cameo role in Hope Against Hope. Carr said Vallas sped up and expanded changes already underway, tripling the Teach for America corps and contracting with outsiders to provide curriculum and run alternative schools.

By the time of Carr's epilogue, test scores had risen in New Orleans, especially among African American students, and there were other signs of improvement.

"Most important, the changes have brought renewed hope to thousands of poor families, many of whom felt underserved by the schools for decades," Carr writes.

She adds, though, that it will take years to find out whether those changes translate into more graduates of New Orleans' schools earning college degrees and securing good jobs in their hometown.

Hope Against Hope is sometimes plodding, but it's an important book about issues facing urban districts everywhere.