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‘Rebirth’: New Documentary Explores NOLA’s Charter Schools

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Charter school enrollment has soared 80 percent in five years, according to a new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. And while charter school students account for just 5 percent of K-12 enrollment nationally, in cities like New Orleans, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., it’s significantly higher.The charter schools built in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are the focus of “Rebirth: New Orleans” a new documentary currently available on Netflix. This week we’re catching up on some of the sessions from EWA’s 66th National Seminar at Stanford University, and we asked Tajuana Cheshier of the Jackson Sun to contribute a guest post from our special advance screening of the film.

To the sound of a score composed by New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis, the documentary film Rebirth: New Orleans opens with footage of the city soon after it has been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. In an interview, Orleans Parish School Board representative Jimmy Fahrenholtz, then surprisingly explains how the city “got lucky” that the hurricane hit.

“The storm has come through and done the damage,” Fahrenholtz said. “Look at what we can take from that, what we can use it for. It’s a tool.”

The film, which gives viewers the chance to hear the stories behind the efforts to improve the city’s struggling public education system, premiered on the West Coast during EWA’s 66th National Seminar, held on Stanford University’s campus in May.

Veteran education journalist John Merrow, a correspondent for PBS NewsHour, said the one-hour film he produced is condensed from more than six years of footage gathered since the fall of 2005, six weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Merrow said it is his hope that people who view the film will see that change is possible; that it is hard work that takes time, high standards, integrity, resources and a willingness to learn from mistakes; and that there are charlatans out there trying to make a quick profit off these unprecedented opportunities.

Merrow said the most interesting reaction to the film came at the screening for the community in New Orleans. “Before the film, the body language of the audience was striking,” Merrow said. “There were clearly different groups who, by the posture, held opposing views.”

The film has received both positive feedback and some criticism. One critic noted that the film doesn’t explore such controversies as the apparent mass firing of African-American teachers and their perceived subsequent replacement with young white teachers or the alleged practice of charter schools pushing low-performing/ students with behavior issues, to traditional public schools.

Even though the storm caused nearly 2,000 deaths, $100 billion in damages, and displaced 65,000 students and teachers, education reformists believed the city also had been presented with a new opportunity to change its educational outlook. A year before the storm, fewer than one-third of New Orleans eighth graders could pass the state reading test, a high school senior who failed the exit exam four times was still her school’s valedictorian, and a student who hadn’t attended school was earning all A’s.

Additionally, the public school district had gone through eight superintendents in 10 years and allegations of fraud and corruption were commonplace.

In late 2005, the state took over New Orleans’ schools, fired all of the teachers and reassigned the majority of the schools to the state-run recovery school district, which largely is comprised of charters. A large percentage of the teaching staff at these schools is former Teach for America graduates, who are novices to the profession.

One parent interviewed in the film drew laughter from the audience when she explained why she disagreed with the Teach for America approach. “It doesn’t make sense, no more than I would want a mechanic who has never worked on a car to fix my engine, would I want a teacher who has never taught a child to teach my child,” the parent said. “How many people would go in a hospital and say give me the brand new doctor who has never done surgery? That’s the one I want to operate on my heart. Because he has more energy than that old doctor who has been doing it for 20 years. Nobody goes and says that.”

Since the state takeover, New Orleans charter schools have increased test scores and graduation rates, but there are still significant challenges ahead for the city’s students.

Andre Perry (formerly of Loyola University in New Orleans and now dean of urban education at Davenport University in Michigan) said in the film that the goal of reform is not to increase test scores; it’s to graduate folks from college. “I still worry that if we don’t focus on these very basic life outcomes that we may miss the point of improving education,” Perry said.

Editor’s note: John Merrow informed EWA that the version of the film screening on NetFlix differ slightly from the version screened at Stanford. He recut the film’s ending to amplify the message that education in New Orleans is “a work in progress.”

Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Email EWA public editor Emily Richmond at Follow her on Twitter: @EWAEmily.