I confess to a momentary confusion when I read the headlines that all of New Orleans' traditional schools had closed and it is now an "all-charter" city.
I know only one school in New Orleans -- Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School -- and I worried for a moment that it had been closed.
But no, it's safe. The situation in New Orleans has been rather baffling since the state set up a statewide Recovery School District into which many of New Orleans' schools were put. The Recovery District, which took over some of the state's lowest performing schools, established the idea of a district as the holder of a "portfolio" of schools of different types. It is the Recovery District that closed its last few traditionally run schools in New Orleans.
The other city district is the old Orleans Parish School District, home to six traditional schools and 14 charter schools. Bethune is one of those traditional schools, and it poses a clear challenge to those who say that the only way to improve education in this country is to sweep away all of the old governance structures and replace them with entirely new ones -- charters, vouchers, and so forth -- run by a new and different kind of educator.
Overseen by a local school board and taking all students who live within its boundaries, Bethune is run by what I call "regular educators." What I mean is that they are teachers and administrators who came through the regular system of training, education, and experience that most teachers and administrators in the country come through. They reflect their city -- most of them are from New Orleans themselves -- and for the most part worked for Orleans Parish schools before Hurricane Katrina devastated the region in 2005.
I first went to Bethune in 2010 to see if it was really as good as its data indicated. I have been lucky enough to go back a few times since then, the last time was this spring. With 84 percent of the students meeting the qualifications for free and reduced-price meals and achievement that matches or exceeds the state, depending on the grade and subject, Bethune has been named a Louisiana "high performing high poverty" school several years in a row, and The Education Trust named it a Dispelling the Myth school in 2010.
The folks at Bethune say there is no one thing that makes them so successful, which accords with what I have seen and heard in other high-achieving high-poverty schools. Certainly the teachers and administrators work hard at understanding the research and practice of teaching reading, writing, and math and they spend a great deal of time and effort collaboratively developing and sharing their technical expertise.
But they seem to derive the energy to do all that work through their deep belief in their students. Some of them grew up poor with shabby clothes themselves and know first-hand the petty humiliations and savage deprivations that sometimes leave children dazed and damaged. They are determined that Bethune be a place where children learn resilience, not defeat.
They may be "regular educators," but they get extraordinary results. As the nation grapples with how to ensure that all children get a quality education, it seems important to note that there are many such regular schools and educators. They are worth learning from.
And -- when you think of New Orleans, know that it is not an "all-charter" city.