New Orleans charter schools redefine education reform (VIDEO)

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New Orleans, Louisiana — Duke Bradley walks through the hallways of Mays Prep charter school with a renewed sense of purpose.

The school, which he founded in 2009, is located in the Desire community of New Orleans.

Five years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and the majority of its public schools, Bradley said he understands how critical his role is.

“New Orleans, because of [Katrina] had the opportunity to stop and pause and say, ‘This is what we want public education to look like in this city,’” said Bradley who is also the school’s principal. “I think if you’re going to rebuild a city, you’ve got to rebuild it with its schools…”

By all accounts, public school education in New Orleans before the storm was struggling.

Its students, more than 90 percent African-American, were underserved and under-performing. Only half of these students graduated high school in four years.

But in the five years since Katrina, charter schools have become more and more of a fixture in the city’s schools. The majority of public schools in the city are now charters.

This school year, more than 70 percent of New Orleans public schools students will attend charter schools. (Last school year, the next highest major city was Washington, D.C. with 36 percent of its students)

“I think the storm just lifted a blanket and uncovered everything that was already here,” said Bridget Burns, a reading interventionist at Mays Prep. “I would say we’ve come a long way, but we still have far to go.”

The standardized test results for fourth, eighth and tenth grade public school students have gone up since the storm hit in 2005. This may have something to do with the increasing presence of charter schools, though it is not clear.

Randall McKnight, who is now a program director for Teach For America, taught in traditional public schools in New Orleans for two years. He says charters may be a solution to current failing schools, but he’s not convinced a ‘takeover’ will serve all parties well.

“I don’t think the charter model, like 90 percent charters, it’s not going to be for everybody,” McKnight said. “It’s not like public schools are failing everywhere.”

Bradley agrees.

“It’s about choice for parents,” Bradley insists. “And that not only means great charter schools, but that’s also traditional district schools, parochial schools and independent schools.”

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