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UNC grads teaching, and learning, in New Orleans

An email arrived several weeks ago from one of my former students in the UNC School of Media and Journalism, telling me how much she would like to talk about her experiences teaching in New Orleans schools. “Florence and I could probably give you an earful,” it said. “The education landscape here is truly unlike any other.”

The email came from Dean Drescher of Raleigh, UNC-Chapel Hill class of 2012, who teachers first grade in a New Orleans charter school. Her friend Florence Bryan of Charlotte, also one of my former students, graduated in 2013, and became first a special education teacher and now a fourth-grade English language arts teacher.

On a four-day visit to New Orleans last week, I invited Dean and Florence to join my wife Kat and me for dinner so that I could get “an earful’’ of their perspectives on the city’s schools that went through a dramatic upheaval in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina a decade ago. They brought along two more recent UNC graduates: Jessi Tremayne of Rye, NY, class of 2014, who teaches third grade in an Upper Ninth Ward school, and Ian Collins of Washington, DC, a 2011 graduate, who works on the regional staff of Teach for America.

The four young alums are among the 144 UNC-Chapel Hill graduates hired by Teach for America over the past five years. And, post-Katrina, New Orleans has proved an urban magnet for energetic and idealistic millennials.

Now, 93 percent of New Orleans public school students attend charter schools. Of the 46,000 students, about eight out of 10 are classified as economically disadvantaged. In terms of educational performance, the Cowan Institute at Tulane University has reported, “schools have gone from failing to average.”

For two hours, over fried oysters and red beans-and-rice at a neighborhood restaurant, they gave me a from-the-classroom view of a city’s schools that have come under intense national and international scrutiny and study.  Nothing is as clear or as concrete as decision makers might like, said Jessi. “The longer I spend here, the clearer it becomes how nuanced the situation is.”

The UNC grads appreciate the flexibility and openness to their participation afforded by charter schools. They pointed out that the city has no teacher pay scale, so that teachers can bargain for a salary with each charter operator.

“You have to have leaders with room to innovate,” said Dean. “Clearly a lot of traditional public schools have not served poor kids well.”

The UNC grads have encountered head-on a central dilemma of American education: Poverty, fractured family-life, ill-educated adults, crime-prone neighborhoods add up to students arriving in school with burdens and issues that bear down on educators; and yet, schools remain a potent vehicle for lifting young people up from poverty.

“We have kids who come to our school who have never had a conversation before,” said Jessi. It was her stark, embellished way of emphasizing the point that schools must cope with a “word-gap” between affluent students and children of poor families with more limited vocabulary. She said schools need more counseling and mental health professionals.

The charter school system has not relieved New Orleans of racial segregation in schooling. “My middle schoolers would tell you that our schools are still segregated,” said Florence. Jessi said her school has one white student among 570 enrolled. The four UNC grads are whites, working in mostly-black schools.

The Cowan Institute reports that 86 percent of students enrolled in public schools are black. In the city’s robust array of private and parochial schools, nearly 60 percent of the students are white.

The UNC grads also acknowledge the tension between veteran university-educated teachers and the alternative teacher corps provided by Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, and such. After their relatively short summertime orientation, the Teach for America members acknowledge feeling pressure to prove themselves in the classroom. They work long hours. But, young self-starters from out-of-town, they also acknowledge learning valuable lessons from the veteran New Orleans teachers.

“They reminded me to build connections to the community,” said Ian. “My school did a good job to reflect the cultural traditions of the neighborhood.”

Over the years these former UNC students have spent in New Orleans, they have noticed a distinct shift within the charter schools. Confronted with difficult issues and striving for sustainability, the charters are becoming somewhat more regulated, more conventional, more in need of sharing administrative tasks for economies of scale. Even as they depend heavily on recent university grads who want to do good but are not on a path to a teaching career, said Ian, “school leaders are realizing that they can’t just replace teachers every year or two.”

Of the four students at dinner, three are headed soon to post-graduate schools: one to a MBA program, one to law school, one to a master’s program with an emphasis on education policy. No doubt they will be better graduate students for having had the teaching-and-learning experiences of confronting the tensions and feeling the exhilaration of New Orleans.

Whatever the long-term careers of these UNC grads, their desire for and commitment to service to students in need of sound education and a lift from economic distress make them precisely the emerging talent our state and nation needs in civic and democratic life.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.