“Hey, guy, tuck your shirt in, yeah?” The boy scurrying across the cafeteria of Samuel J Green Charter School mumbles an apology, and tidies away the trailing flap of his white shirt. Jay Altman gives a satisfied nod, bends to pick up a stray piece of litter on the floor, and then continues on his way.
Samuel J Green feels like the kind of place you’d want to send your own children to. The pupils – ranging from the five-year-olds in kindergarten to 14-year-olds about to head off to high school – are bright, enthusiastic, neatly turned out in their dark green uniforms. The school’s red-brick facade is gleamingly clean. In the cafeteria, there are plastic compost buckets on every table, which will shortly be taken out to the “living playground” – the large garden that takes up much of the space behind the school, where the pupils learn to grow herbs and plants, or take lessons about nutrition in the shade of a vine-strewn canopy under the Louisiana sun.
But there are several startling things about this school, one of five that Altman’s chain, FirstLine Schools, oversees. For one thing, there this used to be one of the worst schools, in one of the worst neighbourhoods, in one of the worst cities, in one of the worst states, in America. For another, 10 years ago Samuel J Green was underwater not just metaphorically but literally: on the cafeteria wall is a shoulder-high line, painted on to show where the waters reached their height in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And its remarkable recovery – and that of the New Orleans school system as a whole – took place not despite that disaster, but largely because of it.
The story starts back in 1992, when Altman and his friend Tony Recasner, along with a group of other teachers, parents and activists, founded the James Lewis Extension school – a charter school (the equivalent of the UK’s free schools and academies) before such a thing even existed. It wasn’t meant to be the start of a movement: they just wanted to prove you could run a decent school without cherry-picking the pupils, and increase the life chances of some of the poorest families in New Orleans in the process. The key, Altman says, was to focus on the “middle school” years between 11 and 14, “because that’s where the big dip comes”, as rich students start to pull away from poor ones.
James Lewis was an enormous success: six years later, it became the first official charter school in New Orleans. In 2005, their group – then called Middle School Advocates, but now known as FirstLine Schools – was asked by the state to take over Samuel J Green. “It was out of control, it was chaotic,” recalls Altman. He actually advised Recasner to say no: “Don’t take over that school, that school will kill you.” But Recasner, who’d grown up in the neighbourhood, wanted to give something back.
By this stage, Altman was a hot commodity in education – and was recruited by the ARK charity to help bring the charter school ethos to its nascent network in the UK. But then fate intervened. “We moved in June 2005, and the levees broke here in August.” New Orleans essentially shut down: schools were boarded up with no idea of when, or whether, they would be reopened. James Lewis, by now renamed the New Orleans Charter Middle School, never was, because there was no longer a neighbourhood for it to serve.
But amid this disaster, there was an opportunity. Back in 2003, Louisiana had passed a controversial law declaring New Orleans into a Recovery School District – essentially, an admission that the city’s education system was not fit for purpose. There were too many bad schools, bumping along at the bottom, and letting down their pupils in the process.
Under the legislation, any school that did not meet basic standards could be taken over by those promising to do a better job: exactly what happened at Samuel J Green. Yet progress was glacial – until Katrina.
As it rebuilt, New Orleans decided to break with tradition. Instead of rebuilding the school system, it decided to set up what Altman calls “a system of schools”. Now, more than 95 per cent of public schools in the city are charter schools. Each has the freedom to specialise; each is open to any pupil in the city, with long yellow school buses ferrying them back and forth; and each is accountable for meeting those minimum standards. FirstLine now has 3,000 pupils at its four schools.
If this sounds familiar to British readers, it’s because this was – consciously – the same recipe of choice, autonomy and accountability that powered the free schools and academies reforms in the UK, as well as other charter school movements in the US. The move was bitterly contested – but the results are impossible to argue with.
As we sit in the shade of Samuel J Green’s “Living Playground” – on the exact spot where a powerboat washed up in the wake of Katrina – Altman shows me the figures. In 2005, 62 per cent of New Orleans schools were judged to be “failing”. Now, the figure is 7 per cent – even though the benchmarks for failure are tougher. A decade ago, 35 per cent of pupils were reaching basic standards, 23 per cent below the average across Louisiana as a whole. Now the figure is 62 per cent, and the gap is just six points. The proportion of disabled students hitting the same benchmarks has gone from 11 per cent to 39 per cent – and the gap with the state average has gone from 23 points to two. New Orleans has, in short, seen the most significant educational improvements of any city in America.
The lessons of Samuel J Green are not just about exam results, however. What shines through above all is its devotion to character. Since 95 per cent of the pupils are African-American – and 95 per cent are on free school meals – the hallways are festooned with inspirational pictures of pioneering figures: the first black president, the first black senator, the first black ballet superstar. Banners dangle from the roof containing inspirational quotes, stressing the virtues of manners, self-discipline, ambition. The walls are decorated with the pennants of universities from across America, after which the classrooms are named.
Most pointedly, the year groups are labelled “2024”, “2025”, “2026” – the years that these children will graduate not from high school, but university. Everything about the place is designed to ram home the message that going to college is not a rarity for these kids (as, statistically, it still is) but their natural and inevitable destiny.
So what can others – such as the UK – learn from New Orleans? There are, obviously, special factors at play, from changes in the city’s demographics after Katrina to the determination, not just in New Orleans but more broadly, to build something better after the disaster. When FirstLine decided to tear up Samuel J Green’s concrete playground, Alice Waters, the gastro-goddess who created California’s Chez Panisse restaurant, helped plan the garden. The New Orleans Saints, the local football team, helped pay for the all-weather sports pitch in the other corner of the playground – and their star quarterback, Drew Brees, chipped in towards the kitchen classroom, as did celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse.
Some of the more general lessons have already been learned. For school reformers in the UK, New Orleans is further proof of the importance of autonomy, accountability and diversity: of giving schools the freedom to build themselves around a particular vision or specialism, but forcing them to meet certain standards at the same time.
FirstLine, for example, uses its Living Playground to teach kids about nutrition, biology and stewardship of the natural world, but other charters have another focus: the Bricolage Academy, says its head Josh Densen, is built around “creating innovators and creative problem solvers” – it has “an innovation classroom where we teach engineering and design and computer coding and electrical circuitry and robotics”, growing in complexity as the children advance from kindergarten. Teaching practices also vary: where FirstLine uses a split classroom, in which some kids talk to the teacher, others work on problems, and others work on computers to the side, Bricolage takes a workshop approach, “which we find drives learning better than traditional instruction”.
Another lesson is the importance of finding – and developing – teaching talent. While he was in the UK, Altman worked with Sir Iain Hall, founder of the King’s Leadership Academy in Warrington, to set up Future Leaders, in order to train and promote the very best teachers, including those who have come in via direct-entry programmes such as Teach First, Schools Direct or Teach for America. Altman explains that “one of the things we’re trying this year – and this is really experimental – is giving our lead teachers a four-day week, so they can come together one day a week for shared planning and professional development”.
The growth of diversity in the education system will also, its architects hope, lead to cross-fertilisation, as experiments such as Altman’s four-day week are evaluated by others. Even just spending a morning at Samuel J Green, it is easy to see ideas that could be profitably employed elsewhere: assessing the performance of each class every week, not every term, to enable regular course-correction and adapt to their needs; letting parents access their children’s computerised learning programmes from home; getting each class to do 10 minutes of exercise every few hours (done, as I see when I tour the classrooms, by getting them to dance along with pop videos); using education technology, which is finally starting to live up to its promise after years of wildly overstated claims for its effects.
Above all, however, Samuel J Green is tribute to the power of a single idea.
“People, whether they’re conscious of it or not, have these biases around low-income students and students from deprived areas,” says Altman. The guiding principle of FirstLine is “this real belief in the potential of all young people… a real sense of shared moral purpose”.
In New Orleans, those problems are usually linked to race – but in Britain, the culprit is more often class, especially in the former industrial areas of the North.
“In the whole of the OECD, there’s a bigger correlation between parental income and child aspiration and success in the UK than anywhere else,” says Sir Iain Hall, who is now CEO of the Great Schools Trust. “If you’re a young child in a three-generation household, where there’s been no employment for a long time, aspiration’s died. You have to break through that aspirational poverty to get the child to say ‘I can succeed despite these circumstances’.”
His work, like Altman’s, is driven by “an emerging understanding that if you can improve the character of young children, you can actually improve their educational outcomes. That’s what Jay and I have been doing, either side of the Atlantic – working on motivational messages and strong values that motivate these children and build resilience into them.”
Hall claims that Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, is beginning to pick up on this. “She started to see, through the KIPP schools in US [another chain of charters], that a greater emphasis on character is starting to produce quite amazing outcomes,” he says. The concept of “high expectations and no excuses”, which was at the heart of Future Leaders, is now, he says, “on the website of almost every school. Whether they apply it or not is another matter…”
In many ways, Britain’s education reforms put it well ahead of the United States: the old New Orleans system was, says Altman, not just pre-Blair but pre-Thatcher in its lack of standards, inspection and accountability. But in other ways, says Hall, we have still much to learn. “There are more and more schools [in the UK] naming their classrooms after universities. But you’ve got to get it into teachers’ vocabularies – all day long they’ve got to talk about aspiration and endeavour.” That can come more naturally to Americans, with their can-do spirit and sense of manifest destiny, than hidebound Brits.
Still, success stories such as New Orleans are, says Nick Timothy of the New Schools Network, “tremendously exciting”. It is a vindication of the idea that the best way to get schools is to give dedicated teachers and parents the power to control them – and set them up. The free schools built in Britain are, Timothy points out, “more likely to be rated outstanding than other state schools, more popular with parents, and more likely to teach the so-called facilitating subjects that get young people into top universities. We know that they are improving the quality of education and creating more opportunities for children whatever their background, just like charter schools are doing in the States.”
But there is still work to be done, on both sides of the Atlantic. “In all honesty, all that we’ve done in New Orleans is gone from an F to a D or a C,” says Altman. “The schools aren’t failing any more, but we’ve got to do more than ‘not failing’, right?”