Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America's Children

Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America's Children

by Sarah Carr

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A moving portrait of school reform in New Orleans through the eyes of the students and educators living it.See more details below


A moving portrait of school reform in New Orleans through the eyes of the students and educators living it.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Aiming to distill the difficulties and possibilities facing American educational reform, journalist Carr follows three people at three charter schools—14-year-old student Geraldlynn Stewart, idealistic young teacher Aidan Kelly, and dedicated principal Mary Laurie—as they navigate competing visions of education and civil rights in post-Katrina New Orleans. While the book's time period (2005–2012) sees a general if qualified upswing in student performance, Carr still finds the city, for all its unique history, emblematic of a continuing national crisis of "decayed infrastructure, overwhelmed social services, long-simmering racial tensions, and gross inequalities." Her protagonists' perspectives capture subtleties rarely probed in a national debate more preoccupied with test scores, corporatization, and teachers' unions: discipline, gun violence, and the unmet needs of students facing a wide range of physical and mental problems. Carr, for her part, critiques the increasingly prevalent charter school system, which now serves roughly two million students, for its paternalism, unforgiving "no-excuses" approach, and rigidly college-oriented ethos. Her scholastic prescription is holistic, understanding and embracing the wider social circumstances of a child's learning process by balancing quality teaching against the self-determination and cultural values of that child's particular community. Agent: Farley Chase, Farley Literary. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Carr tracks a teenaged student, a new teacher, and a new principal in post-Katrina New Orleans, offering a perspective on 21st-century American education that will be of special interest to African American parents.
Kirkus Reviews
Education reporter Carr debuts with a balanced account of the growing charter-school movement in post-Katrina New Orleans. Deftly weaving in background on the abysmal historical performance of New Orleans public schools and the strong focus on discipline and routine of charter schools aimed at preparing students for college, the author shows how the charter approach is working on the ground through the eyes of individuals in three randomly selected schools: 14-year-old Geraldlynn Stewart, who struggles to find her way as a high school student; Aidan Kelly, a 24-year-old teacher and Harvard graduate who sees his school as an academic boot camp; and Mary Laurie, veteran principal of one of the first schools to reopen after Katrina, who asks students, "Would you come along with me on this journey?" Their closely reported experiences in schools of the national chain KIPPS (Knowledge Is Power Program) illustrate the issues, challenges and satisfactions of the demanding, no-excuses charter way. Like the other charters, Sci Academy, where Aidan teaches, emphasizes success on standardized tests; it is "a technocrat's dream: run by graduates of the nation's most elite institutions, steeped in data, always seeking precision, divorced from the messiness…of democracy." With their missionary zeal and outsider status, its young teachers "resemble the settlement house workers of a century ago," writes Carr. Principal Laurie hopes her students will journey on to college; Geraldlynn's parents, too, hope the new charter schooling will open a longed-for door. While often repetitive, the book evokes the realities of a city school system in transition. The schools are improving and test scores are up, she writes, but only college graduation rates in future years will tell whether charters make a difference. Detailed and thoughtful.

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Hope Against Hope

Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America's Children



Copyright © 2013 Sarah Carr
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60819-490-2



"The Christmas of school days."

(August 2010)


Try as she might, Geraldlynn Stewart could not get her KIPP Re naissance uniform to fit. She experimented with safety pins, bobby pins, and tape. She rolled it up at the waist, ran it through the dryer, and eventually just stared at it—willing the skirt to shrink. Geraldlynn went to bed early on the eve of her first day of high school. When her cell phone alarm beeped at six a.m., the house was eerily silent. Her mother had left an hour earlier for the French Quarter hotel where she worked as a house keeper. Everyone else still slept. The white-and-blue plaid skirt loomed as large as ever.

The ill-fitting uniform seemed to reflect Geraldlynn's misgivings about KIPP Renaissance. In theory, everything the charter school promised sounded great: a warm, supportive atmosphere and an education that would prepare students for college. In reality, however, that meant preppy uniforms, crazy rules, and nights and weekends full of schoolwork. All that to earn four more years of studying? Geraldlynn felt ambivalent. No one in her immediate family had attended college, and despite her good grades in middle school, she remained deeply insecure about her "book smarts." Just weeks earlier, an ACT prep book had arrived in the mail for her older sister, Jasmine. Geraldlynn opened the package and scanned the math problems on one page. Within seconds she threw the book on the floor, where it landed with a loud thud.

"I was scared," she said. "I thought, I'm not ever going to be able to solve these."

But Geraldlynn had no choice in the matter—at least when it came to KIPP Renaissance. Her mother had made that clear. "I think she's in love with KIPP schools. She probably will send me to a KIPP college," the fourteen-year-old said. "I been doing KIPP all my life. I might as well just finish with it."

At school later that morning, the students bantered quietly and compared schedules while their principal droned on about KIPP Re naissance's expectations for student behavior:

"If someone says hello or good morning to you, say hello or good morning back ..."

"I want to go to sleep—or home."

"... If you do something you shouldn't have done, then apologize ..."

"We can't go home. We're stuck here for five years."

"... If someone gives you something you need or ask for, say thank you ..."

"What's this class on my schedule called CR?"

"... About forty percent of KIPP Renaissance students said 'thank you' going through the cafeteria line—four out of ten is not a percentage we can be proud of ..."

"I think that means college readiness."

Everywhere she looked, Geraldlynn saw physical reminders of KIPP Renaissance's overarching goal. College banners draped from the ceiling of the cafeteria. College flags lined the hallway walls. College diplomas hung in the classrooms. Her first day of high school concluded with the mysterious college readiness course, whose teacher, Mr. Saltmarsh, said it would "help us realize our big goal here at Renaissance: one thousand first-generation college graduates by 2022."

Geraldlynn listened closely as Mr. Saltmarsh described Louisiana's college scholarship program. It offered full tuition at any of the state's public universities for students who earned a 2.5 grade point average in high school and scored above the state average on the ACT. Geraldlynn had always wondered how she could afford college. The money her mother made cleaning hotel rooms and busing tables barely covered the bills. Mr. Saltmarsh's speech offered a flicker of hope. In eighth grade she had earned mostly As and Bs—well above a 2.5.

But when Mr. Saltmarsh told the class, "If you think you can earn a 2.5 and score a 20 on the ACT, please let me know by snapping [the KIPP Renaissance sign of approval]!" Geraldlynn kept her hands still.


One by one, each student rotated before Aidan Kelly's watchful eyes. He checked for the requisite khaki pants, black Sci Academy polo shirt, black shoes, and belt. He instructed them to take off wristbands, colored hair ties, and necklaces. Then he sent the students on their way. Another teacher escorted to the office the few whose uniforms failed to pass muster, where they secured the missing items. The rest continued on their way to breakfast. To get there they had to walk between two lines of black tape laid out on the outdoor walkway. Sci Academy teachers greeted the students at every turn, scrutinizing the children's comportment. One roll of the eye, muttered complaint, or step outside of the black lines and a staff member descended. The teachers did not want students to see a peer recognized for bad behavior, so they made a point of reprimanding and redirecting the students as subtly as possible. As one teacher put it: "We don't acknowledge things that don't lead us to college."

Aidan's first day teaching at Sci Academy moved with the precision of a military operation. The teachers had devoted several hours of professional development to rehearsing the day's maneuvers again and again. By the time Sci's freshmen arrived for a weeklong orientation, the staff members were able to move wordlessly between their predesignated stations, leaving the stunned students feeling as if they had stepped into an alternate universe, not a high school. After the uniform check, breakfast, and morning assembly, the students learned how to SPARK (S for sit or stand up straight; P for pen to paper and place your hands on desk; A for ask and answer questions with a straight Sci Academy elbow; R for respect at all times; K for keep tracking the speaker). Each letter was the subject of its own ten-minute mini-lesson.

Even on the first day of school, Sci's teachers tried to connect just about every lesson to college: Scholars should sit in SPARK so blood flows to their brains more easily, speeding up their thoughts and facilitating their path to college. Scholars should be able to transition from "silly" to "serious" with the snap of a finger or the clap of a hand because they do not have a second to waste on their path to college. Scholars should wash their hands before leaving the restroom because otherwise they might get germs, which might make them sick, which might cause them to miss school, which would interrupt their path to college.

Aidan, twenty-four, felt at home at Sci, with its clearly defined rules and aspirations. His first day at his previous teaching job at Martyn Alternative School in a New Orleans suburb could not have been more different. He had floundered through the opening days on his own. There had been no school-wide plan, no practice sessions, no guiding philosophy.

Aidan grew up attending rigorous Catholic schools in the New York City area. He gravitated to intense structure. If there was any place he felt he could thrive as a teacher, it was Sci Academy.

His mother taught kindergarten in a Catholic school and his father, an immigrant from Ireland, never attended high school or college. They had always stressed to Aidan the value of an education. He lived up to their hopes as well as his own, graduating from Harvard University, where he thrived amid the veneration for everything academic. Harvard became a proud part of Aidan's identity. Returning to his alma mater brought a unique joy he hoped his students would someday feel. Most of them, however, viewed the Ivy League as a foreign land—out of mind, out of reach, or both—hardly a target of their aspirations. At Sci Academy, Aidan planned to show them just how much was possible.


All day long people brought their children to Mary Laurie.

An O. Perry Walker alum arrived with his daughter in tow. The family had just moved back to New Orleans, and he had heard good things about the soft -spoken principal who ran the school with an iron fist.

A teacher from one of the city's alternative schools showed up with a sullen-looking girl who wore her baseball cap backwards and a T-shirt that read, I LOVE MY RUDE SHAKER BARBIE BRE. He knew Laurie would take in the wayward student just as she had done with so many others.

A nineteen-year-old who looked like a student himself brought his younger brother. He had assumed the role of father after their parents passed away and wanted his brother to attend a school that treated him like family.

On this day, Laurie accepted all the children on faith. More oft en than not, they lived up to that trust. The proof was all around her.

In the cafeteria she spotted a confident-looking junior wearing the white shirt and orange and navy tie of a student athlete. Just eighteen months earlier, his mother had arrived at Walker sobbing. Her son had recently been arrested for attempted murder and she doubted any school would admit him. "What am I supposed to do now?" she had cried.

Laurie heard the story, saw the electronic ankle bracelet, and agreed to give it a try. Over time the teen thrived at Walker, defying his own stunted ambitions for himself. "He didn't know how good a person he was," Laurie says. "But he could have gone the other way."

Not every story has a happy ending. Laurie knew that all too well. But she pushed such thoughts from her mind today. Even in her late fifties, Laurie still viewed back-to-school season with the hope and excitement of a child.

During the morning, Laurie's pace was relaxed, her exchanges playful. She teased, cajoled, reprimanded, or praised nearly every student she passed as she walked around the worn-down campus. The students called out for her to join in when she arrived in the makeshift dance studio. But Laurie demurred: "I only got one move, one move, baby," she said. "And it was old when I was young."

In the afternoon, however, Laurie's tone grew more urgent and her steps quickened. With just a couple hours before dismissal, several students still awaited schedules or the final paperwork they needed to enroll. They sat in the cafeteria and main office, growing anxious and bored. Laurie wanted them all in class—any class—ASAP. "We're taking too long, get this young man a schedule!" she barked at an administrator. "Come on, baby, let's put you in band for now.

"We've got to move them through, move them through, so they can start their regular classes tomorrow!"

After more than three de cades working in schools, Laurie knew that most days would not be like this one. On other mornings, the crowd of devoted parents, grandparents, and older brothers would be gone. So, too, would be much of the energy, the excitement, the sense of possibility and new beginnings. She needed to capitalize on that energy. She had to get the children through the door and into classes while they wanted to be there. Once inside, she hoped they would connect with a teacher, a classmate, the feel of a horn in their hand, or the rush of a football practice—before they sought their thrills elsewhere. There wasn't a second to lose.

Some students she might not be able to keep for all the time she wanted. But hundreds of families had brought her their children on what she described as "the Christmas of school days." And Laurie intended to hold on to them for as long as she could.

Excerpted from Hope Against Hope by SARAH CARR. Copyright © 2013 by Sarah Carr. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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