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'Rebirth: New Orleans' Examines Post-Katrina School Experiment

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Veteran education reporter John Merrow opens "Rebirth: New Orleans," his documentary about how that city's schools have been transformed since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with a jaw-dropping comment from a then-member of the city's school board.

"We got lucky," Jimmy Fahrenholtz tells Merrow in the fall of 2005, appearing a bit insensitive to the more than 1,100 deaths and the $100 billion in destruction caused by Katrina. "The storm has come through and done the damage," he adds. "Look at what we can take from that. It's a tool."

The comments rank up there with "Heck of a job, Brownie!" President George W. Bush's infamously naive compliment to his FEMA director after the hurricane. But plenty of others in Louisiana saw the same opportunity in the wake of Katrina, which scattered New Orleans' 65,000 students.

"The greatest experiment in the history of American education was about to begin," says Merrow, the longtime education correspondent for PBS' "NewsHour."

"Rebirth: New Orleans" debuts Tuesday on Netflix. It has had screenings here and there since last spring, including in the Crescent City. Merrow relies on his trove of "NewsHour" footage from past visits to New Orleans, including both before and after Katrina.

That's a good thing for this documentary, since an education story like this one benefits from a longitudinal approach. But the one-hour film is no clip job, either. Merrow strives to put the New Orleans developments in context and appears to have done numerous interviews specifically for the documentary.

The film is about the effects of the state of Louisiana's takeover of the chronically poorly performing New Orleans school system, through the state's Recovery School District, after Katrina. The RSD enlisted charter school operators to run most of the reopened schools.

As a teacher at one of the first reopened schools puts it in the film, "We were slaves to the old system. But the shackles have been removed from us. So now we are free."

But the early months and years of the experiment were rocky. Leslie Jacobs, then a member of the state board of education, says, "We were flying, designing, and building the plane simultaneously."

In the fall of 2007, the energetic Paul Vallas arrives as superintendent of the RSD. Charter operators such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), Sci Academy, and others, many staffed by young, fresh-faced teachers from the Teach For America program, settles in after what is discussed as a rigorous authorization process. 

Some of the young teachers are clearly ineffective, leading one parent to question why such a challenging job is being turned over to neophytes. "How many people go into a hospital and say, 'Give me the brand new doctor, the one who has never done surgery'?" says the parent.

(Teachers employed by old school district were dismissed, an action challenged in the courts with some success. The ousted teachers have won back pay, though the case is still being litigated, the film notes.)

By 2011, President Barack Obama is extolling the transformation of the New Orleans schools, but there are problems. Merrow interviews critic Lance Hill, a Tulane University-based researcher who says a two-tiered system has evolved. Charter schools of various stripes are educating 70 percent of the city's students, but with wide latitude to expel troublemakers and those who pose special challenges. These students go to traditional public schools, which Hill calls "dumping schools."

"In those schools, no learning takes place whatsoever," Hill says in the film.

Meanwhile, at Sci Academy charter school, there is a strict code of conduct, including white lines painted in school hallways for students to follow at times. An observer notes that the same type of lines are painted in prisons. The school tinkers with its discipline code, and even brings in ex-convicts to mentor some students.

Students with disabilities are another challenge for the charter schools, with some parents saying their children were steered away. The Southern Poverty Law Center has sued the RSD and other parties over the issue, Merrow notes.

Merrow touches quite a few angles and packs a lot into the hour. There are no gratuitous city shots of the French Quarter or riverboats on the Mississippi, though there is a jazz score that the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis created especially for the film. 

In the end, Merrow is as upbeat as much of Marsalis' soundtrack about the experiment's chances for success, though he acknowledges that much work remains to be done and more than one-third of New Orleans students are still failing.

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