In New Orleans, over this last decade, it has taken not just a village but a whole community to do so many things: reassemble, rebuild, repair, redesign, reimagine, and regain the soul and spirit that I first caught a glimpse of back when I visited in 2008. In the intervening 8 years much has changed, and it was wonderful to experience the frenetic vibrancy and energy, hyper quirky characters, and eclectic culture that makes New Orleans such a unique City (as well as a mecca for conventions, there were I think around 10 different conventions being held during my stay last week!)
The wider psyche across the City however is a hugely complex mesh of past, present and future, and this was the first City I have visited on this trip where I interacted on a deeper level with the multiple tensions, undercurrents and contradictions which are pulling to define and direct different visions of the future. And these undercurrents include strong and sharp forces around race and racism, identity, poverty, power, politics and political cultures, and voices in change.
This is actually a really hard piece to write in reflecting on my time and experiences last week, and in trying to make some sense of these interrelated themes, most of which I have a very limited understanding of. For this piece I’m going to focus on the building and defining of new communities in education, but I also want to highlight some of the things I was left questioning and wondering at the end of the week.
Hurricane Katrina was a defining moment in the recent history of New Orleans, leading to manifest changes on all levels including across and within the City’s education system. Pre-Katrina, education provision in the City was deemed to be failing and outcomes for young people were close to being the worst in the US. The movement towards reform had already begun, however change was accelerated post Katrina with the City takeover of all schools, the sacking and partial re-employment of teachers, and mass ‘charterisation’ (the equivalent of the move towards academisation in England), as a means for rapidly improving schools and managing the demographic changes.
There are many many people better placed to provide insight and narrative on this than me — for example:
Jay Altman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xC-8JOdIiE
New Schools for New Orleans: http://www.newschoolsforneworleans.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Public-School-Resurgence-Full-Report-FINAL.pdf
(American friends — please feel free to suggest others)
System evolution has since moved at a fast pace, driven significantly by the vast numbers of people and organisations from across the US who have gravitated to New Orleans post Katrina, as well as high levels of capital investment and strategic vision.
I asked Adrien Maught, COO of Rooted School, why there had been such a ‘brain pull’ to a City that at the time resembled a disaster zone, and he described the phenomenon of the millenial generation seeking and needing a purpose, and wanting to be part of the challenge and effect change. In fact the Founder of Rooted School, Jonathan Johnson, an inspiring teacher and education entrepreneur, was one such person. He told me his story of growing up in a low income family in Southern California and watching the disaster and response unfold, sparking a feeling that he just had to do something. So he went to College and got onto the Teach for America programme, moving to NOLA to teacher at one of the first KIPP charter schools in the City.
People plus organisational capacity plus investment and tools for enterprise have proved a powerful combination in the reconstruction of New Orleans, including in transforming the education sector. And high levels of agitation and anger — as well as the obvious pressing need — have been important psychological motivations at individual and system level.
The City now has a thriving and close knit innovation ecosystem in education, with its epicentre at 423 Magazine Street and home of 4.0 Schools, which Tom Vander Ark has described as probably the best school innovation and design catalyst in the US. 4.0 Schools is one of a number of accelerator and catalyst type organisations which have popped up across the City, a ‘clustering of capability’ as it were, developing strong and positive network effects.
These catalysts have a number of important functions within the ecosystem, including (and building on my learning from across the Bay Area):
- enabling the creation of communities or clusters around issues and challenges — bringing diverse communities together to solve grassroots education issues
- giving a voice and platform to individuals at the grassroots and a way into the system
- acting as a talent magnet, drawing together people with an innovation mindset, and framing a collaborative focus on impact
- constructing and shaping powerful and impactful conversations
- creating momentum and energy, and collective risk taking (strength in numbers)
- providing space and time through targeted resource
4.0 Schools programmes provide pathways to innovation on a number of different levels, most powerfully at the very micro level for example through the Tiny Fellowship, which allows individuals to test their ideas and develop a proof of concept.
Very excitingly I was in town for the second annual PitchNOLA Education, a joint 4.0 Schools and Propeller incubator pitching competition, profiling a diverse range of ideas and grassroots led innovations. Following the competition the winning projects now have access to other 4.0 or Propeller social innovation programmes to further develop their projects or businesses.
As the MC for the evening highlighted, these pitching events have proved to be an important platform for people in the community to ‘voice insights and genius on the challenges the City faces’ (around education and youth). And as an audience member later commented to much applause, it was great to see the broad community working together to tackle challenges and difference, where politics in many ways is failing and exacerbating such difference.
Since its inception 4.0 Schools has built a powerful community of edu-preneurs, providing the space, structure, insight, capital and networks needed for change making — and leading education innovation thinking across the USA in exploring new ideas around prototyping and de-risking innovation. Linked to the points above, its effectiveness is powered by the high density of risk taking individuals and groups that make entrepreneurial pathways the norm rather than the exception.
Matt Candler, CEO, is an extremely interesting thinker, and one of 4.0s most recent missions has been around the development of Micro and Tiny Schools. These are schools typically with around 150–250 students, developed through a rapid prototyping innovation model of ‘pop up’ schools which allows for continual iteration, feedback and flex. Through this model new ideas can be tested quickly and effectively — leading to lower risk for entrepreneurs and also reduced impact if ineffective.
I spent the day at Nola Micro Schools, which opened in 2015 and is currently colocated in a renovated market hall, and was co-designed by Matt Candler and Kim Gibson, school principal and another force of nature in the ed innovation world. (And someone else who had originally moved to New Orleans post Katrina to be involved in rebuild efforts)
Similar to Big Picture Learning the school is also very much an unschool school in its design, with a focus on student driven and enabled learning, play and deep inquiry. The school currently has 28 students across 2 year groups, and will eventually be an all through school across four ‘learning studios’.
A number of things stood out to me during the day and from talking to staff and students, in thinking about the power of the micro model:
- the strength of relationships across the school community — including relationship dynamics and the range of personalities which enmesh to build a strong community
- highly self directed and also community directed learning across the school — ongoing balance and flex around autonomy
- including peer led and peer defined personalisation — for example their approach to target setting and assessment which is peer led through a ‘running buddy’ approach, and designed around a challenge wheel where students are constantly pushing themselves outside of their comfort zone. It’s a brilliant tool — simple, personal, powerful as a reflective and personal development tool, and for structuring conversations
- culture building through shout outs at the end of the day, building the value system and interpersonal relationships
- their approach to conflict resolution and mediation, allowing ‘conflicts’ to progress either unchallenged or mediated through student debate, fascinating to watch
- tech driven personalisation in its truest sense, in sourcing specific learning platforms for students even at an individual level where necessary, depending on student needs in a particular curriculum area
I also spent time with the team at Rooted School, a new micro High School which is opening next September and designed to provide high level pathways into the tech and digital sector as an alternative to College, addressing acute and emerging skills needs across key employment sectors in New Orleans. Their curriculum is designed around rapid skill development, and with the aim of providing students with the opportunity to access graduate level jobs without the need for a degree. A similar ethos and driver to Make School but at High School level, and also similar to the Studio School model which I have previously worked on in the UK.
Micro schools, and start up schools more generally, have to be agile and resourceful in their nature, and talking to Kim, Jonathan and Adrien it was clear that they are all highly effective in making connections and leveraging a range of partnerships and resources.
It was particularly impressive to see the way that Kim and her staff team mobilise community assets and resources, from developing multiple learning spaces and opportunities for learning across the City, to drawing on the personal resource of parents and other stakeholders. For me it really brought my thinking back to that notion that it takes a village or community to raise a child, and that education should in a sense be the responsibility of a range of stakeholders, not just the teacher in a school building. (And who in both the UK and USA is regularly scapegoated for failure or lack of ‘progress’, taken to another level in the US through things such as the teacher jail!) Drawing on the assets and knowledge of the wider community also recognises and values the importance of life learning across home, family, and friendship settings and cultures.
And finally…I feel it’s important to say something briefly on the undercurrents and tensions across the City that I encountered, invariably tied into poverty.
Jonathan told me a heartbreaking story of a young African American student he had taught whilst a teacher at KIPP, who was on course to come top in Louisiana State tests and gain a full scholarship to College, when he was murdered due to involvement in the drug trade to support his family. This experience had in part motivated Jonathan to set up Rooted School — as he said to me, ‘what is the point of an education system that delivers great test results and gets kids into College, but does nothing to address the serial conditions of poverty and life realities of young people. The school community and wider network needs to respond to this too.’
Racial bias in education also regularly came up in conversations during the week, and Jonathan also made an extremely interesting point related to his time at KIPP and how their work on growth mindsets in education had been very much a paradigm shifter around perceptions of African American underachievement, as well as other destructive narratives related to low income communities. (see the work of Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth)
I also had a lengthy and insightful conversation with an African American cab driver who lived in the Lower 9th ward, one of the worst affected and still by the sounds it devastated areas of New Orleans post Katrina (they still don’t even have a local grocery store). He had two teenage children both attending different charter schools, and gave a very different perspective on the changes that had taken place through the move towards mass charters. He described a City largely segregated by school type, with poverty concentrations in certain neighbourhoods and around certain schools, exacerbated by the highly competitive nature of the admissions system, which favours the knowledgeable and sharp elbowed. He described the pitting of different low income communities against each other in accessing resources, although this could be symptomatic of wider access to and allocation of resources, and was vociferously angry about what he perceived as corruption in the awarding of school management and school service contracts. (sadly a problem we are now seeing in the UK also with some MATs)
With most of the locals I spoke with, political corruption was a top anxiety and source of resentment. The extent to which this is true and reflective of the reality in New Orleans I have no idea, or the degree to which it has been whipped up by politicians and the media. But it does I think say something about who has a voice or is perceived to have a voice, how power is dispersed, and who participates and contributes to civic society and decision making. And in New Orleans power, race and poverty are still deeply strong and interrelated spectrums.
*I started writing this piece on Monday 7th November and am now posting on Friday 11th November. In the intervening 4 days Donald Trump has been elected President of the USA. These four latter points above could not be more relevant in the context of his ascendancy, and the fragments of the popular mood and angst that he has captured, stoked and inflamed.
It now makes our job as educators and community builders vitally more important, and has magnified the role of schools and education systems in building and bridging communities across all level of societal divides, and in developing understanding. Our next generation need to be equipped to navigate the breakdown of old certainties and enabled to define new ones, achieve success and fulfilment in life in whatever form this may be, and a good standard of living with economic security and opportunity.