She went to New Orleans to clean up after Hurricane Katrina – and stayed to start a charter school

After Hurricane Katrina, Channa Mae Cook cofounded Sojourner Truth, a charter school with an emphasis on community service and social justice issues, to help lift up New Orleans’ embattled school system.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted December 20, 2010 at 11:27 am EST

New Orleans — The aftermath of hurricane Katrina has resulted in what locals here call a “brain gain”: Educated and passionate young people are settling in New Orleans to play a role in its rebirth.

Take Channa Mae Cook. The city’s comeback story surely will include a chapter on her Sojourner Truth Academy, a coed charter high school with a curriculum tailored around social justice.

The school offers open enrollment. “We take anybody who comes to our door,” says Ms. Cook, its principal and cofounder.

In its first year, just over 100 students showed up for class. Two years later, enrollment stands at 260. Students are bused in from every quarter of New Orleans.

Cook helped open Sojourner Truth a little more than a year after arriving in New Orleans in early 2007 as a volunteer in the aftermath of Katrina. Some 80 percent of the city had been affected by floodwaters.

She painted hallways at an elementary school and helped organize and restock its damaged library. She also met educators who were sharing ideas about how the city’s public school system, plagued by student poverty, financial duress, and administrative impropriety, could be reshaped.

Two months later, she and cofounder Kristin Leigh Moody submitted their proposal to open a charter school. They were aided by New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit organization that matches educators with donors who want to reinvigorate the city’s struggling public-school system.

“We needed to get high-quality schools started quickly,” says Maggie Runyan-Shefa, managing director of schools for the organization. “[Cook] had the willingness to leave her family and friends and a level of professional achievement to move to New Orleans to start a school for a population she really believed in. At the time, not many people were willing to do that.”

Cook made a leap of faith to move from Los Angeles, where she had taught high school English and later worked training teachers.

The curriculum at Sojourner Truth makes connections between such issues as citizenship, equity, and leadership through great works of literature, a survey of historical events, and public-service work, making those lessons tangible to students.

Students may be assigned a theme – “what does it mean to be an innocent bystander?” for instance – and then track it by reading Elie Wiesel’s novel “Night,” or learning about the Rwandan genocide or South African apartheid.

Students are required to fulfill a community service project. Seniors must give 25 hours to a project that shows that not only did they identify a community need, they figured out a way to fill it successfully.

Besides her mother, a physical education teacher in Los Angeles, Cook says her biggest influence has been black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, whose writings showed the pivotal role African-Americans played in US history and who was a firm believer in a liberal arts education.

“Education is really the thing that he was talking about,” she says. “It’s the key to turning things around for students in urban settings. It’s the reversal to the cycle of poverty and inequity and the complacency that I felt so many African-American children had.”

Structuring a school around those ideas wasn’t easy. While some locals said “go back to where you came from,” she says, “on the other end of the spectrum, there were people who said, ‘I can’t believe you dropped everything in your own life after this storm to come here and do what you’re doing. You are a New Orleanian. Thank you, and stay here forever.’ “

The first year was spent in a former parochial school building shared by the city’s juvenile court. Eventually Sojourner Truth took over the entire building – but only after Ms. Moody moved to Atlanta, leaving Cook to take on the leadership alone.

Half of her high school freshmen were reading at a kindergarten to second-grade level. “Kids were probably masking the fact they couldn’t read for years by being bad – getting kicked out of class, getting suspended, any way to get around people knowing they can’t read,” she says.

That wasn’t a unique problem. In the 2004-05 school year, 64 percent of New Orleans public schools were deemed “academically unacceptable” by state accountability standards, compared with a statewide average of 8 percent.

“I think New Orleans has the opportunity to really take what’s innovative and exciting about the successful charter school[s] and really have that influence the general public school[s]…,” says Molly Branson Thayer, director of literacy at the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, which provides support to New Schools for New Orleans.

At Sojourner Truth, Cook has hired reading specialists and dealt with discipline by requiring school uniforms, good manners, and respect for others. In its third year, the school is showing progress: Test scores are higher, the school just fielded its first football team, and enrollment is increasing due to word-of-mouth buzz.

Her mission is simple. “We want to keep [the students] in school and have them feel a measure of success, to have them aim for college even if they didn’t ever believe they could get there,” she says.

“I’m relentless about that.”

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