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Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children Hardcover – February 26, 2013
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*Starred Review* In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with so many schools destroyed and destabilized, New Orleans was viewed as fertile ground for educational reform. Charter schools, staffed mostly by young teachers new to the area, rushed to fill the void in a city whose public schools had long been failing. Education reporter Carr chronicles the lives of students and faculty at three charter high schools, Walker, Sci Academy, and KIPP Renaissance, as they struggled to meet mounting expectations for academic performance. Carr focuses on Geraldlynn, a high-school freshman; idealistic teacher Aidan, a Harvard grad who struggled to keep pace with the ambitious goals set for the school; and Mary Laurie, a New Orleans native and veteran teacher, who became principal of one of the first public schools to reopen after Katrina. Carr deftly explores the complexities of school reform and the tensions between newcomers unfamiliar with the culture of New Orleans and educators and parents suspicious of their intent. But Carr goes beyond New Orleans to examine the broader issues of education reform in urban areas throughout the nation as students and parents are caught in a clash of cultures and ideas on how to repair failing school systems and educate inner-city children. --Vanessa Bush
Hope Against Hope takes place in a New Orleans ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, but even more important in journalist Sarah Carr's story is a highly unnatural disaster: American poverty. Carr's book takes an intimate look at the real people—students, principals, teachers—affected by "school reform," a slippery term that means privatization, a weakening of teachers' unions and elected school boards, and an increasing dependence on testing data. The book is a tremendous achievement, and should be required reading on all sides of these debates. —Liza Featherstone
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I am very happy to say that "Hope Against Hope" reverses the prevailing dynamic and focuses on the personal narratives and perceptions of those who must engage with school reform on a day-to-day basis. The trifurcated focus on three different actors within the New Orleans school system (a principal with deep roots in the local community, a Harvard TFA alum who now teaches in a new charter school, and a family with experience in both the older public new system and the new charter regime) can hardly be describes as "innovative" yet provides a desperately needed counterweight to the abstract and politically charged accounts of educational elites.
Carr's emphasis on the thoughts and actions of her primary characters (bolstered by a host of supporting players) allows her to pull off a subtle but important trick; she is able to humanize her characters to the point where the reader can absorb Carr's criticisms of prevailing attitudes while still appreciating the good intentions of different interest groups. This is not an accident; Carr opens her book with a declared intention to frame the conflict over education reform as one born of personal experiences rather than partisan politics. Her criticisms of American education, which acknowledge the failures of past educational regimes but are more concretely directed at the current "magic bullet" ideology of charter schools, carry more weight than other criticisms because they are carefully framed by events at New Orleans schools and the perceptions of the people served by them. It's a welcome change of pace from the more sweeping and dramatic rhetoric employed elsewhere.
But perhaps the greatest revelation in this book is Geraldlynn, the young girl who we first encounter as a freshman at a new KIPP high school. At one point Carr refers to Geraldlynn as a "Greek chorus of one" for the events at her school. And indeed, Geraldlynn proves to be remarkably attuned to the promise and problems associated with her school. The experiences of Geraldlynn's family provide some desperately needed insight into the aspirations and burdens of the populations school reform is supposed to benefit. Geraldlynn herself is neither a dramatic charter student success story nor an obvious failure, which together with her observational skills lends her commentary a unique form of credibility. Of all the education writers I've encountered, only Jonathan Kozol has given ordinary students such a large platform to express their thoughts and feelings - yet Carr provides a more thorough treatment of Geraldlynn's evolving perceptions and places then within the context of broader changes within New Orleans and across the country.
This book is a laudable effort to fill a massive narrative gap in our national discussion about the future of education. While I don't completely buy into Carr's assertion that New Orleans is truly representative of other places throughout the country, the same times of problems, motivations, and forces are certainly at work in other districts. Some aspects of school reform (such as the campaign against teacher unions) cannot be covered effectively in a book like this, but Carr has written an excellent and engaging book that works equally well as a supplement to more abstract and politicized narratives or as a thoughtful introduction for the general reader.
Discussion of education in an urban setting by necessity must involve a discussion of race and socio-economic status. This book guides the reader to a deeper understanding of these issues through story-telling. For example, consider the recipient of a full tuition scholarship who can't afford to pay the initial deposit or to buy the textbooks. It's great that a scholarship exists that is targeted to racially-diverse, needy students ... but it ends up not helping because it doesn't cover enough. This book is full of such examples of where intentions fall short and children pay the price.