It's 8 a.m. and a gaggle of wide-awake first graders are bouncing about their classroom like Keystone Cops. When the lower-grades principal enters the room to deliver today's culture lesson, the students — referred to as "scholars" here at the Langston Hughes Academy charter school — weave their way between desks until most are sitting on a mat at the back of the room. For stragglers, instructions are delivered:
"Silently move to your squares and get into scholar positions." The young students — boys in white shirts and grey trousers, girls in plaid dresses — sit cross-legged and look up attentively at the young man with flowing locks, an athlete's physique, and an incongruous blue pinstripe suit. He leans against a desk's edge, wingtips on the floor, and offers the class an important life lesson via a baseball analogy.
"You know how a baseball manager shares secret signals with his players," he asks rhetorically, and then he demonstrates a few, touching his nose, chin, chest. The students — framed from behind by posters: "Dream. Do. Be." — nod in excited agreement. "Well, sometimes the manager wants a big hit . . . but sometimes he wants a bunt to help get a teammate home."
Without the kids knowing it, a lecture about character is in full swing. Next, the lower-grades principal points to a chart and the acronym CLASS-E — pronounced "classy," as in the ideals one needs to act with class. In unison, the children recite each letter's meaning: Community. Leadership. Affection. Sacrifice. Success. Enthusiasm. "Very good, scholars," says the young principal. Then, "Remember, without sacrifice there's no success." A closer inspection of the scholars, all but one of whom are African Americans, reveals several tattered uniforms. Clean, to be sure, but in need of mending. Many wear Chucks.
Welcome to Langston Hughes Academy, a free and public-yet-nearly-autonomous charter school that most traditional educators would consider too experimental. The two-year-old, open-admissions, open-enrollment academy serves low-income students from grades K-7. And the stakes are higher for these at-risk children because Langston Hughes is located in New Orleans, which was dealt a devastating blow when the costliest hurricane in U.S. history made landfall on August 25, 2005. Prior to Katrina, the Crescent City's school system was among the nation's worst. The pre-storm situation was so dire that the state legislature established a Recovery School District to take over underperforming schools. When you're talking about educational standards in New Orleans, the word recovery was being used long before Katrina.
Mark Martin (MBA '07), the lower-grades principal teaching kids about sacrifice and success, is not yet 30 — and he didn't call education his profession until just a few years ago. Stranger still, it was business training at the Terry College in Athens that helped prepare this reform-minded educator for the challenges of running a charter school in New Orleans.
Langston Hughes Academy is following a controversial path to educational reform by bypassing school board control and utilizing direct, in-school resource management as a more efficient way to effect change. But no school, no matter how unique or radical in concept, can succeed without proper fiscal direction and health — and that's where Martin's MBA from Terry outfitted him for this educational perfect storm, wherein a failing school system wiped clean by a tragic act of nature has been given a new lease on life.
And when we talk about new life at Langston Hughes Academy, we're not just talking about an attitudinal change, or lessons about character, or new, energetic personnel like Martin. We're also talking about a sea change in bricks and mortar. From modular trailers that had long since showed their age, Langston Hughes has just moved into a new $26.5 million, 98,000-square-foot facility paid for by FEMA and the federal government.
"It's strange to say it," says Martin, "but education reform is Katrina's silver lining."