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You have to see this handsome, new public elementary school located in New Orleans.

In this neighborhood, the question of will you send your child to a public school isn’t analogous to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. The choice is not personal; it’s collective. The neighborhood chooses to walk to school together.

If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because we’re not working toward it. But education reform needs a vision of a destination to know what we’re working toward.

So, you have to see this school.

If you arrive early enough, you will see that the faculty and staff are first to add color to the school’s tapestry. Veteran teachers walk a little bit more efficiently than their eager, 20-something counterparts, but they walk in together. However, I wouldn’t call them teachers as much as they should be deemed masters of their respective fields. Writers, mathematicians, scientists, and artists arrived daintily clothed in their academic identities, ready to usher their apprentices into their particular guilds.

We could easily walk to this inclusive building as most children who live near the school do. The only children who don’t walk can’t, and the school ensures they join the colorful procession. Hand in hand with their children, parents from every corner of the neighborhood confidently drop them off.

Students arrive promptly at 7:30 A.M. to receive a nutritious and tasty breakfast. The chef uses many of the fresh fruits and vegetables grown from the school’s edible garden or those from local farms. The chef also prepares New Orleans-style beignets and coffee, and the aroma calls parents to purchase them from the student run coffee shop.

You have to smell this school.

“…. education reform needs a vision of a destination to know what we’re working toward.”

If parents don’t immediately go to work, many grab a seat in the school’s small amphitheater to politely gossip over java. However, on Friday mornings, some parents stay to see the first grade’s weekly recital, which occurs reliably at 8:00 A.M. A particularly large crowd attended last week when Ms. Thomas had her students perform Hey Pocky A-Way by the Meters.

You have to hear this school.

This public school is not designed to build up poor children, and a picture of the parent association could not be lifted from a society page. Local history is honored, but its curriculum is built to not repeat the man-made disasters of the past. Its rigorous liberal arts curriculum is rooted in five pillars. Chief among the pillars is: all students will responsibly pursue truth. Second, resources are equitably dedicated to the intellectual, emotional, and physical wellbeing of every child. Third, depth is preferred over breadth. Fourth, the values of fairness, generosity and tolerance must be demonstrated in teacher, student, and caretakers’ behavior. And fifth, teaching and learning should be documented and assessed with tools based on student’s performances on real tasks

Many of its parents believe that students deserve to walk away from their liberal arts curriculum with concrete skills. So the neighborhood decided that if there are two things every graduate from the school must have the foundation to do, they are to build a better song and a stronger levee.

As a result, teachers place a musical and an architectural instrument in the hands of every child.

The school has an elected board, but that board doesn’t run dozens of other schools in areas miles and miles away. That board delivers monthly financial documents to the neighborhood at least one week prior to its transparent meetings. The board holds the leader accountable with metrics based on academic, behavioral, and community standards. The principal has the power to hire and fire their teachers, but site-based faculty-leader agreements provide students and teachers security.

Attendance is a priority. Every student in the neighborhood is accounted for. The mail carrier helps take attendance. Truancy is enforced by social workers. Students attend year round with short breaks for summer vacations, winter holidays and Carnival. No one is expelled. Black kids have the same likelihood of receiving an in-school suspension as white kids. In this school, discipline does not translate into punishment. Students do not enter the juvenile justice system through a disciplinary action. Multiple in-school suspensions trigger a referral to a community-based mental health provider for which the school pays.

When the final bell rings, every child has a home to return to. Working parents are not in poverty and non-working families are in school. Aftercare comes in the form of libraries, museums, afterschool initiatives, as well as sports and arts programs. Thereafter, students have enough time to do homework, bond with their families or play with their friends. Children close out the day with a good meal and good night’s rest. The children dream of the day to follow.

You have to believe in this school. More importantly, you have to believe in this neighborhood.

Choice is not a destination. Decentralization isn’t an end point. Having more charter schools isn’t a success. Reform must move towards a vision of a community so members can see how it’s progressing for them.

Andre Perry will offer suggestions on how to achieve this vision at the Rising Tide Conference in New Orleans on Saturday, September 13 at Xavier University. See the conference schedule for more details

Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).

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Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. Previously,...

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