Hope Against Hope

Suspend your beliefs about charter schools before diving into Sarah Carr’s riveting first book, Hope Against Hope. Carr, a former education reporter for The Times-Picayune, is a trustworthy, lucid guide. Her book reveals, in great detail, the complexities of the charter school movement in a novel way: from the inside. Sidestepping ideology, Carr tells the stories of three New Orleans charter schools through contrasting perspectives of people who attend, teach in and lead them.

Witnessing the difficulty of bringing an open mind to this divisive, racially charged subject impelled Carr’s on-the-ground research. Immersing herself for months in the schools and lives of her “characters,” she asked herself “why people with the best of intentions can fight so bitterly; what principles and beliefs divide them; and how language can push them further apart.” The stakes, of course, couldn’t be higher—especially for the children, mostly poor and black, whose very existence depends on a course change in urban public education.

Geraldlynn Stewart, a ninth-grader at Kipp Renaissance in its inaugural year, is one such child. Carr calls Geraldlynn “a particularly astute observer of her [9th Ward] high school’s trials and shortcomings—a kind of Greek chorus of one.” She is just one of many children whose voices are woven into the text. But Carr’s recurrent focus on her perspective—in school assembly, in the classroom, at home in Treme, at a visit to Dillard University—underscores that what works and what doesn’t in charter schools will be rooted in the particular lives of their students.

Of the educators Carr tracks through academic year 2010-2011, one whose wisdom and effectiveness stand out is Principal Mary Laurie of O. Perry Walker High School in Algiers. In her late 50s, she’s one of the few black education leaders whose career survived Hurricane Katrina. Hers is a “24/7 school,” providing a haven for students, many of whom lack a stable home. Having lost two sons to gun violence, Laurie has a devotion to her students that transcends debate about pros and cons of charter schools. “In every child,” she says, “I see my children.”