Abram Olmstead  | June 20, 2013

A Fresh Start for Education in the Big Easy Spawns Startups

Education reform is a constant on the minds of parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers. But after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans didn’t need to reform its education system—it needed to rebuild it.

When 110 of New Orleans’ 127 public schools were destroyed by Katrina, the city had a virtually blank slate and didn’t waste the opportunity. Before the hurricane, New Orleans public school student performance was at the bottom of national rankings, and two-thirds of city schools were rated “academically unacceptable” by the state. Education Next’s Jed Horne wrote, “Students graduating with honors were sometimes incapable of elementary mathematics and some were barely able to read. One high-school valedictorian failed the graduate exit exam and then failed it some more—five times all told—and this was the school’s top student.”

In the wake of the storm, the city turned over education operations to the state-run Recovery School District (RSD). The RSD team put its faith in charter schools (80% of New Orleans students are in charter schools—dramatically higher than any other U.S. city), and, almost eight years later, it’s difficult to argue with the numbers. Today, 34% of students are in low-performing schools, down markedly from 67% before Katrina. The graduation rate has climbed from 55 percent to over 75 percent.

“We’ve helped close the achievement gap in the state,” said Kenneth Campbell, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, an organization that promotes parental choice in education. “New Orleans is the fastest growing district in terms of student achievement and has been for the last five years.”

The charter system has meant greater autonomy and flexibility for schools. “It gives me such pride because I know that as a community we are running this school,” said Sharon Clark, charter director of the Sophie B. Wright Charter School. “We’re not waiting on bureaucracy in the district just to alter the type of textbooks or workbooks or the clubs that we want to have—that’s a great feeling as an educator.”

As New Orleans made massive improvements to its education rankings, it was also growing in its level of entrepreneurial activity—some 40% above the national average in 2011, according to Brookings. Tim Williamson, co-founder and CEO of startup accelerator The Idea Village, said, “When Katrina hit, New Orleans became a startup city. Everyone was an entrepreneur overnight because we all had to rebuild houses, neighborhoods, networks—with limited resources.”

The Idea Village’s New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, now in its fifth year, holds annual pitch contests and draws thousands of participants. Jim Coulter, a private equity investor who helps sponsor the event, told ABC, “Post Katrina it was clear that New Orleans needed to remake itself in the aftermath of what was a terrible tragedy. And ultimately to remake itself it had to lean not only on government but on business. And the fastest way to emerge as a business center was, quite frankly, to become an entrepreneurial center.”

It’s no surprise that the entrepreneurially-minded city that is rebuilding its school system has fostered a collection of education startups. Two of these startups were winners of venture capital at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week: the growing Kickboard was a winner in 2010, and Education Everytime was one of the funded finalists this year.

  • Kickboard: Jen Medbery came to New Orleans as a math teacher for charter school Sci Academy, and evolved into an entrepreneur when she saw an opportunity to fill a void that standardized tests cannot. Kickboard is a dashboard that lets teachers analyze student performance and behavior. Is a “C” representative of the student’s math skills, or does that student have a solid grasp of fractions but lack understanding of ratios? Kickboard can help teachers go beyond test scores—and it’s catching on beyond the Bayou. Now in use in 11 states, Medbery told Fast Company that Kickboard is seeing increased demand, but also “the eagerness of teachers and school leaders to adopt a more analytical approach to teaching and learning.”
  • Education Everytime: Lorenzo Castillo has found there’s a rhythm to learning and he’s using music to fine tune student efficiency. The one-time detention mainstay was changed when he began attending a KIPP public charter school in Houston, so much so that he went on to be a Teach for America corps member. As a teacher, he integrated music and found that his students learned more and responded to routine. “I made everything into a song,” he told The Times Picayune. “Like a class playlist, basically, and I played it every single day.” The playlist worked like a “Pavlovian” trigger, cuing students to the next task. The program has quadrupled the pass rate of struggling math students at KIPP Houston, and has cut class transition times in half at KIPP New Orleans Leadership Academy, according to the company’s testimonial page