Long before Hurricane Katrina dealt its first blows to New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, the city’s public education system was home to some of the poorest-performing schools in the country and state.
Before the storm made landfall, two out of three of the schools in the Big Easy were failing. In the days and weeks after the Katrina struck, and as her floods subsided, it became apparent that many of the local school facilities were ravaged with rot, mold and mildew. Some were altogether destroyed. In Katrina’s wake, 7,000 of the district’s teachers were laid off.
Chartering Change Through Innovation
City and state officials were left with little choice but to completely reinvent New Orleans’ already-ailing school system, replacing the majority of its traditional, largely low-income schools with entrepreneurial mindset- and technology-driven charter schools. The bold move — which led to a 73 percent spike in the district’s graduation rate, as well as higher standardized test scores — offers a glimpse into the innovative, outside-of-the-box ways in which American cities can successfully solve widespread problems by thinking like trailblazing entrepreneurs.
The progress pioneered by education reformers, from near and far, is alive and well in the city’s thriving edtech startup ecosystem today, said Catherine Gans, communications manager for Propeller, a leading startup accelerator and incubator in the heart of the Big Easy. Still, there are many more strides to be made in the city, which ranked among the top 25 rising American tech epicenters on the latest Innovation That Matters study, a joint project between Free Enterprise, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and 1776.
“Post-Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans remains in the midst of an entrepreneurial renaissance, with entrepreneurial activity at 56 percent above the national average…” she told Free Enterprise. “That growth, however, has been for more exclusive than inclusive. Not only do minority-owned businesses still make up just two percent of the city’s receipt, communities of color are still not receiving the benefits of that economic growth.”
Entrepreneurial Answers to Systemic Problems
As Gans sees it, that glaring inequity, as it relates to educational growth, is proof that New Orleans “still needs entrepreneurial solutions to tackle the widening achievement gap between students of color and their white peers.”
Propeller is doing its part to narrow the gap by giving edtech entrepreneurs a leg up on launching and scaling grassroots startups that address problems in education.
“We grow and support entrepreneurs to solve our city’s most pressing disparities in food, water, health and education,” Gans said. “We offer them support through our accelerator programs, pitch competitions, help with policy advocacy and access to capital, and more.”
Propelling Growth in the Rising EdTech Sector
From its colorful, 10,000-square-foot co-working space on 4035 Washington Ave., a short jaunt from Tulane University and the New Orleans Job Corps Center, Propeller’s dedicated staff and advisors have helped launch several innovative early startup ventures focused on bridging socio-economic and minority education inequities at the local and national level.
A sampling of them include: Overcoming Racism, a consulting firm that facilitates anti-racism professional development training with teachers and school administrators; Electric Girls, a summer camp and STEM education provider that has served hundreds of girls (ages 5 to 14) in the Greater New Orleans environs through summer technology camps, after-school partnerships, weekend programs and one-day workshops; and Whetstone Education, a small company that provides school administrators with data analytics tools designed to quantifiably improve teacher training and student outcomes.
Libby Fischer is one of the three educators who launched Whetstone Education in 2011. Under her guidance, the startup has rolled out its customizable teacher-coaching and administrative classroom observation analytics platform in 300-plus schools nationally, including in New Orleans.
Whetstone’s software products enable school leaders to take observational notes, plan meetings, share feedback and analyze teacher growth, all in a single, efficient digital space, giving administrators back 10 percent of their time so they can spend more of it personally assisting students and teachers.
Fischer says part of why she chose to anchor Whetstone out of the New Orleans is that it’s generally an open-minded small town wrapped in a city, a place where students and teachers are eager to try out new technologies and alternative curricula — all with the greater goal of producing more effective, hands-on learning experiences.
“New Orleans is really open to innovation,” the Teach For America corps member, who taught Spanish to 650-plus kindergarten students in the Mississippi Delta, told Free Enterprise. “Post-Katrina, when the city took on the task of rebuilding, there was a mindset of ‘What can we do better this time?’”
She continued: “There is a culture of beta testing adoption in our schools that I’ve never experienced elsewhere. When I say, ‘We’ve got something new,’ everybody raises their hand with the expectation that they’re going to help us make it better.”
On top of relatively seamlessly tapping into a demographic that readily welcomes new ideas and technologies, Fischer says her startup benefits from the city’s “built-in network of early adopters who are willing to give you constant feedback to help you better match your product to users’ needs.”
Beyond Startups, Players of All Sizes Are Welcome
Propeller doesn’t just work with early-stage startups like Fischer’s in its quest to improve education in the Silicon Bayou. Last year, the accelerator-incubator collaborated with some larger, legacy corporate companies, such as Capital One, to get the job done.
“New Orleans’ charter school landscape also gives schools the independence and flexibility to implement innovative programs,” Gans said, “like the one Propeller recently partnered with Capital One to install and open the city’s first in-school maker space at Mildred Osborne Charter School.”
Additionally, Propeller has closely coordinated with officials in the public sector, at the state and federal level, in concert with the School Food Authority (SFA) of Louisiana’s Healthy School Food Collaborative. The joint project provided New Orleans school children with a host of new — and nutritious, sustainable and affordable — lunch options.
“These [SFA] services help relieve schools from administrative and compliance burdens related to standards and regulations of the USDA,” said Gans, “and ultimately aim to decrease obesity rates…”
Supported Teachers, Happier Students
At the end of the day, the good work Fischer, her fellow Propeller edtecch startup founder graduates and other education-focused entrepreneurs across the city are doing boils down to two things — restoring the joy of learning to children, the ultimate benefactors of their efforts, and supporting the teachers who instill within them a sense of wonder.
“When I was a teacher, my principal rarely came into my classroom. I really struggled…” Fischer said. “I felt isolated and ineffective some days, and I could have benefited from a leader observing my teaching and giving me advice on how to improve…My students would have been happier, and I probably would have stayed in the classroom much longer. I don’t want anyone to feel alone in their classroom like I did. I want to create a world where every teacher receives feedback every day, in every school, and that’s what we’re doing here in New Orleans.”