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Difference Maker

She went to New Orleans to clean up after Hurricane Katrina – and stayed to start a charter school

After Hurricane Katrina, Channa Mae Cook cofounded Sojourner Truth, a charter school with an emphasis on community service and social justice issues, to help lift up New Orleans' embattled school system.

By / staff writer / December 20, 2010

Channa Mae Cook cofounded the Sojourner Truth Academy, a coed charter high school in New Orleans with a curriculum tailored around social justice. Word-of-mouth buzz has enrollment rising.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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New Orleans

The aftermath of hurricane Katrina has resulted in what locals here call a "brain gain": Educated and passionate young people are settling in New Orleans to play a role in its rebirth.

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Take Channa Mae Cook. The city's comeback story surely will include a chapter on her Sojourner Truth Academy, a coed charter high school with a curriculum tailored around social justice.

The school offers open enrollment. "We take anybody who comes to our door," says Ms. Cook, its principal and cofounder.

In its first year, just over 100 students showed up for class. Two years later, enrollment stands at 260. Students are bused in from every quarter of New Orleans.

Cook helped open Sojourner Truth a little more than a year after arriving in New Orleans in early 2007 as a volunteer in the aftermath of Katrina. Some 80 percent of the city had been affected by floodwaters.

She painted hallways at an elementary school and helped organize and restock its damaged library. She also met educators who were sharing ideas about how the city's public school system, plagued by student poverty, financial duress, and administrative impropriety, could be reshaped.

Two months later, she and cofounder Kristin Leigh Moody submitted their proposal to open a charter school. They were aided by New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit organization that matches educators with donors who want to reinvigorate the city's struggling public-school system.

"We needed to get high-quality schools started quickly," says Maggie Runyan-Shefa, managing director of schools for the organization. "[Cook] had the willingness to leave her family and friends and a level of professional achievement to move to New Orleans to start a school for a population she really believed in. At the time, not many people were willing to do that."

Cook made a leap of faith to move from Los Angeles, where she had taught high school English and later worked training teachers.

The curriculum at Sojourner Truth makes connections between such issues as citizenship, equity, and leadership through great works of literature, a survey of historical events, and public-service work, making those lessons tangible to students.

Students may be assigned a theme – "what does it mean to be an innocent bystander?" for instance – and then track it by reading Elie Wiesel's novel "Night," or learning about the Rwandan genocide or South African apartheid.

Students are required to fulfill a community service project. Seniors must give 25 hours to a project that shows that not only did they identify a community need, they figured out a way to fill it successfully.

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