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.
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Besides her mother, a physical education teacher in Los Angeles, Cook says her biggest influence has been black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, whose writings showed the pivotal role African-Americans played in US history and who was a firm believer in a liberal arts education.Skip to next paragraph
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"Education is really the thing that he was talking about," she says. "It's the key to turning things around for students in urban settings. It's the reversal to the cycle of poverty and inequity and the complacency that I felt so many African-American children had."
Structuring a school around those ideas wasn't easy. While some locals said "go back to where you came from," she says, "on the other end of the spectrum, there were people who said, 'I can't believe you dropped everything in your own life after this storm to come here and do what you're doing. You are a New Orleanian. Thank you, and stay here forever.' "
The first year was spent in a former parochial school building shared by the city's juvenile court. Eventually Sojourner Truth took over the entire building – but only after Ms. Moody moved to Atlanta, leaving Cook to take on the leadership alone.
Half of her high school freshmen were reading at a kindergarten to second-grade level. "Kids were probably masking the fact they couldn't read for years by being bad – getting kicked out of class, getting suspended, any way to get around people knowing they can't read," she says.
That wasn't a unique problem. In the 2004-05 school year, 64 percent of New Orleans public schools were deemed "academically unacceptable" by state accountability standards, compared with a statewide average of 8 percent.
"I think New Orleans has the opportunity to really take what's innovative and exciting about the successful charter school[s] and really have that influence the general public school[s]...," says Molly Branson Thayer, director of literacy at the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute, which provides support to New Schools for New Orleans.
At Sojourner Truth, Cook has hired reading specialists and dealt with discipline by requiring school uniforms, good manners, and respect for others. In its third year, the school is showing progress: Test scores are higher, the school just fielded its first football team, and enrollment is increasing due to word-of-mouth buzz.
Her mission is simple. "We want to keep [the students] in school and have them feel a measure of success, to have them aim for college even if they didn't ever believe they could get there," she says.
"I'm relentless about that."