Former Milwaukee education reporter writes about New Orleans

Sarah Carr, a former Milwaukee education reporter who moved to New Orleans in 2007 to cover schools in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, sees some similarities in both troubled public education systems.

“I think they both have their strengths and their weaknesses,” Carr said in a recent interview.

“I think both places have great and awful schools.”

In her new book , titled ”Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children,” Carr writes about the New Orleans school system by focusing on the personal lives of various figures struggling to educate students in a city still suffering from the aftermath of Katrina.

Her book reports the progress of  three different New Orleans schools in a city where charter reform movement has brought about drastic change for poor minority students , administrators and teachers. Carr took a personal approach to interviewing her subjects in order to tell the greater story of the challenges involved in a community where social conditions have a large impact on the education of students.

Carr, who covered the local school choice movement during her time as an education reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, sees  similarities in both places.

Carr told me in an interview that she didn’t leave Milwaukee to go to New Orleans to write a book about education but her job as a reporter for the local Times-Picayune sparked an interest in writing more deeply about schools, parents and students in a way that was difficult to do given the constraints of daily journalism.

After leaving her full-time job at the Times-Picayune, she worked on her book for three years.

The public education system in New Orleans differs from Milwaukee in that there are many more charter schools that compete for students with the traditional public school system. It’s still a challenging situation with both public and charter schools having to deal with the way many low-income families were impacted by Katrina.

That’s why Carr has come to believe that just saving schools in troubled cities is probably not enough to improve life in some areas with huge challenges on residents unless bigger issues are also addressed.

“Just fixing schools isn’t the answer,” said Carr. “More needs to be done.”

Specifically, she mentioned the need to also address the poverty, crime and high unemployment in cities like New Orleans – and Milwaukee – where the dire conditions in some areas threaten to doom any progressive education reform unless the city also dealt with the larger social problems.

Writing about the huge problems in New Orleans prompted Carr look closer at the smaller stories that underline why public education is in such a crisis state across the country.

Education is a hot button issue for many elected officials but Carr thinks the solution won’t come with political dickering between partisan groups: “The solutions must be savvy and sophisticated.”

The response to her book has been “heartening,” she said; her main intent was to present a fair and balanced portrait.

A review in Publishers’ Weekly praised the reporting in her book, calling her handling of the subjects and issues “closely reported … detailed and thoughtful.”

Carr said she decided to write in a narrative style in order to bring readers closer to the individuals involved. “I wanted to take a broader view, driven by the people themselves, not policy or ideology.”

Sarah said she believed many poor parents with children in under-performing schools do want more options for their children but often get lost maneuvering through bureaucracy involved in multiple school systems.

“Families do like to have choices,” she said, using a word that’s become a buzzword for a certain kind of public education in Milwaukee. But Carr thinks the debate over what is the best kind of education shouldn’t be dictated by politicians.

Carr will appear in Madison and Milwaukee later this month on a promotional tour, including an event at Boswell Book Co. on Downer Avenue on Tuesday, March 19 at 7 p.m.

She’ll be talking about what she found in New Orleans but the story will likely be very familiar for those concerned about education in Milwaukee.

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