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Movie Review: "Rebirth: New Orleans"

Dave Wilson

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city of New Orleans. In addition to causing billions of dollars of destruction rendered upon the city, including public schools, 65,000 students and teachers were displaced around the country.

2013’s documentary “Rebirth: New Orleans” tells the story of how those in power in Louisiana completely reshaped New Orleans’ schools partially using a charter school model. It uses the first-person stories of teachers, administrators and students to tell the triumphs and tragedies that come along with reshaping an entire system.

Narrated by longtime education journalist John Merrow, “Rebirth” begins with Merrow declaring, “The Greatest Experiment in the history of American Education was about to begin.” Of the daunting project, Leslie Jacobs, then on the Louisiana State Board of Education, said,  “We were flying, designing and building the plane simultaneously.”

Before the hurricane, New Orleans’ schools were amongst the poorest-performing in in the country.

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The film shows how a young fleet of teachers personally reached out to at-risk students to bring them up to speed (one example) and how daring administrators rewrote a tired failing school system.

Eight years after Katrina, however, test scores are up, dropout rates are down and graduation rates are improving. More than one-third of the city’s 43,000 students are still failing, but as narrator Merrow says, “It (the system) is working, but it has a long way to go.”

Set to the jazzy riffs of New Orleans’ own trumpet impresario Wynton Marsalis, “Rebirth: New Orleans” is a great example of how school districts can evolve and improve. Administrators who watch it will be inspired to alter their curriculum and future ideas; teachers who watch it will be inspired to overcome incredible odds, take chances and empower their students.

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