“New Orleans is the Silicon Valley of public education,” said Lisa Schlakman, AG07, an early education professional and alumna mentor for Tisch College’s inaugural Active Citizenship Summer (ACS) New Orleans Fellowship program.
In 2005, the city’s school system was virtually destroyed by Hurricane Katrina – leaving a void and an opportunity.
“Schools literally washed away,” said Schlakman. “We had to start over from scratch, but it wasn’t just a rebuild, it was a reboot. There is a lot of opportunity to do things in a really new way.”
The city has become a center for innovation in education. Currently 70% of public schools are charter schools – a number that Schlakman says will increase to 100% over the next three to four years. Many of the new schools place particular emphasis on college access, starting as early as pre-school. Teacher training and support, notes Schlakman, is a key piece in many of the new programs.
Schlakman came into education through publishing. In the 1970s, she worked at Harper & Row (now HarperCollins), developing and editing textbooks for elementary schools. At the time, very little material was put out for the teachers themselves. “Everyone in childhood development had purple fingers from the mimeo machines,” said Schlakman. “That was how you got new information, shared from hand-cranked duplicates.”
Hearing that a photo essay she had done on Children’s Museums in Connecticut was being widely copied and passed around, Schlakman sensed an untapped market. Her bosses, however, were not convinced. “Harper & Row said there was no money in it, because schools had textbook budgets for the kids, not the teachers.”
Undaunted, Schlakman began what started as a small newsletter for educators and grew to become “First Teacher” magazine, a groundbreaking publication, and the first specifically for childcare providers. Schlakman began creating and running workshops for teachers, and consulting with schools and other educational organizations. Eventually, this led her to Tufts, and to the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
“It was the treat of my life,” Schlakman said of her time there, and her work with her advisor, David Elkind, now a professor emeritus. As a student in the applied masters program, Schlakman continued to collaborate with the New Orleans schools where she had been consulting on early childhood education, until Hurricane Katrina disrupted those plans, and directly affected her family as well.
“My daughter was at Tulane,” said Schlakman. The campus, in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans next to the Mississippi river, was badly affected by the hurricane and forced to shut down for the first time since the Civil War. Schlakman’s daughter, along with a number of other Tulane students, came to Tufts for the fall semester of 2005.
As the waters subsided and the city emerged from the chaos, Schlakman began dedicating significant time and energy to strengthening the connection that had formed between Tufts and New Orleans – engaging Tufts students, faculty and alumni in the effort.
Soon after the storm, an on-going relationship between Eliot-Pearson and New Orleans began. First, Fran Jacobs, an associate professor of child development with a joint appointment in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, traveled to New Orleans to explore how Tufts faculty and students could help. A larger group of faculty followed in January, and the department has supported alternative spring break trips ever since.
With Schlakman serving as alumna mentor and local guide, the first trips paired graduate and undergraduate students with child care centers devastated by the storm, providing a deeply valuable experience to both the students and community organizations involved. The spring break trips now include working at charter schools.
For the past two years, the trip has been co-sponsored by Tisch College, with Program Coordinator Rachel Szyman playing a lead role.
Now focused on a partnership with the Langston Hughes Academy (LHA) Charter School (K-7) and Wilcox Academy of Early Learning, LHA’s pre-kindergarten partner, the trip gets Tufts undergraduates working hands-on with teachers, staff, and students. The main projects include engaging middle school students in discussions and activities related to high school and college preparedness, tutoring students, and helping to build a learning garden at Wilcox.
Capitalizing on the success of these trips, this year Tisch College expanded its Active Citizenship Summer programs to New Orleans, placing six student fellows with community organizations identified by Schlakman and her network: the Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families, the Gulf Coast Fund, Edible Schoolyard, Brightstart, and New Orleans Outreach. Read more about current student projects in New Orleans.
Schlakman sees the effects of students’ work on the community and the fellows themselves. “New Orleans is in many ways a small town,” she said. “Building these personal relationships and connections has a really large impact, and it’s special on both sides.”
Originally published August 2012