In 2004, not even one-third of 8th graders in New Orleans could pass a state reading test. In some schools, the number was lower – just 4 percent.

Since then New Orleans public schools have been transformed. Test scores have risen steadily outpacing every other district in Louisiana. Graduation rates are up, dropout rates are down.

How did they do it? When Hurricane Katrina shut down the city and its schools, an unexpected opportunity emerged for the city to start over. The result could change the future of public education in America. Today the city is 80% on its way to becoming the nation’s first all charter school district, perhaps a future model for the nation.

But it hasn’t been easy, no one is declaring victory, and the new system has its critics. We’ve been following the journey since fall of 2005, just weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit. Embedding ourselves in schools, homes and board meetings, we’ve witnessed mistakes and outright failures but also great accomplishments.

Long-time education journalist and 2012 McGraw Prize recipient John Merrow began following the story for the nightly news program, the NewsHour on PBS, in 2005. Seven years later, he says it is the most remarkable story he has covered in nearly 40 years on the job. With our vast and unique archive of coverage, we knew we had history on our hands, a history that must be widely shared.

REBIRTH: New Orleans weaves stories of students, teachers, parents, education leaders, activists and critics into a human saga of what happened when a city’s education system was turned upside down. Some of these stories include:

      • The Leader - PAUL VALLAS, Superintendent
        The veteran superintendent from Chicago and Philadelphia arrived in New Orleans in 2007, charged with the task of rebuilding schools and taking New Orleans to its goal of becoming the nation’s first all charter district.  The documentary follows Vallas from his first day on the job through his three years on the ground in New Orleans.
        The hallmark of a charter school is autonomy in exchange for accountability – if a school fails to produce results, it will be shut down.  In spring 2011, Harriet Tubman Elementary failed to make the grade and became the first charter in New Orleans closed for poor academics. Its charter was turned over to a brand new organization, Crescent City Schools.  We meet the organizations leaders, Kate Mehok and Julie Lause, two former KIPP teachers, and follow them through the nerve-wracking process of opening a charter school in New Orleans.
      • Special Needs – CHERYLLYN BRANCHE, Principal, Benjamin Banneker Elementary
        Cheryllyn Branche is one of just two principals in New Orleans to return to her school after Katrina – and her school is one of the last remaining traditional elementary schools among a sea of charters. We first met Branche almost immediately after the storm, when she began to notice that many students were being referred to Banneker Elementary from charter schools – those with special needs or severe behavioral problems.  Charters are public schools, and so required to take all students, but according to Branche, charter schools are pushing out the most vulnerable students.
      • Culture Shock  – KHALIL OSIRIS, Educator and BOBBY CALVIN, Student
        Since completing a 20-year prison sentence for robbery, Khalil Osiris has dedicated his life to helping others avoid his fate. For Osiris, that means educating teens about the mentality and choices that lead to imprisonment and in New Orleans, which has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, his work is critical.  Osiris realized many students were having trouble adjusting to the strict culture at many of the new charter schools, such as at Sci Academy, the city’s top-performing high school.  There, Osiris began an intensive program with the school’s most at-risk students to help them stay in school.  With nine suspensions already on his record, sophomore Bobby Calvin was one of Osiris’ biggest challenges. We follow Calvin through the school year as he struggles to fit in at Sci Academy.
      • Teach for America
        Post-Katrina New Orleans has attracted thousands of idealistic young men and women to its classrooms, many from Teach for America (TFA), an alternative certification program which recruits recent graduates to teach for a minimum of two years.  While they seem to get results, much of the community resents their presence.  After Katrina, all public school employees were laid off and many have been replaced by teachers from programs like Teach for America.

In November 2012, a Kickstarter campaign was launched to raise the finishing funds for the film’s post-production. Thanks to the support of over 135 generous donors, the goal of $50,000 was met.

The film is currently available internationally on Netflix.  A DVD version is also on sale online.