Lake Pontchartrain glistened as Rinata Williams rode north from New Orleans. She watched from the back seat as the city receded from the causeway, miles and miles of concrete bridge she hoped would transport her to the future she’d been promised.
It was August 2012, and no one in her family had ever left home for college. Before Hurricane Katrina, just half of New Orleans’s public school students earned a high school diploma, and few went on to succeed at a university. But as her mother steered the car toward Alabama, Williams believed that she’d be different. She’d spent four years at a high school determined to send minority students like her to college. She’d earned a high GPA, an above-average ACT score, and a generous scholarship. She was one of the first graduates in a new charter school landscape that many in New Orleans believed would fix a broken education system.
The car cruised east, and Williams’s favorite R&B station crackled with static as the signal from New Orleans faded. Her uncle turned around in the front passenger seat. Soon, he told her, everything would be new. He twisted the dial and landed on a station playing Tim McGraw. Williams listened to a few lines, then began to sing.
The sun burned bright as they pulled close to Birmingham-Southern College. The campus looked as beautiful as it did when Williams visited with a high school chaperone a few months back. She had loved the way its brick buildings sat on a hilltop, the way the grass stayed green and mowed. But her stomach tightened as she looked out now. She was the only student with dark skin and the red-and-black braids that were popular back home.
Her mother killed the engine, and Williams started to cry. Newspapers had reported that nearly everyone in Williams’s graduating class at Sci Academy in New Orleans had been accepted to college, as if they were a group moving toward one unprecedented future together. But her friends had left for universities in Vermont and Colorado and Massachusetts. Her family would drive back to New Orleans that afternoon.
Williams opened the car door, then cried harder. To succeed, she realized, she would have to face college alone.
Williams had always wanted to go to college. She’d dreamed of attending a historically black school out of state, maybe pledging a sorority at Spelman College or Clark Atlanta University. But she wasn’t sure how she’d make it out of New Orleans until 2008, when she met a skinny white guy from Washington, DC.
Ben Marcovitz was unlike anyone Williams had known. He was 28 but already had degrees from Harvard and Yale. He studied English and theater in college and moved to New Orleans for a girl. After a year of teaching there, he came to believe that he could help any student get into college.
Just a third of adults nationwide have a bachelor’s degree, and New Orleans’s students, most of them black and from low-income families, face particularly bleak odds. Only one out of every 10 low-income students nationwide finishes college on time. But Marcovitz had a brash mission shared by a new breed of charter school leaders who said they could succeed where traditional neighborhood schools had failed.
By 2008, education reformers had opened charters in Texas and New York with a similar college-for-all promise. But nowhere was this movement stronger than in New Orleans. The city’s public school system had been such a “disaster,” said Arne Duncan, who headed the Department of Education under President Barack Obama, that in 2010 he called Katrina the “best thing” that had ever happened to education in New Orleans. After the 2005 storm, in a state effort to reinvent the city’s schools as charters, the school board fired nearly all the city’s public school teachers, most of them black.
Eventually, all the neighborhood schools in New Orleans either closed or became charters, many of them staffed primarily with novice white teachers. Billed as labs to try out pedagogical and school governance models, the charters, at least at first, often borrowed from the strict style of parochial schools, with little democratic oversight. Locals wondered what these outsiders had figured out about their kids that teachers born and raised in the community hadn’t.
Williams was just 14 when Marcovitz told her she could be part of something historic at Sci Academy, the charter high school he was opening in New Orleans East. She had little to lose. She had attended three middle schools since the hurricane and assumed she would go, as her family members did, to George Washington Carver Senior High, a Ninth Ward institution that the state had long rated “academically unacceptable.”
When Williams enrolled at Sci in mid-August 2008, she found that it was different from the schools she previously attended. The floors in the hallways were lined with black tape, creating lanes that Williams and her classmates had to walk in single file. Students had to sit up straight, make eye contact, and talk in a “scholarly voice.” At the time, classes lasted until 5 pm.
The black tape reminded Williams too much of the jails that some of her family members had spent time in, but she loved hearing her homeroom teacher call their class UConn, after her alma mater, and Williams didn’t mind staying late, because her instructors never seemed to stop working. They even answered the phone after dark if she called when she stumbled over her homework.
Williams was “extraordinary,” Marcovitz said, someone deeply curious and capable of the kind of complex thinking not common in most high school freshmen. She trawled the dictionary for new words and spent school bus rides proofreading her friends’ papers. She tutored other kids from public housing. Her initial test scores were below grade level, but nearly every student arrived at Sci academically behind. Most still read at an elementary school level. Some couldn’t read at all.
By her sophomore year, she was earning all As and Bs, and Sci’s test scores were the best among open-enrollment high schools in the city. Its students performed so well that Oprah Winfrey gave $1 million to Sci in 2010 and called Marcovitz and other charter leaders “real-life superheroes.”
When Williams and her classmates began considering colleges, Marcovitz wanted them to have the same experience he had at Maret, a prestigious private school in DC that he attended on a scholarship. He brought in an ACT expert and hired an admissions counselor away from Wesleyan University to help with the teenagers’ personal statements. Sci even paid for the students to visit dozens of colleges across the South and Northeast.
Williams considered Florida A&M University, a historically black school in Tallahassee, but when she toured, the dorms reminded her too much of the public housing projects she’d lived in back home. College, Sci’s teachers told her, was about new beginnings, so she scrapped her application.
Researchers have found that low-income students are more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree if they attend more challenging institutions, so Sci’s teachers encouraged the teenagers to enroll in the highest-ranked schools that would accept them—no matter how white or how far away.
As graduation neared in 2012, Williams narrowed her choices to Louisiana State University, Sewanee, and Birmingham-Southern College, schools whose campuses were pretty and whose populations were majority-white. That April, Sci officials rented a church auditorium down the road for the school’s first Senior Scholar Signing Day. As cheerleaders rallied the way they would for football teams elsewhere, Marcovitz announced that 49 of Sci’s 52 graduates were headed to college—a then unheard-of rate for a New Orleans public school with open admissions. Some were going to Wesleyan, Amherst, and Smith, selective institutions with near-perfect graduation rates.
Williams, who had never missed a day of class and finished with Sci’s top honors in math, chose Birmingham-Southern, with the bucolic new scenery she’d come to believe a college must have.
In recent years, charter high schools with Sci’s college-for-all mission have celebrated as 100 percent of their graduating classes enrolled in college. Few have publicized how their alumni fared after enrolling, but in 2011, the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, the nation’s largest nonprofit charter school network, released a report criticizing its own outcomes. Yes, KIPP officials wrote, their first students in Houston and the Bronx went on to college at more than double the average rate of their peers. But KIPP found that only a third of its alumni earned a bachelor’s degree—above average for low-income students but a long way from KIPP’s goal of 75 percent.
Still, as Williams and her classmates moved away in the summer of 2012, Marcovitz said, he believed they’d all have “a happy ending with college.” Then, “pretty much immediately,” he realized he had underestimated just how tough college would be for them.
Williams wasn’t sure what to do after her mother and uncle dropped her off in Birmingham. She looked around her dorm. She hadn’t brought any decorations, so the walls were bare. The wood desk was empty, too, but her mother had made the bed with a brand-new sheet set and comforter, so Williams sat on the twin bed, opened the laptop that her godbrother sent, and downloaded Skype and ooVoo so she could chat with her friends long distance. She looked around again. The sun was still shining, but she pulled back the covers, climbed in, and fell asleep.
She forced herself to go to orientation that weekend, but as her classmates went around in a circle introducing themselves, she grew nervous. Every school that she attended in New Orleans was nearly 100 percent black; only a tenth of the students at Birmingham-Southern were. She worried that her New Orleans accent might make her unusual. “You don’t want to seem uneducated with these people,” she said she told herself, “so just stay real quiet.”
Williams said she was relieved when classes started the next morning. In high school, classwork had always come easily. At Birmingham-Southern, she strolled smiling toward Introduction to Film, but when the instructor asked the class to write two pages explaining what they hoped to do in film, she froze. She had chosen to major in music business because she wanted to help people make art. She believed that movies, like music, could be therapy for people who might never go to a counselor. But she couldn’t find the words to explain her goals, so when she tried to write the paper that week, she sat motionless in front of her laptop. Finally, a few hours before class, she scrambled a few dozen sentences together. The professor gave the paper a C–.
Williams tried harder in her courses, but no matter how well she did on the essays or tests, she said, she still felt uncomfortable. She didn’t talk in class, and she never went to the cafeteria. Instead, she survived on packs of ramen. She grew close to the only other black woman in her dorm, a first-generation student named Ashley. They went to the gym together every day for a month before Ashley decided to drop out. She had a kid, but the college wouldn’t let her keep the child in her dorm, and she couldn’t afford a babysitter.
After Ashley left, Williams spent most of her time alone. She wrote letters to her 11- and 9-year-old sisters, then taped their replies to the wall above her bed. When her roommate asked to be moved midsemester, she didn’t blame her. “I’m very awkward,” Williams said.
She spent four years at Sci learning how to improve her writing and study habits, but no one in high school had talked about what college would feel like if your only friend dropped out and your roommate couldn’t bear to live with you. She had never learned to navigate being the sole black woman in a residence hall full of white people who didn’t understand her.
At the end of 2012, Williams packed her clothes and letters for Christmas break. She hadn’t told anyone, but she had decided she couldn’t go back to Birmingham in January. As her mother drove her home, Williams daydreamed about transferring to the University of New Orleans. UNO wasn’t as prestigious as the private school that Sci’s counselors had steered her toward, and she would have to repay Birmingham the tens of thousands of scholarship dollars it gave her.
Her mother drove across Lake Pontchartrain, and then Williams’s old neighborhood appeared. It wasn’t as idyllic as her college campus, but she didn’t care. The air smelled familiar. Her sisters rushed out, and she was home.
By Christmas, 12 percent of Sci’s first graduates had either dropped out or transferred to a community college.
Most couldn’t point to just one reason for their decision. Some missed their families or needed to find jobs to pay for gaps remaining after their scholarships. Students who enrolled in a North Louisiana university found that the food was too bland. No other place in America is like New Orleans—not even North Louisiana—and it hurt too much to lose the city again after they’d been displaced by the hurricane. Others grew unfocused after they left Sci’s scaffolds.
Some earned their first Fs, and the failures depressed them. Eddie Barnes had been one of Sci’s most celebrated students. He finished with the fifth-highest GPA and won nearly every social accolade the school gave out. He went to Middlebury College, a selective school in Vermont, where only 4 percent of students are black.
His Russian intro class was tougher than advanced Spanish had been at Sci, and he couldn’t always bring himself to trudge through the snow to his 8 am psychology class. But he spoke up in his romantic literature course, and he helped other students with their African American religious history papers. Still, none of that mattered after his grades came back lower than he’d expected. By his second semester, he was on academic probation. He dropped out during his sophomore year.
“It was the saddest point in my life,” Barnes said. “I felt like I couldn’t do anything. I felt inadequate. I didn’t have any type of positive thought about anything.”
Jordan Pierre, after one semester at Louisiana State University, also landed on academic probation, but he worked harder the following spring and pulled his grade point average up to a 3.2. He hoped to earn a degree in business law, but during his sophomore year, he fell $8,000 short of what he owed the university. He had maxed out on loans, so he applied for grants and scholarships, but none materialized.
In 2014 he enlisted in the Air Force, intending to use his salary and the GI Bill to pay for his education. But he had to take semesters off for training, then the military deployed him to Qatar, Kuwait, and Turkey. He squeezed in online classes when he could and earned an associate degree through the Community College of the Air Force, but as he passed his 22nd birthday, he couldn’t help feeling ashamed that he hadn’t earned his bachelor’s.
“It weighs heavy on me,” Pierre said. “I didn’t want to leave, but I really didn’t know how I could continue.”
Williams withdrew from Birmingham-Southern just after Christmas and enrolled instead at the University of New Orleans. She said she felt more comfortable there but found UNO’s larger classes overwhelming. She missed the way Sci’s teachers locked eyes with students, the way instructors adapted their styles to make sure she understood every lesson. She said she wanted to ask for help but couldn’t go during her professors’ office hours because she’d taken a full-time job as a cashier at a Save-a-Lot store. Most nights, she got off at 1 am. She didn’t have a car, so she spent hours waiting for buses in a system with infrequent service. She had to be up again by 5:30 to catch a 7 am bus, the latest she could ride to make it on time for her 8 am math course.
In biology, she found a seat in the back where she could doze as her professor droned on in terms she didn’t recognize. In her dreams, the instructor sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher, a muted trombone going “Wah, wah, wah.”
Sci officials tried to help out the school’s graduates. Marcovitz hired a woman to track the alumni; she and other staffers e-mailed students and visited a few out of state. They bought college textbooks for some and gave internships or jobs to a fourth of the class, including Barnes. Sci even paid back Birmingham-Southern so that Williams could try UNO without worrying about the money she owed the college.
Instead of asking for help again, in August 2013, Williams transferred to New Orleans’s Delgado Community College. She switched her major from music business to psychology in hopes of becoming a counselor. She still worked long hours and didn’t have a car, but she said she felt more at home. Strangers introduced themselves when she sat in the courtyard. She started helping other students with their classwork, and she no longer felt the isolation she experienced at Birmingham-Southern. Even big classes didn’t bother her. Students lined the walls in her packed medical terminology course, but the professor made eye contact with everyone, and that connection helped keep Williams focused.
She loved Delgado so much that she kept going even after she had to take a second job. She worked 85 hours a week and on some days skipped class if she missed the bus. Eventually, a professor told her that she would never pass if she continued missing days. Williams knew she could reach out to Sci, but her high school counselors couldn’t buy her a car or pay her rent.
As students reported back, Marcovitz said, he told himself he’d been “horribly unstrategic” and naive. He created college-success classes at Sci to prepare students to face issues such as impostor syndrome. He and his team began to question whether the best-ranked colleges were always the best fit for Sci’s students.
Marcovitz recognized that he needed staff members who knew firsthand how alienated black students could feel on a majority-white campus. He needed teachers who had attended historically black schools and participated in African American fraternities and sororities. Marcovitz expanded his college counseling program and hired more New Orleans natives and people of color, who he believed could better help his students find the college best suited for them.
In the fall of 2015, after Williams failed a third semester, she began to question whether college was the surest path to the life she wanted. The few people she knew with bachelor’s degrees hadn’t found high-paying jobs. And some of her high school classmates had reached the middle class even though they’d dropped out. One earned $85,000 a year working for Coca-Cola. Pierre, who had left Louisiana State University for the Air Force, now had a good job working in the executive branch of the federal government. Others had joined the military or the sheriff’s department and seemed fulfilled.
Marcovitz, too, noticed that many of his students were happy and prosperous without a degree. He now runs six high schools. Though his organization, Collegiate Academies, still publicizes the fact that 99 percent of its seniors are accepted to college and though its mission still includes a collegiate focus, he said he believes that for some young people, leading “lives of unlimited opportunity”—finding careers or vocations they love, even without a degree—might be just as good.
Williams said she loves learning. She still writes down words she doesn’t know and looks them up later, and she spends her free time scrolling through the Internet to research any topic that piques her interest. She said that she didn’t want to quit college but that she was tired. She’d been out of high school for more than three years and still didn’t have enough credits for even an associate degree. When the semester ended in late 2015, she withdrew from Delgado.
By 2016, four years after their triumphant graduation from Sci, only two members of that inaugural class had finished college. Neither one had an easy time. Erica Willard said she was so depressed and homesick at Colorado College that she “completely broke down” when she saw a group of upperclassmen cooking fried chicken and cornbread, the soul food she grew up eating. Troy Simon, who went on to earn a master’s degree in divinity at Yale, said he realized at Bard College that higher education might divide him from the family members he’d left behind.
“You become your own person, and that is scary,” he observed. “There is a fear of letting go of family, letting go of your community. I struggled with that. There is a feeling that I am an interloper now, an outsider.”
Only six of Sci’s first graduates finished college within six years, the federal standard for on-time graduation. Three others earned degrees this year. Though eight, including Pierre, are still working toward a degree, 32 of the 49 who enrolled in college have dropped out.
Collegiate Academies is the only charter network in New Orleans that has publicly shared its college persistence results. Most of the city’s charter high schools don’t track the number of alumni who go on to earn bachelor’s degrees, and KIPP New Orleans, the one network that does, declined to share its data. KIPP’s first graduating class from New Orleans has been in college for only five years, shy of the federal cutoff for on-time graduation. But researchers at the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, a Tulane-based organization that studies post-Katrina education reforms, found last year that the new high schools have increased college graduation rates by 3 to 5 percentage points since Hurricane Katrina. None have come close to achieving the college for all they once promised.
Most made the same mistakes that Sci did, said Brian Beabout, a former New Orleans teacher who evaluated charter applications for the state and now studies the city’s charter schools as an associate professor of educational leadership at UNO. Most charters hired young white teachers and counselors from selective universities, and they steered their students toward elite institutions. These high schools improved education for a large swath of the city, he said, but many did so without preparing their students to succeed socially in college.
“We underestimated the importance of social integration. We underestimated the cultural gaps between the communities our students come from and the more elite, highly selective institutions that a lot of people got placed into,” Beabout continued. “Even if I can hang in my college algebra classroom, can I make a happy life for myself in a dorm with very few people who have had very similar life experiences?”
Over time, Marcovitz has hired a more diverse teaching corps. That first year, only one of seven teachers identified as a person of color. Today, more than half of the 140 teachers who work at his schools do.
As Marcovitz’s staff has focused more on social integration, he has found that the students who returned to Sci for nonacademic help were often the ones who succeeded in college. When Jeon Domingue took a semester off from Amherst College, she moved home to work for Sci. She graduated in 2017 and now works for Opportunities Academy, a postsecondary program in New Orleans that Marcovitz’s organization runs for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Raven Matthews attended four colleges before earning her degree from UNO this May, but she remains so close to Marcovitz that she babysits his children and works at one of his schools in Baton Rouge. And Marquisha Williams turned to her old high school for advice after she dropped out of the University of Louisiana at Monroe and developed lupus. Sci’s counselors helped her find a therapist and a low-pressure job. When she enrolled at Louisiana State University, Sci paid for her textbooks. She graduated last December.
Rinata Williams still wants a degree, though pursuing one has left her worse off financially. She is deeply in debt, and her credit score dropped after she defaulted on the $22,000 she owes in student loans.
For now, she works the night shift in a post office mail room, but she said she wants to help people. Maybe, she said she thought this summer, she could stop by Sci a few days a week to talk to students who need it. She knows she isn’t as credentialed as the counselors who will guide Sci’s graduates forward. But struggling through college was its own kind of instruction, and in that, Williams is more of an expert than most educated people will ever be.