At age 29, when a mere English teacher, Lusher Charter School CEO Kathy Hurstell Riedlinger so impressed Superintendent Everett Williams that he visited her classroom one day and asked a life-changing question: “Well, little girl, what school are you going to apply for?”  

It was a strange way to address a nearly six-foot tall woman, but Riedlinger recalled being charmed, not offended.“Only Everett Williams could get away with calling me ‘little girl,’” she said. At the time, Riedlinger loved teaching and developing curriculum at Warren Easton High School. She had no interest in being a principal.  

Williams’ plan prevailed, however, and she was soon leading Lusher, then an elementary magnet school on Willow Street near Tulane University. She supervised 26 teachers and about 500 students. Now, 38 years later, she’s the celebrated leader of one of the most sought-after schools in the state. Under her stewardship, Lusher has grown to three schools, elementary, middle and high school, with a student body of 1,800 and a staff of 200.

“Absolutely nobody is a better administrator,” Barbara MacPhee, founder and retired principal of New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School, said.  “She gets an ‘A plus’ in administration. She leaves no stone unturned.”

Attention to detail brings consistent “A” academic ratings by the state and many Lusher graduates attend prestigious universities, often on full scholarships. Riedlinger credits an arts-based curriculum for much of the academic success.

“Every 6th grader at Lusher can tell you all the words to the musical Hamilton,” she said.  “Now they are more interested in the American Revolution.”

The journey has not always been easy. Riedlinger admitted she “hated” being a principal at first. She went from being loved as a teacher to making tough decisions that angered many. “The principalship is often a very lonely position,” she said.

Raised by a family of engineers, Riedlinger never yearned to be a teacher, but after helping raise younger siblings and volunteering at an orphanage, educating children seemed a logical step when it came time to declare a major at Louisiana State University.   

That decision proved fruitful for her and thousands of New Orleans school children. Within a dozen years of taking over Lusher, she’d polished its reputation so much, that camping out on its lawn to secure advantage in the application process was a rite of passage for many New Orleans parents. “The last campout we had was nine days,” Riedlinger remembered. “It was that crazy.”  

She was also on the ground floor of the charter school movement after Katrina. Because a charter application was already in the works before the storm hit, she was able to reopen Lusher by January 2006. Later, she helped develop an organization that encouraged more charter schools. It was a fateful move. Today, New Orleans schools are “much improved,” she said.

All that navigating paid off. She received a U.S. Department of Education Lifetime Leadership Award in November. She was also one of 11 educators to receive a Terrel H. Bell Award for Outstanding School Leadership.  
Lusher was recognized as a 2018 Blue Ribbon School, an honor that Riedlinger said is her “favorite” award. “It recognizes everybody,” she said. “It’s an award for the parents, students and teachers. No one person can do this job.”