Albert Einstein, the physicist known for developing the theory of relativity, and having a head of unruly white hair, once said: “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” Those words from a verifiable genius are comforting for all pioneers, and New Orleans has a huge stock of them in its resilient charter schools.
An example of this resilience is a charter group in Eastern New Orleans that is even named for him – Einstein Group Inc. The organization’s name speaks of large ambitions, and Chief Executive Officer Shawn Toranto has plenty of ambitions for the 1,400 students who attend Einstein schools.
“We believe every child has a gift, and it’s up to us to find that gift,” Toranto says.
Finding that “gift” is one of the tenets of Einstein’s model, which it calls “The Einstein Way.” Also focusing on safety, respect for the student, and data-driven, individualized instruction, it’s a model that won a $5 million U.S. Department of Education grant in 2015 for the “Replication and Expansion of High Quality Charter Schools.” An Orleans Parish School Board press release said at the time that Einstein “earned the 2nd highest score out of 12 successful applications” from schools around the country.
The Einstein Group started with one school, which served mostly black students and children of Vietnamese immigrants who settled in the Versailles community after the fall of Saigon in 1975. What was once just another failing New Orleans school, became, within a decade, a success with majority low-income student population, and brought a “high performing” designation from the state and approval to operate three additional schools.
Word-of-mouth also brought additional immigrants to Einstein – Spanish-speaking children. Overall, Toranto says, Einstein educates half of Orleans Parish’s English language learners, requiring the employment of nine translators and eight English as a second language teachers. Many new students arrive at school speaking no English. “We get students every day straight from Vietnam,” she says.
Even with this challenging population in a time of increasing state expectations, the Einstein Group gets a passing grade from the state, and students take prizes in sports, visual arts, debate and English.
Tien Nguyen, for example, an eighth grader at Einstein Charter Middle School, has once again triumphed in spelling. For the second time in three years, Nguyen won the Annual New Orleans Spelling Bee, held at Xavier University. She won an expense paid trip to Washington D.C. to compete in the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Einstein’s success is even more notable because it had a rocky start. A publicized dispute in 2006 that ended with the termination of the first school’s then-leadership gave anti-charter protestors fodder for their crusade. They pointed to Einstein’s leadership crises to bolster a claim that charters are no better than the traditional public schools that they were replacing.
At the time, it was unclear if Einstein would survive the rift. But survive it did, and in the next decade, with Toranto in charge, it was adding its fourth school. Last year, the Recovery School District selected Einstein to take over the former Sarah Reed High School and open a new high school under the Einstein brand. Einstein Group Inc. now operates: Einstein Charter School at Village de L’Est; Einstein Charter School at Sherwood Forest; Einstein Charter Middle; and Einstein Charter High at Sarah Towles Reed. Schools in Shreveport and Little Rock, Arkansas are in negotiation.
Toranto, the driver of this operation, says she didn’t intend to become an administrator. She started out as a kindergarten teacher and was one of hundreds of New Orleans public school teachers who were fired after Hurricane Katrina. She was already fed up with the system’s bureaucracy and lack of attention to what she thought should be the priority – educating children.
When teaching positions opened again, she says she wasn’t sure she wanted to return. “I had to ponder if I would come back to a system that in my opinion was not interested in operating in the best interest of the students.”
But she took a kindergarten teaching position at Einstein in 2006. Two years later, after a year as assistant principle, she became principal and basked in the autonomy that the charter school method offers.
Even as a teacher, she relished the freedom that allowed her to experiment and draw on her own classroom experience. “It was a breath of fresh air,” she remembers feeling. “I am going to teach – as opposed to ‘you must use the book, on page 6.’”
Even so, the first years were tough. In a landscape of storm devastation, parents patched flooded homes and faculty taught in airless and heatless classrooms. In brutally hot months, parents supplied frozen water bottles for cooling, Toranto says.
Even though a decade has passed since the storm, the neighborhoods around Einstein Charter High on Michoud Boulevard and nearby Einstein Charter School at Village de’Est, show signs of struggle. Cratered streets require zig-zag driving skills, and some utility poles lean toward the ground at precarious angles, perhaps victims of the recent tornado. Ranch-style homes, many adorned with statues of the Madonna, are clustered together as if seeking protection from the perils of nature.
Toranto calls the neighborhood New Orleans’ “forgotten community.” Services are limited, and there are no city-operated recreation facilities for children. Still, the area attracts immigrants in need of a new home because it welcomes newcomers.
“This,” she says, “is a very accepting community.”