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Professor helping charter school in New Orleans

By : Eric Coker

For Jenny Gordon, working in New Orleans is the perfect mix of teaching, research and service.

Gordon, an associate professor in the School of Education who coordinates the childhood education program, is spending the semester on research leave helping with the startup of the Langston Hughes Academy Charter School in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward.

“There’s so much need here,” Gordon said by phone from New Orleans, where she has been since July. “It took awhile to find a school that would accommodate me, but I honestly could not be happier.”

At Langston Hughes Academy, Gordon is teaching reading to kindergarteners in the mornings and writing to second-graders in the afternoon. She also is conducting research that includes documenting her own experiences and the development of a school that was not part of a neighborhood before Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005.

“How do you build a culture from nothing?” Gordon asked. “How do you build a sense of community when people are coming from all over?”

Langston Hughes Academy opened in fall 2007 with 100 fourth- and fifth-graders. The school is now K-6, with about 450 students. The current fifth- and sixth-graders will continue to move up at the school until they finish the eighth grade, Gordon said. There also is talk of adding a preschool.

Gordon said many Langston Hughes Academy students have either missed a large amount of schooling or haven’t had a consistent education because of displacement caused by Katrina and a lack of quality schools. It’s another example of a “ripple effect” caused by the hurricane, Gordon said.

“There’s a huge need for getting kids up to grade level,” she said. “I’m struck by how smart the kids are, but also how little they’ve been taught. It’s shocking to see what many students haven’t been taught.”

S.G. Grant, dean of the School of Education, understands the importance of Gordon’s work.

“One of the potential bright spots from Katrina is the possibility of remaking the New Orleans school system,” Grant said. “It was a system that ill-served far too many children. It’s too early to tell whether the emergent system will succeed, but it is clear that the work Professor Gordon and others are doing is pushing in the right direction.”

The roots of the project were planted when Gordon decided she wanted to assist in the recovery of New Orleans and volunteered at a summer camp for middle school students in the city in 2006.

“The city was really empty and a lot of people hadn’t come back,” she said. “I was hooked at that point.”

Gordon wanted to return. She saw charter schools as her best opportunity to take advantage of her instruction in teacher education at Binghamton and 10 years of elementary teaching in New York City.

“With my background, I thought I could do something beneficial for New Orleans,” said Gordon, who still sees FEMA trailers and people trying to rebuild their homes. “It’s been great for me to teach little ones again.”

With the help of an organization called Communities In Schools, Gordon found her partner school: Langston Hughes Academy was open to someone teaching students and conducting research.

One of the contributions that Gordon is most proud of is starting a parents’ breakfast. Family members come to the school from 7:30-8:30 a.m. Fridays and share ideas, concerns and support over bagels, pastries and coffee.

“One grandparent came and said he wanted to start a grandparents’ support group,” Gordon said. “I thought that was a wonderful idea. (The breakfast group) has been much more exciting than what I envisioned.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08