After Hurricane Katrina, Channa Mae Cook cofounded Sojourner
Truth, a charter school with an emphasis on community service and
social justice issues, to help lift up New Orleans' embattled school
The aftermath of hurricane Katrina has resulted in what locals
here call a "brain gain": Educated and passionate young people are
settling in New Orleans to play a role in its rebirth.
Take Channa Mae Cook. The city's comeback story surely will
include a chapter on her Sojourner Truth Academy, a coed charter
high school with a curriculum tailored around social justice.
The school offers open enrollment. "We take anybody who comes to
our door," says Ms. Cook, its principal and cofounder.
In its first year, just over 100 students showed up for class.
Two years later, enrollment stands at 260. Students are bused in
from every quarter of New Orleans.
Cook helped open Sojourner Truth a little more than a year after
arriving in New Orleans in early 2007 as a volunteer in the
aftermath of Katrina. Some 80 percent of the city had been affected
She painted hallways at an elementary school and helped organize
and restock its damaged library. She also met educators who were
sharing ideas about how the city's public school system, plagued by
student poverty, financial duress, and administrative impropriety,
could be reshaped.
Two months later, she and cofounder Kristin Leigh Moody submitted
their proposal to open a charter school. They were aided by New
Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit organization that matches
educators with donors who want to reinvigorate the city's struggling
"We needed to get high-quality schools started quickly," says
Maggie Runyan-Shefa, managing director of schools for the
organization. "[Cook] had the willingness to leave her family and
friends and a level of professional achievement to move to New
Orleans to start a school for a population she really believed in.
At the time, not many people were willing to do that."
Cook made a leap of faith to move from Los Angeles, where she had
taught high school English and later worked training teachers.
The curriculum at Sojourner Truth makes connections between such
issues as citizenship, equity, and leadership through great works of
literature, a survey of historical events, and public-service work,
making those lessons tangible to students.
Students may be assigned a theme - "what does it mean to be an
innocent bystander?" for instance - and then track it by reading
Elie Wiesel's novel "Night," or learning about the Rwandan genocide
or South African apartheid.
Students are required to fulfill a community service project.
Seniors must give 25 hours to a project that shows that not only did
they identify a community need, they figured out a way to fill it