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“We are their mothers, their fathers, their grandparents, their teachers, their cooks, their laudromat — we have to be everything.”

—Mary Haynes-Smith, principal


  • New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Orleans Parish School District
  • Grades PK-6
  • Urban
  • DTM awarded in 2010

School Overview

First recognized as a Dispelling the Myth school in 2010, Bethune Elementary School continues to be a leader in Louisiana.

Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School is in one of those New Orleans neighborhoods that remains down-at-the-heels with deeply rutted streets, plywood-covered windows, and peeling paint long after its devastation by Hurricane Katrina.

“I could go through this school and tell you stories about the children that would make you cry,” said the principal, Mary Haynes-Smith. She tells stories of abuse, neglect, and all the other ills that beset a very poor community even without a trauma like The Storm, as Katrina is called.

That backdrop makes Bethune feel even more like a sanctuary than most schools. “We are their mothers, their fathers, their grandparents, their teachers, their cooks, their laundromat. We have to be everything,” said Smith, who had a washing machine and dryer installed in the school to ensure that the children wouldn’t have to wear dirty clothing in school.

It would be easy for the staff of the school to confine themselves to ensuring that their students are safe and fed. But they never forget they are in the business of teaching children. Everyone at Bethune knows the research: Children must read well by the end of third grade, or they are in deep academic trouble. So some of Bethune’s most skilled and experienced teachers are in pre-school, kindergarten, and first-grade, one of whom is known to boast that she can teach “anyone to read” and who is willing to take on any child who other teachers might give up on.

Careful data monitoring, student by student, class by class, and grade by grade means that no child is allowed to drift into failure and teachers are provided support and help.

All of which helps explain how Bethune Elementary — with a population of children who are almost all African American and almost all poor — posts proficiency rates that well exceed state averages, earning it a place on the state’s “High Performing High Poverty” school list. So, for example, all of Bethune’s sixth-graders read at least at a basic level, compared with 79 percent of sixth-graders in the state; but 50 percent of Bethune’s sixth-graders read at least at a mastery level, compared with 31 percent of sixth-graders in the state.

Not that Smith is satisfied. “That is not a high bar,” she says. Her goal is not just that her students pass state tests but that all her students have the opportunities that most middle-class students take for granted — to graduate from high school and have postsecondary opportunities such as college and meaningful work. To get there they must be able to read well, know a lot, and be able to demonstrate their knowledge on tests and elsewhere. To make sure that happens, she tells her teachers to “teach these children as if they were your own.”

Updated 2013

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