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She went to New Orleans to clean up after Hurricane Katrina – and stayed to start a charter school

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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 successfully.

Besides her mother, a physical education teacher in Los Angeles, Cook says her biggest influence has been black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, whose writings showed the pivotal role African-Americans played in US history and who was a firm believer in a liberal arts education.

"Education is really the thing that he was talking about," she says. "It's the key to turning things around for students in urban settings. It's the reversal to the cycle of poverty and inequity and the complacency that I felt so many African-American children had."

Structuring a school around those ideas wasn't easy. While some locals said "go back to where you came from," she says, "on the other end of the spectrum, there were people who said, 'I can't believe you dropped everything in your own life after this storm to come here and do what you're doing. You are a New Orleanian. Thank you, and stay here forever.' "

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