Hurricane Katrina Damage
By: Chris Meyer

It Should Not Take a Hurricane to Improve Our Schools

I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, in what might be described as the wrong side of the tracks.  My father never graduated high school; of my group of childhood friends, most never went to college and many of those who did couldn’t complete their first year.  Where we grew up, expectations and accomplishments were built around athletic success.  My parents were supportive of me and my aspirations to play football, and like many of my friends’ parents, they didn’t give much thought to the academic program at my neighborhood high school, which is now in jeopardy of state takeover by the Recovery School District.  I didn’t know it at the time, but my 7th grade English teacher changed my life when he encouraged me to apply to a selective magnet high school on the other side of town.  There I was confronted with expectations other than athletic success – every adult in my school was focused on high academic attainment and the belief (and push) that we would all go to and succeed in college.  Instead of playing on the football team, I found myself on a path that would eventually lead to graduating summa cum laude from Tulane and earning a master’s degree from Harvard.

My high school education changed what the statistics would have said was my life’s trajectory.  In short, my high school worked.  I believe all schools can and should do this for all students; I have a love for education and believe that all children in our nation, regardless of where they grow up, deserve to learn in great  schools that expect as much as my high school expected of me.

Because of my experience, I developed a passion and feeling of responsibility for improving education in Louisiana. After graduating from Tulane, I joined Teach For America and served as a high school social studies teacher and basketball coach at John McDonogh High School, one of Louisiana’s lowest performing high schools.  It is an understatement to say that John McDonogh was a dysfunctional place for students. My high school students were unable to read at a middle school level; we experienced four principal transitions in one year; and the system running the school was later found to be rife with corruption and gross financial mismanagement. Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans occurred three weeks into my second year of teaching; I was transferred, along with hundreds of displaced students, to a school system in rural South Louisiana.  It was there I learned that dysfunctional education systems were pervasive across our state.

My teaching experiences prompted me to pursue work in education policy so that I could influence positive changes for all kids in Louisiana. The transformational results New Orleans has experienced since Katrina because of its focus on returning autonomy and accountability to the school level is proving that great schools can exist for any student regardless of which side of the tracks they grow up.  Yet, too many attribute the transformation of New Orleans’s schools to the fact that Katrina literally washed away the system, allowing the city to start anew. I don’t believe it should take a hurricane.

In April 2012, New Schools for Baton Rouge was established with the belief that we can improve our schools without a catastrophic event.  We started by focusing first on the area with the greatest need for improvement, knowing that we will all benefit when every school is excellent.

I am looking forward to working with all those who have committed to making our schools better for all children.  I believe this is the right time and place to expand and launch schools that are proven and will give our children a chance to succeed.  We hope you will join us in ensuring that every child in Baton Rouge has an excellent school.

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