Thanksgiving week 2005, I stood in the middle of my former classroom. Of late, New Orleans has become known as a hub of movie making and this post-apocalyptic looking scene would have surely earned an Academy nomination for set design, if only it were a set. Dead critters littered the floor, black mold climbed the walls and desks, and the silence of the darkened scene made my ears hum and hair stand up on my arms. Apart from the clear evidence of water damage and the worst smell of what I can only compare to weeks old rotting milk, the room had all appearances of a classroom. But the objectives on this classroom’s chalkboard would never be learned, the graded papers never returned, and the students never to be trapped again in the failed public education system of New Orleans.
A year earlier, I was half way through my first semester as a history teacher at John McDonogh High School – one of the state’s and nation’s lowest performing high schools. To enter the school, teachers and students alike passed through barb wired fences, metal detectors and pat downs that could easily confuse the entrant about whether he was entering a place of learning or a prison. The school faced many of the same problems schools in most U.S. cities are facing. Each year more kids dropped out than graduated. Students wandered the halls, teachers were frequently absent, and we experienced rapid leadership turnover (four principals led the school in my first year).
John Mac, like most schools in New Orleans at the time, operated in a system where principals had no real power or accountability for what happened in their school buildings; teachers were rewarded and retained not for great achievements but rather for the number of days, weeks and years they simply showed up; where students were passed from grade to grade with most not having learned or demonstrated basic skills necessary to move toward a meaningful life; and where families with little or no means had no option but to send their children to schools to which the government assigned them. Whatever the design of the Orleans Parish Public School System in 2005 was intended to accomplish, one thing is clear: it was undeniably bad at educating kids.
Much is being written on the anniversary of the landing of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the failures of the levees the city believed would protect it. I was fortunate to experience relatively little personal loss. My home received minor damage and I was able to quickly move back to the city and take a job teaching students evacuated from New Orleans in a neighboring, rural parish. Many of my friends and colleagues, and most of my students and their families were not so fortunate. The rest of Fall 2005 was a blur, trying to teach during the day and help myself and friends rebuild our lives at night and on the weekend.
What is most vivid from that time, though, is what I remember about that classroom I walked into for the first time a few months after the storm. I was angry at the injustice of it all – from the failed levees to the failed educational system. I was sad for my students and the unknown of what happened to many of them. I felt, admittedly, hopeless about the future of a city that cared for me through my college and early adult years. I stood in the middle of my former classroom and cried because of it all.
I would not have believed anyone if they told me that afternoon in November 2005 that less than ten years later students in New Orleans would be among the highest achieving students year over year not only in Louisiana but in the nation. I would have doubted the vision that New Orleans would go from being a broken and corrupt school system to a system of schools where families have choice of any school they want to attend regardless of where they live or how much money they make; where educators have the power to direct resources and run their schools to best meet the needs of their students; and where politicians and government leaders set basic expectations and fair rules of the road and leave the running of and support services for schools to community nonprofits and civic institutions.
Many attribute the transformation of New Orleans’ schools to the hurricane giving the city a blank slate. They would be wrong and narrow to make such a claim. It shouldn’t and I don’t believe needs to take a natural disaster to remake, reform, and rebuild public education in America’s cities. New Orleans’ schools have made undeniably significant gains because civic and government leaders came together and set a new model where energy, power, and resources were transferred to schools, educators and families instead of school systems. This model is possible in any community if it has the will and leadership to make it true.
For me, the anger, sadness, and doubt I felt in November 2005, like for many of my friends and neighbors in New Orleans, was put aside and replaced with resolve, gratitude, and hope. I came back to New Orleans and Louisiana in 2009 because I believe we can be better. The people of New Orleans built the future of education the way they have not because they had to, but because they refused to go backward. I moved to Baton Rouge recently because I see this same resolve.
We are not waiting any more. We are joining our brothers and sisters down the river because since Katrina we’ve all realized how much more connected we are and must be to thrive, to change the model of public education, and prove great schools can exist for any student with or without a hurricane story.