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New Orleans Schools, 10 Years After Katrina: Beacon Or Warning?

Craig Adams Jr., 18, is working toward his high school degree at the Youth Empowerment Project in New Orleans, pictured here.
LA Johnson/NPR

On Sept. 15, 2005, two weeks after Katrina and the levee breaches, I drove with my parents into New Orleans. It was my 25th birthday.

We used my press pass from The Village Voice to get past a military checkpoint so we could assess the damage to their home near Tulane University. It turned out to be minimal: a few slate tiles off the roof, tree limbs downed, a putrid refrigerator full of rotting food to drag to the curb.

I stayed on as the city blinked back to life in fits and starts. Most public schools remained officially closed for months. New Orleans students descended on schools in Houston and Baton Rouge. Many missed months of classes. Some never went back. Thousands of teachers were pink-slipped.

Makeshift one-room schoolhouses popped up — I volunteered for a few days at one run in a room at Loyola University.

Even as the debris was being cleared, there were those who saw an opportunity. At the time, New Orleans was the second-lowest-ranked district in the second-lowest-ranked state in the country.

"I feel optimistic for these kids from the Orleans Parish school system," Robin Delamatre, a family friend and a veteran New Orleans educator, told me back then. "These poor children may come from a failing system to a school system that will really support them."

A decade is a natural moment to pause and look back. Our NPR Ed team spent lots of time over the past school yeartrying to find out what has happened to the kids from the Orleans Parish school system. Today, that system is, for all intents and purposes, no longer. Almost every student in the city attends a charter, private or parochial school.

We looked at:

The pros and cons of an all-choice system.

The saga of one student who attended a total of five schools during and after Katrina.

The recent influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America.

The struggles of alternative schools, which take students who aren't successful elsewhere.

" Disconnected youth."

The school-to-prison pipeline.

And, teachers passing down the city's musical traditions.

Today, New Orleans is a "portfolio model." The role of the Recovery School District is largely to coordinate, not to run, a variety of schools. There is a centralized application process called the OneApp, and a centralized expulsion board. The RSD has been especially active in taking over schools deemed underperforming: Since the schools reopened, 16 New Orleans schools have been completely closed and another 30 have been reorganized, out of just 90 in the city total.

The changes have brought a new sense of excitement and possibility around education in the city.

On a visit back home this month, all over town, at bus shelters and local cafes, there were fliers and posters advertising schools — with vegetable gardens and maker spaces and computer classes, yoga and meditation and foreign-language immersion.

There's no higher concentration anywhere in the country of education-related nonprofits, philanthropies and startups.

Some see a success story. Others are raising an alarm.

Tracking Progress

The most recent set of research reports, issued in July by Douglas Harris of the Education Research Alliance, confirms what the state, city and other organizations have repeatedly said: "The performance of New Orleans students shot upward after the reforms."

It's not just about higher test scores. The researchers find that, "relative to the state as a whole, the New Orleans high school graduation rate and college entry rate (among high school graduates) rose 10 and 14 percentage points."

Not only that: "The number of suspensions and expulsions has dropped since the reforms."

And, Harris and his co-authors conclude, "We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time."

Now the question that many are asking is: Can New Orleans really be a model for other cities? Urban districts pursuing some version of the portfolio model include New York, Chicago, Denver and Baltimore.

Harris cautions that repeating the city's improvements won't be easy, for two reasons. One is that in New Orleans, the schools performed so badly before that there was nowhere to go but up.

The second is the disaster itself. The storm and its aftermath did what no democratic authority or education advocate could do: Shutter every school and focus national attention on the city.

Philanthropic money poured in. And self-described Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals came from all over the country to help rebuild. In a relatively small school system, there were enough to make a difference.

Attracting that kind of talent and energy to labor hard for low wages is exceedingly difficult. Elsewhere in the country, the reality instead is big teacher shortages.

At the same time, there are those who are determined that what happened to New Orleans public schools should not be repeated.

Warning Signs

Last month a group of civil rights activists and scholars went on a bus tour of historically black neighborhoods in New Orleans, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, where former school buildings have been neglected and abandoned.

"The rebuilding of NOLA has left educational and economic deserts," Karran Harper Royal, a New Orleans education activist who organized the tour, told participants.

They were in town for the Community-Centered New Orleans Education Research Conference, a two-day assembly of social-justice-oriented opponents of the changes in the city's schools. They came from cities across the country that are trying, in some respects, to follow the New Orleans model.

The conversation focused on institutional memory, community stability and, above all, racial equity. Joyce King, an education professor at Georgia State University, called what is happening in New Orleans "slave-market-based reform."

Critics of the reforms say that neighborhood schools have been sacrificed and neighborhood ties broken for dubious rewards. They look at the same data as supporters of the new system and draw wildly different conclusions.

For example, the Recovery School District has an average grade of Dby the state's measure. It is second-to-last in the state in high school graduation rates. The percentages of teachers with regular certification and with 20 or more years of experience have dropped by about 20 points each, compared to before the storm.

Students are being bused all over the city and returning to their neighborhoods well into the evening. Frequent school shutdowns, critics say, disrupt students' progress and leave families scrambling.

Strict discipline policies at some schools mean 7-year-olds are patted down for weapons and kindergartners forced to stay silent for lunch. Special education accommodations, by many reports, are lacking.

A recent NPR/Kaiser Family Foundation poll captured a big racial gap in citizens' perceptions of schools.

Enrollment in the public schools is 85 percent African-American. The main constituency of the reforms is the less sanguine about them. Among white New Orleanians, two-thirds say the public schools have gotten stronger since after the storm; among black New Orleanians the figure is 55 percent.

Over half of African-American parents are "very worried" that their children will not be able to get a good education; just 17 percent of white parents feel the same.

And, when asked if now is a good time to raise children in New Orleans, 70 percent of whites said yes. Just 37 percent of African-Americans agreed. African-Americans see bleaker career prospects for youth, and they are especially worried about crime.

There is no pat resolution here — the divisions between those who champion the new New Orleans and those who deplore it are as wide and murky as the Mississippi itself. It's easy to count what's gotten better, much harder to measure what's been lost.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
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