L4: Chapter 4—Katrina and Equitable Schools in New Orleans
In Ladson-Billings’s 2006 AERA address, she questioned whether a natural disaster that totally wiped out an already bad school system, such as Katrina did to New Orleans schools, could serve as a catalyst for rebuilding an equitable one. I address this question next by beginning with some background on New Orleans’ schools to underscore the complexity of establishing an equitable new school system.
Goff (2009) provides an excellent review of New Orleans schools, pre- and post-Katrina, in her thesis, When Education Ceases to Be Public: The Privatization of the New Orleans School System after Hurricane Katrina. From her thesis we learn that New Orleans schools were segregated prior to Katrina, with the New Orleans Public Schools serving 63,000 students of whom 94% were African American; the schools needed repairs, with classroom size above the national average and less money allocated for spending per pupil; the population of private or parochial schools, on the other hand, served mostly white students; enter hurricanes Rita and Katrina, which displaced approximately 200,000 students, pre-K-16; only 16 of New Orleans’ schools were not destroyed, thus prompting the expectation that New Orleans’ could serve as a laboratory for experimenting options for promoting a better school system (Goff, 2009). As of 2016, New Orleans has 83 schools with 77 that are privately run charter schools and that set their own standards for admission and expulsion.
To explore Ladson-Billings’s question, I convened a group of New Orleans’ teacher educators (all of whom were public school teachers or supervising teachers before or after Katrina) and posed the question: “Was Hurricane Katrina enough of a catalyst to promote equitable changes in New Orleans’ schools?” I received the first two comments by B and M via e-mail. An abbreviated transcript of the group’s conversation follows their e-mails.
B: My initial thought is a cynical one. Catastrophic events don’t appear to be enough, but com
bining them with lawsuits against those who do not enforce their own policies regarding diversity and equity can make a significant contribution for real and significant change. It’s a sad reality, in my view, that lawsuits have encouraged and facilitated more educational change (especially for minority groups) than other avenues for change. While this is unfortunate, I’m pleased that we have this tool in our arsenal to enforce unity and equity in educational endeavors.
M: Here are some exploratory thoughts (Note “exploratory thinking" here.): Unfortunately, I don’t
think catastrophic events, such as Katrina, change very much. The winds and waters of Katrina only rearranged the landscape. Equality, equity, and equitable practices turn only with a profound change in American society The political and social power structures are inherently oppositional to equity Catastrophic events such as Katrina shine a temporal light on embedded racism, inequality, and social injustice, but soon, the dominant forces that shape our society take over, and political ideologies overrun any good that may have resulted from the tragedy Catastrophic events reveal more prejudiced and exclusive beliefs. Remember the media reports from New Orleans after Katrina? Many media outlets painted NO with a broad brush: welfare, poverty, black, waiting for a government bailout. Its pattern repeats over and over in the USA and around the world: Did the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010 initiate equitable practices? Did New Orleans public schools rise like a phoenix from the drowned ashes of Katrina? I don’t know . . . I try not to fall into cynicism, but I don’t see much positive change for people and children who need it most. A big question from James Banks is “How do we build a nation that’s inclusive?” Well, only when Americans change their beliefs and their hearts. As Leonard Cohen said, “It’s here we have the range and the machinery for change; democracy is coming . . . to the USA.” Not here yet. From the current national presidential campaign, I don’t see that change happening any time soon. Or, maybe a president named Trump will be the final catastrophe that leads to change. Oh, my
Y: I thank you for taking the time to share thoughts on this questions, Note that I will not
publish the video or recording of our conversation on YouTube! (Laughter) Also, given the fact that we are sharing our thoughts without having done any research on topic, I will not use your name. Let me start by thanking B and M for their thoughtful email responses. Let’s now begin the discussion.
G: Before Katrina, my school was a neighborhood high-performing public school in a high-SES
section of the city Katrina left us without a building and when we reopened as a conversion charter school under the parish school board, we had more autonomy with things like hiring, retention, but unlike the for-profit charter schools that were able to limit their enrollment based on criteria they set, we maintained equity by using a lottery system. Thus everyone in the city of New Orleans had an equal chance of getting into my school.
Y: Do you think these things happened because of Katrina?
G: Katrina allowed us to get rid of some things and to implement some that were research based.
Now, were it not Katrina, it probably would not have been implemented because we—all the schools—would have been left with the “old guards” and I don’t think they would have allowed for some of the immediate changes.
Y: So from your perspective, Katrina actually served as a catalyst for some really good positive
changes in an already good school?
G: That’s right, and I would say it made it better because it was a white school before the storm
but diverse after.
Y: Okay, thank you. Anybody want to piggyback on that?
A: That just has to do with the fact that G’s school was a neighborhood school before Katrina.
But after Katrina, when schools were no longer neighborhood schools, that created huge problems in terms of transportation, although it did allow schools to become potentially more diverse. Currently, what percentage of students at that school is not from the neighborhood?
G: Well let me say this: We’re a Title 1 school, which means that a majority of our students are
on free or reduced lunch so there’s a good possibility that the majority of students are not from the neighborhood.
Y: Well that’s very interesting given that your school is high performing.
G: Yes and with opened admissions.
D: Your school demonstrates that that if every kid, despite socioeconomic status or skin color,
had the opportunity to participate in all areas and had the resources to be in a high-performing school, every child would learn. But the view of the community has been that Katrina did not do away with the “haves” and the “have-nots” within our community or within our schools. Consider your school as an example. After it moved into its new building, admission tiers were created so that the first tier gives preferential treatment to those who live in the neighborhood.
G: Yes, that is true.
D: So this is what is upsetting to the community: you had this white school and you kept it alive
after Katrina because it became a diverse schools with a good proportion of black students, but now you’ve moved back to a brand new building and you’re making it a community school again. Eventually, the black kids who were attending when the school was housed in a Catholic school won’t necessarily be replaced with other black students. So we may have a situation where the school went from white to black and back to white.
G: Maybe so.
P: I think Katrina helped build an awareness of where the learning gaps were for some stu
dents. At the high school where I taught, students completed their general courses at their home school but came to my high school in the afternoon to take their math and science courses. Before the storm, we were aware that teachers were not addressing the fact that some kids were coming in prepared to perform tasks in science and math but were failing all other classes. I noticed that, post-Katrina, when the school’s curriculum became the full curriculum, we had kids who performed at very high levels but were completely unable to read the text that accompanied the task. It became clear that some students were reading at three-five grades below their levels. This prompted the inclusion of actual literacy courses, and it improved reading levels. That probably would not have happened without Katrina.
B: We can talk about all the things that are wrong, but parents have got to join forces and
demand it. And so the general educator in me, well, we just don’t do that. We teachers are nice people, and we’re kind so we don’t want to always rock the boat. But sometimes that’s what’s necessary to advocate for our community and our children.
M: I think the answer to G’s question is no. I totally agree with B, I don’t think Katrina changed very much. I think that as a nation, we just don’t have the political will to make changes. Whether you get a good education in this country or not, it’s still, I think, very much a factor of where you live.
D: That part of what make the kids learn at successful schools is that teachers encourage them
to think divergently and allow them to experiment. But in the schools that have the poorest kids and lowest performance, we find kids walking on lines with their lips closed, doing rote memorization and tracing over what the teacher told them to do. When you look at which schools were failing schools before Katrina, you find that a majority of them still are failing schools. And because there are not enough seats in the high-performing schools, the majority of the poor kids are still in low-performing schools. And that leads to an emphasis on standardized testing. These kids don’t have time to talk because they have to keep quiet and listen to what will be on the test.
Y: So is that due to a lack of professional development issue and lack of support for teachers, or
is it a lack of resources in the schools to provide access to higher-level thinking?
B: I think it’s a lack of resources that includes human resources.
D: And I think it’s about getting kids to pass the standardized test.
M: And I think the testing issue is due to a terrible misinterpretation on how to get students to learn. Interactive and engaging methods should be the norm and not teaching to the test.
G: I think it’s more than that because, as Y said, professional development is also a key element
because if left to our own devices, teachers will teach the way they were taught. So if we’re tired and if we’re fatigued and ifwe didn’t really plan, and if we’re just going do it off the cuff, then we’re really going to go back to direct instruction. Not that that’s always inappropriate but that’s what we’re going to go back to primarily, and I think that a lot of it is a result of either some of us just don’t know how to do it in a different way or just haven’t seen it done effectively a different way.
M: I think there’s still that attitude that “you can’t do it with these kids.” I saw that so much of that resistance with the charter schools after Katrina. Some would say, “Sure you can do that at those high-performing schools but you can’t do it here.” I think as a nation, believing that our kids can learn can’t happen in schools alone; it has to be a total shift in thinking in terms of us as Americans and how we need to address it.
G: The poor kids, regardless of race—do you really believe that it’s not a racial thing?
D: In terms of opportunity to learn and having access to resources, I do think it’s primarily about
being poor. I think those children in the Appalachian Mountains that are poor are probably having some of the same educational issues as black children in urban Chicago.
M: It’s about the haves and have-nots, and we’re a country that likes the haves and have-nots.
The haves want to stay where they are and I think it’s an issue of power, and it’s just fine with them if the poor and the black people aren’t getting what they need. I don’t think it’s cynical.
I think it’s just reality.
A: I want to echo everything that M just said. There would have to be a dramatic shift in the
infrastructure of the way schools work.
Y: I thought Katrina destroyed the structure . . .
A: No, it didn’t destroy it at all.
D: It destroyed Orleans parish.
A: It destroyed the buildings.
M: It rearranged the landscape.
A: That’s all.
D: It also got rid of the one Board, and it got rid of the central office. The majority of the schools
went under Recovery School District.
A: But if the idea is to differentiate, then don’t put 30 children of poverty into a classroom. It’s
not going to work. What I’ve seen over 40 years of teaching is that interactions between teachers and kids that were raised in poverty are sometimes difficult. The kids don’t have that same kind of necessary experience of calm in their lives because many live chaotic lives. And how in the world are you going to cope and work in a school where everything is expected to go in a certain way and no one really understands your reality. The teacher’s reality is one. Whether the teacher is black, white, Latina or any other, they’re largely middle class, and there is a gap, I think, of understanding. I can empathize, I can sympathize, but I’ve never lived it, but I just know that when I work with five or six or ten children, we do fine. But I can’t survive with 30 kids in the room. And it’s going to be more difficult in a school where it’s chaotic. I don’t know how to put that any other way. Now that did not change, but when we’re talking equity, that is what must change.
D: We have all of these independent charter school management come in and say, “Let me take
these schools,” and each one has a different degree of knowledge on how to run those schools. So we have some that have been operated very well, and we have a lot that were not. Another thing is that schools have become very profitable. I don’t know if you’ve seen salaries for
principal and CEOs after Katrina—we have principals making six-figure salaries and it’s not that they don’t deserve it, but we have a lot of people at the top making a lot of money, and I don’t think teachers have seen quite that level of salary increase. Teacher’s salaries and their level of satisfaction in the workplace have not changed.
M: Well also after Katrina, there was this huge movement of more time equals better quality, and these schools were opening until 6 p.m. and demanding teachers to stay And a lot of it was, “Let’s just add two hours more to the school day and do more of the same ineffective stuff that we’re doing all day long.” I wish I could say yes, Katrina really made a difference, rather than, “What a shame man, we blew it as educators, and our leaders blew it.” We had an opportunity there maybe, but I don’t see any phoenix that rose from those ashes; it’s just more rubble.
Y: Are there some schools that were low performing before Katrina and are now doing well?
S: Morris Jeff is an example.
Y: Tell me about Morris Jeff. Did it exist before Katrina?
S: Morris Jeff was in my backyard before Katrina, and after the Katrina, it was the site of a lot
of looting and vandalism, and computers were thrown out of second-story windows. Many of the neighbors who believe in the idea of our children going to school together began to organize with the intent of reopening Morris Jeff as a neighborhood school. We went to the early meetings of the Recovery School District, and they said, “No, that building is too small for K-8”; and we said, “Well could you open up a K-3 school there?” They said, “No, the only model is K-8”; we said, “Well the neighbors are saying we’d like something in this building.” Again, “No, you’ll have to have buildings where we say you want buildings”; but the challenge motivated us to enlarge our group to a multiracial/ multireligion group of caring people who wanted to send their kids to school together. We lobbied all the way up to the Baton Rouge meetings where they couldn’t believe that people were going to voluntarily choose to send their students to multiracial schools. A judge asked my wife point-blank: “Would you choose to send your child to this school,” to which my wife said that, “while we don’t yet have children, we would promise to send them to this school when it opened.” That was met with expressions of disbelief.
Y: Was Morris Jeff a “good” school before Katrina?
S: No, Morris Jeff was not “good” then. But since Katrina, it’s become one of the schools that
parents want for their children. So much so that, when we applied to make good on my wife’s promise of putting my daughter in that school, we could not get our daughter in.
Y: What? After of all of your work to get it opened?
S: You could live in the Morris Jeff neighborhood and not get into Morris Jeff.
Y: So is it all on that application process?
S: Yes. We had to do that, and we didn’t get in but that’s not even my critique. I didn’t help
recreate Morris Jeff so that my daughter could have a spot. I participated in this process
because I believe that all the students of the region should go into the same school system and participate equitably We need to quit acting like my child is better than any other child in this country. Until that belief is cured from this country, we will never have equality or equitable public schools.
Y: So as a result of Katrina, how many schools do you think are Morris Jeff-like?
S: As a result of Katrina, zero.
Y: So it took Katrina to get us just one extra good school?
S: Katrina didn’t give that, what do you mean? My neighborhood community did that. A bunch of
people, who had a bunch of sweaty long conversations because of it, did that.
Y: I understand. Thank you. My next question to the group is, if you had the opportunity to be
in charge and start from scratch after Katrina, what would you put in place to promote equity in the schools?
M: I’d start a Montessori school.
B: I’d get rid of the private-for-profit providers and let university faculty do what we do best—
prepare teachers to prepare students in effective and appropriate ways.
Y: Then the implications are that we can see our own pre-service or in-service teachers implementing equitable practices in the schools.
B: I see it more from our students because we do have anecdotal data. I guess I may be biased,
but I see it more from our graduates than those from other providers.
Y: And A, I see that you shook your head no; and M, likewise.
M: I think when our students get to the school, the reality of the school—the whole system there—-just stops them from doing good work. I think we are preparing them for a reality that doesn’t exist.
Y: And A, you have A a little smile on your face that seems to say, “I know what you mean.”
A: I have an interesting experience with someone who is a very good educator and got her master’s from our university She is a pre-K teacher at a school where she wanted to believe and embrace student-centered practices so that kids would be doing different things and working in little groups. She said it does not work. She wrote probably one of the best master’s essays I’ve ever seen because she took a stance on what she had learned here when she did direct instruction, and I don’t mean direct lecture because she was very purposeful, Her kids needed that, and they needed the structure. In Delpit’s book called Other People’s Children, we see the same experience repeated. There is a cultural difference, Delpit noted, and she was specifically talking about black and white. For example, some little white teacher would say to a child, “Well, how would you like to tie your shoes?” and one of my favorite quotes from the book is when the kid would say, “No.” The teacher doesn’t really mean, “How would you do this?” She means, “Do it.” But the black kid expects that the adult will say, “Tie your shoes now,” and not, “How would you like to tie your shoes?” I think there are much bigger cultural issues that are certainly beyond Katrina; it’s beyond schools; it’s beyond everything with much of it based on our understanding or lack of understanding of one another.
M: I don’t see that much has changed in education, but when I do, it’s just a few pockets of it like in some secondary schools becoming a bit more constructivist. But that’s because of our teacher evaluation, Compass. It has to do with do this or lose your job.
Y: What you’re saying is that, if we had good assessments and teachers taught to those assessments, then maybe good things could happen?
M: I think Compass and Common Core, together, have improved education. I see teachers, especially in secondary schools, engaging students more, lecturing less, and facilitating productive interactions. But again, that has nothing to do with the question here about Katrina. But if you give me the six-figure salary, I would start a Montessori school and while I would want teachers to know their content, I would first hire teachers who understood children and the nature of children and adolescents and begin from there. I would hire for disposition over knowledge and skills. Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of the child.” I think that kids can learn so much if you just let them be—let them play and then guide them, instead of hammering them.
D: I say we open our own school based on our expertise and what we know works. We create
our own school, and we create the curriculum, and we create an environment where teachers and students are happy to teach and learn.
Y: I think that is an excellent idea. That level of a worthwhile task would allow the entire college
to work collaboratively with schoolteachers to design and implement effective practices for teaching and learning. I think this would be different from the lab-school concept, which is an independent system to provide training opportunities for pre- and in-service teachers. Our school could be a real public school whose purpose is to service the community—we could take on the challenge of a community in a low-SES area of the city. Imagine this—as I am busily creating my math methods lesson (or a sample lesson for our school curriculum), I collaborate with faculty from educational leadership on best practices for doing so because I want my teachers to become leaders who in turn want students to become leaders; I also collaborate with faculty from special-ed because I want to be sure that my strategies will address the needs of as many learners possible; I could also collaborate with the history teacher in the school because I want to incorporate, say, Haitian history in a math lesson at a time that coincides with his history curriculum. The principal would encourage and facilitate time for teachers who want to participate in lesson study to do so. These ideas are already out there, but I don’t think they are all being implanted in one school.
D: Let’s go further and have the city of New Orleans serve as the classroom where our kids
learn. Some kids have never been outside of their neighborhood—not even on a streetcar! You know how much learning can be derived from that?
S: We’d better be prepared to face the negative factors from the system that will want to limit
our vision for this school, as was true for Morris Jeff.
G: Good ideas for the future. We could also come up with something that is going to be useful
to the community of educators, right now For example, we can invite them to join us on a Saturday where we could each take charge of a topic for discussion that will encourage educators to voice their opinions, much like what we are doing now For example, D could offer a workshop on the ways to talk to students or classroom management that’s not militaristic in style, or B could have a session with administrators on practices for supporting teachers. At times a teacher or administrator could decide to lead the group also.
B: I like that too. I know that K in our faculty has done such collaboration in the past, so you
could start with her to get some input on how to relaunch this idea.
Y: Well folks, we were supposed to take only 30 minutes for this discussion, but we spent over
M: Yes, and no one wants to leave! I find that we, as a college, don’t engage in such meaningful discussions. All of the departmental meeting time is spent on clerical or administrative stuff.
Y: We are still very much like K—12 teachers, aren’t we? Same problems—like wanting time to
collaborate—just at a different level. We could ask our chair to allow, say, 45 minutes to discuss a topic of interest at the departmental meetings.
All: Thanks, Y.
I think the Katrina discussion shows how powerful the L4 space can be for sharing and generating ideas for moving toward ideas for resolving challenging issues. Valuing L4 enough to create the space for it to happen and to take action on its recommendations during the workday—now that is another challenge.