Refuting the Myth of the New Orleans School Miracle: Children Lost after Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans almost ten years ago, as school was just beginning in the fall of 2005. Ever since, we have been trying to piece together the meaning of what happened to New Orleans’ children and to what was once the New Orleans Parish Schools—a school district that was abruptly dismantled in the late fall right after the hurricane and after a new law passed in Baton Rouge permitted the state to take over most of New Orleans’ schools.  A mass experiment in charterization was undertaken, launched with money from Margaret Spellings in the U.S. Department of Education with added help from philanthropists such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. All the teachers and school employees were laid off and later their positions eliminated.  Today virtually all of New Orleans’ schools have become privately managed charter schools in what became the Louisiana Recovery School District.

The dominant narrative about the New Orleans school transformation has come from annual reports released by the Cowen Institute at Tulane that pumped out rhetoric and data to prove that the charterization of New Orleans’ schools was a grand success.  Last year Jeff Bryant, writing for the Education Opportunity Network demonstrated serious problems with that spin in The Truth About The New Orleans School Reform Model:  “An especially egregious example of ‘juking the stats’ is the way the school administration in New Orleans—where, basically, the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina was used as an opportunity to summarily fire school teachers and turn over the majority of schools to privately managed charter school operators from out of town—is now being marketed to the entire country as a “solution” for public education everywhere.”  Bryant believes the data reports that have wowed school reformers presented an unrealistic portrayal of the impact of the school privatization on New Orleans’ children.

In the years since 2005, we’ve had glimpses into other points of view.

A year after Hurricane Katrina, in the fall of 2006, Leigh Dingerson, edited  Dismantling a Community—a powerful booklet of reflections from the still scattered students who had been part of Students at the Center, a high school writers’ workshop launched in 1996 at New Orleans’ McDonogh 35 High School and Frederick Douglass High School.  At the end of that volume Dingerson concludes, “Taking advantage of disarray and inertia by local officials, and the willingness of the federal government to heavily bankroll its alternative vision, powerful interests in education reform took the reins in New Orleans to recreate ‘public’ education under a market model.  As the new school year gets underway, little relating to the K-12 educational process in New Orleans is clear or easy  Students are still looking for places to hang their backpacks; parents are still crisscrossing the city trying to navigate a system that barely qualifies as ‘public,’ but for the millions of public dollars that have funded its creation.”

In 2007, Naomi Klein wrote about the New Orleans charter school experiment as the defining example of what she called The Shock Doctrine: “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision.  Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.  Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4… New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired… New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)

In 2010, Teachers College Press published Pedagogy, Policy, and the Privatized City: Stories of Dispossession and Defiance from New Orleans, which shared the perspective of former Students at the Center as they reflected back on their education in New Orleans and what happened in the months after Hurricane Katrina.  Maria Hernandez in a short essay, “Worse Than Those Six Days,” writes: “When Katrina hit New Orleans, I was two weeks into my senior year at Frederick Douglass High School.  My friends and I were frantically trying to keep our school from closing.  Douglass was one of the lowest ranking schools in the district, so the state, using its accountability plan, was trying to shut it down or take it over… Looking back on the last few days of August 2005, I still can’t believe we spent six days in the Superdome…. I’ve lost my home, my friends, and my school.  I’m always on the verge of tears.  But the worst part of it all is that the public officials—both elected and hired—who are supposed to be looking out for my education have failed me even worse than the ones who abandoned me in the Superdome.  My family and friends have food and water and the kindness of strangers… I’m in the same situation I was before Katrina: but now I’m fighting to reopen Douglass and other neighborhood high schools in New Orleans and to provide quality education for people like me.” (Pedagogy, Policy, and the Privatized City, pp. 85-86)

Even through the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the havoc that has rocked the lives of many of New Orleans’ children and adolescents, Jim Randels and Kalamu Ya Salaam managed to keep their writing workshop, Students at the Center, alive in several post-Katrina New Orleans high schools. It has been an institutional setting where students can feel safe and learn to express their sense of displacement powerfully in their writing.

The students who came back to Students at the Center were the lucky ones. This week Katy Reckdahl writing for The Hechinger Report shares a very different point of view in her story of young people who could not find an institutional setting to which they could anchor themselves after their families were displaced. In The Lost Children of Katrina (reprinted in The Atlantic) Reckdahl writes: “An untold number of kids—probably numbering in the tens of thousands missed weeks, months, even years of school after Katrina. Only now, a decade later, are advocates and researchers beginning to grasp the lasting effects of this post-storm duress… While some displaced children thrived in better schooling elsewhere, countless others had no time to put down new roots: Many low-income New Orleans evacuees spent several years after the storm in nomadic exile, moving among family members or in search of jobs or housing.”

“Early on, children’s advocates noted that serial moves and school absences were prevalent… While disasters are sometimes portrayed as events affecting everyone equally, children from more fragile families are more likely to be traumatized and to recover more slowly, said sociologist Lori Peek, who co-directs the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis at Colorado State University.  After observing 650 displaced New Orleans-area children, Peek and her collaborator Alice Fothergill found that poorer children were more likely to be exposed to Katrina’s floodwaters, resulting in ‘challenges concentrating in schools, higher anxiety levels and more behavioral problems.'” “Lower-income children were also more likely to be displaced far from home, to move often and to encounter bullying and discrimination, Peek and Fothergill found. ‘The children whose lives were most disrupted and whose social support system and family networks were shattered were left with few tools or resources to pick up the pieces,’ they concluded.”

Reckdahl’s new piece features the children whose families moved around from place to place all year after the hurricane.  She profiles the Lee family who moved to Houston where the mother kept her adolescent sons home from school because she feared violence.  “When the Lee family returned to New Orleans about a year after the storm, several schools had reopened, but much of the system remained in chaos.  Devante Lee, who came back first with an aunt, enrolled in a school where classes were held in temporary trailers run by high proportions of temporary teachers.  His campus sometimes shut down for the day without notice.  For thousands of New Orleans school children, these experiences were the rule, not the exception.”

Today Reckdahl reports a bigger than usual cohort of young adults seeking the GED, students, she surmises, who dropped out during the post-Katrina chaos. She also describes a number of community organizations that have sprung up to offer support and stability to young adults still trying to get their lives together.

One of the serious problems with the data-based reports that have created the myth of the charter school miracle in New Orleans is that the kind of young people described in Reckdahl’s new piece became invisible to data summaries by falling through the cracks.  Nobody knows how many students moved away and fit right in somewhere else and how many like Devante and Devine Lee, now in their mid-20s, dropped out and disappeared.  Their stories speak not only to the chaos as homes were flooded and neighborhoods broken up, but also to the destruction of the educational institutions—once anchors for young people—to which they could no longer automatically return once they came back to a city now designed around school choice.

As Reckdahl writes, “Those who did early Katrina research wonder what happened to the displaced children they met.  Thousands didn’t return, and the population of children in New Orleans dropped by 43 percent between 2000 and 2010.”

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One thought on “Refuting the Myth of the New Orleans School Miracle: Children Lost after Hurricane Katrina

  1. Reblogged this on Education Talk New Orleans and commented:
    “Today Reckdahl reports a bigger than usual cohort of young adults seeking the GED, students, she surmises, who dropped out during the post-Katrina chaos. She also describes a number of community organizations that have sprung up to offer support and stability to young adults still trying to get their lives together.” I always think about just who is not in the statistics when I see those reports of miracle improvement in New Orleans. I know several families that have moved away after fighting to come back to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. those families moved away due to their struggle to navigate the newly reformed public school landscape.

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