Post-Katrina, New Orleans School “Reform” in the Context of a History of White Supremacy

In “Frederick Douglass High School in New Orleans: School Closings, Race, and the Dangers of Policy without History,” Kristen Buras quotes New Orleans’ school superintendent Paul Vallas from 2008—back when technocracy and privatization became mixed with the  New Orleans’ recovery from Hurricane Katrina.  Vallas was working with Paul Pastorek, Louisiana’s state school superintendent, to impose a new school master plan that set out to close public schools and turn many of the buildings over to charter school operators.  When someone at a community meeting, which had been convened to discuss the potential closure of Frederick Douglass High School,  brought up the racially embedded history of the school, Vallas responded: “Kids don’t know they’re going to school at a historical landmark. They just know they’re going to a building where the electricity doesn’t work, where the technology has been antiquated… I’m not going to get involved in the politics of where schools should go.  I’m going to get involved in the politics of what schools should be.”

The building of the all-black, Frederick Douglass High School had been allowed to deteriorate. Buras recounts the school’s history—the founding of Nicholls High School in 1913, its rebuilding by the Public Works Administration in 1938-1939, and its decline through the years after Brown v. Board of Education as as white students moved to private academies and the school became all-black.  The school, whose facilities were allowed to decline over time, was renamed after Frederick Douglass in the mid-1990s. Buras summarizes the assumptions under the state takeover in 2005 and the subsequent charterization of the New Orleans’ schools: “(C)harter school advocates in New Orleans criticize traditional public schools, especially black ones, for their alleged ‘failure’ without connecting racism and inequitable state education policies to the problems experienced by those schools.”

The 2005 hurricane did little damage to the Frederick Douglass building, and the school had re-opened as a comprehensive public high school post-Katrina, to serve the students in the Bywater section of the Upper Ninth Ward. Only after the school was turned over to the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Charter network in 2010, was private money found to upgrade the facility.  Buras quotes Vallas: “If a charter high school like KIPP goes in the Douglass building, the organization might bring outside money to help renovate the building.”  She adds: “Again, no consideration was given to the question of why state and local officials (had) failed to maintain the building or why master planners decided Douglass did not merit renovations.”

Buras profiles the remarkable and transformational writing program launched at Frederick Douglass High School in 1998, a decade prior to the school’s eventual closure: “Douglass was one of the lowest-ranked public high schools in New Orleans when SAC (Students at the Center) joined the school in 1998.”  Students at the Center was launched by Jim Randels, later joined by Kalamu Ya Salaam, as an effort to engage students in reflection as an experiment in critical pedagogy: “At Douglass, SAC classes consist of teachers and students sitting in a circle, sharing their stories and writings, listening carefully, and engaging in critical dialogue—practices informed by an appreciation of the connection between reflection and action.  That is, ‘the best education is a collective and social, rather than an individual endeavor….’  Randels and Salaam are mentoring as well as learning from a generation of student writers and storytellers in new Orleans, whose work is closely connected with the surrounding community.”

Students in the SAC program after the 2005 hurricane have had their work published (Pedagogy, Policy, and the Privatized City: Stories of Dispossession and Defiance from New Orleans), and the program has developed a strong community presence despite the ultimate turnover of the Frederick Douglass building itself to KIPP.  Over the years, Students at the Center has been able to find a presence in some other schools across the city: “A lineage, in fact, has developed: more experienced SAC students mentor non-SAC peers in their own high schools, and some work with elementary-aged students at nearby public elementary schools.  Graduates of SAC have returned as teachers in the program after completing college degrees.”

Buras concludes: “Counterstories must be told in opposition to dominant narratives of reform… (C)ounterstories are accounts that challenge white majoritarian narratives and are based on the experiential knowledge of people of color.  They are essential in the context of New Orleans, where racially and economically destructive reforms have been packaged as a successful model to be replicated nationally.”  “Douglass’ closure surely undermined the community’s efforts to determine its future.  Situating the school’s struggles within a history of white supremacy would have suggested a different set of actions.”

Buras’s article and the book from which it was adapted are very hard to find.  The piece is adapted from Buras’s 2015 book, Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance.  Published by Routlage, the book is expensive.  You can find the article in the July-December 2015 issue of SOULS: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society. SOULS, an academic journal housed at Columbia University, is paywalled.  I urge you to look for Buras’ 2015 book or her article in SOULS at a libraryYou may also want to look for Buras’s excellent (and easier to find) 2010 book, Pedagogy, Politics and the Privatized City, published by Teachers College Press.


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.”