My prayers are with you, Texas. My memories are with you too. The day after Katrina hit New Orleans, my family and I made the 17 hour car ride to Houston. The people of Texas welcomed us, opening their homes and helping us out with clothing, even financial assistance. As a native New Orleanian, I wish that I could do the same for you now. But what’s happened in my city and to its schools serves as a cautionary tale to residents of Houston. Reeling from the disaster, our communities were scattered like the four winds. I returned from Houston, many of us did, but the New Orleans we left doesn’t belong to us anymore.
Rents have quadrupled as gentrification remakes whole neighborhoods, pushing out long-time residents. Nearly half of the children here now live in poverty, and job security is worse, salaries lower. The sense that we’re doing worse than before Katrina is borne out in the data: Black New Orleanians have 18% less wealth than we did in 2005.
My prayers are with you, Texas. But my warnings are too.
1. Be wary of elites with big plans Even as Katrina’s waters were receding, a handful of local elites were making plans for taking over the city’s schools. In the years following the storm, more than $76 billion came to the city of New Orleans. Yet the native population is poorer than we were before Katrina; we have 18% less wealth than we did in 2005. It became obvious early on that the money for New Orleans wasn’t making it into the hands of native New Orleanians. Huge sums of money demand oversight, accountability, and, most importantly, a vision for how exactly investment will help the people who need it most. All parts of your community must be allowed to participate fully in the rebuilding of their own city.
2.. Trauma can’t be “disciplined” out of kids A hurricane is a deeply traumatic experience for children and trauma cannot simply be “disciplined” out of kids. New Orleans is now full of schools with “college prep” in their names, but their strict rules, harsh discipline and fixation on a culture of compliance have more in common with prison than with college. The “new” and “innovative” approach to educating kids that swept through our city after Katrina seems to start from the assumption that what children need to be successful is to be treated like adult criminals. We’ve had multiple incidents of children as young as five being handcuffed in schools, even arrested. Students who can’t afford the uniforms that are now mandatory at virtually every school in New Orleans are suspended, often for long periods of time. As an advocate for children in the schools, I’m regularly reminded that our post-Katrina schools in New Orleans intersect with the criminal justice system starting in the earliest grades, and ensnaring parents too. Louisiana, after all, that incarcerates a higher percentage of its residents than any other state. I wonder why that is?
3. Don’t let your teachers get swept away Three months after Katrina, 7,500 school employees, including 4,000 teachers, were fired. Many of them had lost their homes to the hurricane. New Orleans lost the core of its Black middle class, and our schools lost adults who were connected to the city and its culture. What happens when all of your teachers are fired? You have a teacher shortage. New Orleans now imports its teachers: recent college grads from programs like Teach for America, who are entrusted with our kids’ development after receiving less training than what we require from workers at a nail salon.
4. Your culture isn’t a liability to be overcome Beware of people who see your culture as a liability. The culture and soul of our city is music, arts and drama. Yet the people who came to “fix” New Orleans viewed the city and its culture as the source of our problems that they had to help us overcome. That mean schools without art, music or drama, in a city whose culture draws people from all over the world. Think about that. Without arts in the schools where will the next generation of performers come from? The arts are also an important way for kids to deal with trauma in a city that’s seen so much of it. Our kids desperately needed art, music and drama—yours will too.
5. Read the fine print The makeover of New Orleans schools came with plenty of marketing. Schools are now advertised on billboards and at bus stops, but underneath all of the bells and whistles are outdated models of child development. Our schools enforce “zero tolerance”, while requiring that students as young as kindergartners be silent, compliant and tolerant of whatever is happening around them—policies that would never be imposed in wealthier communities. And because our schools now operate in accordance with market-based principles, that means that somebody is always getting paid, whether or not they actually know anything about child development or education.
6. Be wary of people who say ‘it’s all about the children’ You’ll be hearing a lot of this; we did. But children don’t pop up from rabbit holes. Their well being has everything to do with the wellbeing of their parents and their communities. Do their parents have jobs? How much do the jobs pay? Can they afford housing? The people who say that they’re with the kids and not the “adult interests” may be well intentioned, but you can’t separate children from their neighborhoods and what’s happening around them.
7. Learn from what happened in New Orleans As you come to terms with the damage that Harvey did to your lives, your city and your schools, there will be calls to make Houston the next New Orleans. Politicians and elites will push for the state to takeover the schools, and you’ll hear all about the “miracle” of New Orleans school makeover. But for every data point that gets thrown around, there are the ones that no one likes to talk about. Forty four percent of children in New Orleans live in poverty. Of our young people between the ages of 16-24, 26,000 aren’t working or in school. And their parents are poorer than they were before the storm. Among Black men, the rate of unemployment is 42%, while rents in the city have quadrupled.
When our schools were taken over and privatized after Katrina, we didn’t have another city to look to or people to ask. Nothing like they planned for us had ever been tried before. You have New Orleans to look to as a cautionary tale. Learn from what happened here; talk to native New Orleanians. Then rebuild your own city. Make it better, and make your schools better for the children and the adults who’ve survived this hurricane.
Start healing, get the help that you need, and that fight like hell to save your schools and communities.