As of Saturday, it has been fifteen years since Hurricane Katrina. Now, in New Orleans and worldwide, we reel from another disaster. Our city is devastated once more; we are losing lives, jobs, and homes—this time not to a storm, but to a terrible virus, a gutted economy, and evictions. And of course, our hearts are with the parts of Louisiana and Texas that are recovering from Hurricane Laura.
I have been grateful to work in the field of education for my entire 30-year career, before and after Hurricane Katrina. Fifteen years is more than enough time to realize that, for all the progress we have made in education, we need systemic change—to housing, to healthcare, to food access, just to name a few key areas—to truly provide our children with what they deserve.
Of course, there is much to be proud of and much we have accomplished. Our teachers are phenomenal. Our school leaders are visionaries. Our students are brilliant. High school graduation and college entry rates have risen. Our bands are back marching down the streets during Mardi Gras. The percentage of schools rated “A” or “B” has more than doubled while the percentage of “F” rated schools has plummeted since 2005, from 62% to 8%. Our student athletes are bringing stadiums to their feet. Our young activists are standing up for what they believe. And our schools are putting a powerful focus both on providing the highest-quality academics, but also addressing the trauma and mental health needs of our students.
The growth our schools have made in the past fifteen years was built from the foundation of strong local legacies. Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans public schools served as powerful community hubs in addition to academic institutions. Leaders were nurtured and developed in our classrooms, and students and families felt a strong connection to their alma maters. In the past few years, our schools have revamped more of that whole-child support and family engagement. Alumni groups are providing enormous support and many schools have re-adopted the names they held before the storm.
Today, our children have a stronger education than they had even five or ten years ago; but, we can not fight for a better education and ignore the institutional barriers our children face.
We cannot advocate for higher academic standards without advocating for higher minimum wage—in our city, as Talmon Joseph Smith aptly noted in the New York Times, tens of thousands of New Orleanians are making just $7.25 an hour. We cannot focus on teacher retention without focusing on educators’ quality of life. We must invest in trauma-informed curriculum at the same time that we invest in coding workshops. We cannot say we have truly prepared children for college if they have the academic readiness, but not the self-confidence or sense of independence they need to thrive.
It is high time to expand our focus, moving beyond education to societal, systemic change. We must look to increase wages, reform juvenile justice and immigration, protect our environment, and expand access to healthcare and housing—all the things that ultimately affect the quality of life for our children and families.
The need for this is easy to understand. It is harder for our children to study when they do not have stable housing. It is harder for them to participate in class when they are hounded by violent memories they need help processing. It is harder for them to play at recess when they are hungry. It is hard for them to walk home from school, knowing their presence alone could be seen as “suspicious” enough for someone to call the police. And it is hard for them to feel a sense of stability when the ravages of climate change—or a poorly-controlled pandemic—could shut down their school at any moment.
We have always known this. But, right after Katrina, while leaders made bold change, that change was insufficient to reach our true aims. As a community, we were neither bold nor knowledgeable enough to take the action our children deserved. We were not brave enough to delve into areas that were uncomfortable, unpopular, and uncertain. I was a decision-maker in education for five of those years and I regret that I did not push for more, faster.
Today, we have an opportunity to change all of that. This is a moment of pain for our country, but it is also a moment for change. We are finding energy amidst our exhaustion.
Our schools have found that energy. When the pandemic struck, principals arranged safe housing for families when parents lost their jobs and could not pay rent. Our counselors ran hotlines to talk children through mental health crises and connected them with longer-term support. Our teachers called their students when they could not see them in person, not just to teach, but to make sure they felt okay. Our front desk staff and cafeteria workers were out in front of our buildings, wearing masks in the hot sun as they handed out free meals to any child that arrived. Our coaches sent texts about workout schedules so our young people could stay in the cathartic routines of exercise. Our community was in the streets marching for justice, protesting the brutal and racist murders of Black Americans at the hands of police and vigilantes.
These actions were driven by a powerful force: empathy. Empathy was what fueled me when, after Hurricane Katrina, I was overwhelmed, but determined to bring our schools back stronger than before. Empathy is also what caused so many to give so much to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. That warmth and love from around the world motivated so many of us to do more when we were so worn out from it all.
Now, our empathy must focus on policy along with pedagogy, and social services along with state standards. When it comes to education, collaboration has been key: the Louisiana Department of Education works closely with NOLA Public Schools and the nonprofit I lead, New Schools for New Orleans, around our shared belief that all children deserve excellent schools. We know that change in education happens not just in classrooms, but also in budget meetings and legislative sessions. Other sectors need this same coordination and focus as well. We need clear, unified efforts from state and local lawmakers, agency directors, and nonprofit leaders when it comes to housing, healthcare, juvenile justice, and the environment. In all these arenas, we cannot rest at high hopes and strong efforts. We need to measure our progress until we see real results.
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