NOLA education system fails to incorporate community

Lily Milwit, Staff Writer

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Since Hurricane Katrina, the city has rebuilt buildings, repainted classrooms and stocked bookshelves. This fall marks the 10th year since New Orleans school districts reopened after Katrina, which damaged or destroyed 112 of the city’s 128 public schools. While the education system has undergone significant changes, like relying more on the charter school model, these changes have created issues that require attention.

Many New Orleans students have suffered in public education. Even before Hurricane Katrina wiped out the infrastructure, resources and tax base needed to fuel the system, schools were failing. Graduation rates were among the lowest in the nation at 56 percent, and only 33 percent of students in third through eighth grade were scoring basic or above on state standardized tests.

In 2003, the Louisiana state legislature set up the Recovery School District to take over failing schools. As of 2015, RSD controlled over 70 percent of public schools in New Orleans and 91 percent of public school students in New Orleans were enrolled in charter schools, which was up 2.5 percent from 2004. New Orleans remains by far the highest proportion of students enrolled in charter schools in the nation. The next highest is Detroit with 55 percent of its students attending charter schools.

The dramatic shift in the public education landscape in New Orleans has, according to some data, spurred improvements in student achievement. Graduation rates have risen to 73 percent, and 63 percent of students in third through eighth grade are now scoring basic or above average on state standardized tests.

This shift has also prompted praise from education leaders like former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who, in 2010, said that Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.”

There is another side, however, to the public education story in New Orleans that transcends graduation rates, test scores and data points. That side of the story takes into account what cannot be quantified by numbers or measured by graphs — things like race, poverty, communities and families.

Before Katrina, 73 percent of Orleans Parish teachers were black. Almost half had 15 years or more of teaching experience, and all could opt to unionize. After the storm, more than 7,000 teachers and school staff lost their jobs and as of 2013, the teaching force was 54 percent black — compared to an 87 percent black student body. Furthermore, average teaching experience for teachers in the RSD was seven years, and unions have become a point of contention for New Orleans educators.

Additionally, students travel an average of 1.8 miles further to get to school than they did before Katrina, and a quarter of students attend a school more than five miles from where they live. Teacher turnover has nearly doubled due to the increasing reliance on programs like Teach For America that require only short-term commitments from teachers.

Schools that had been in existence for decades and attended by multiple generations of families were shut down, and outsiders replaced teachers and principals that hailed from New Orleans communities. The pressure of test scores and graduation rates led to extremely high suspension and expulsion rates in charter schools, as well as alleged exclusion of disadvantaged and special-needs children from schools.

In 2014, a national coalition of parents filed a federal civil rights complaint against the Louisiana Department of Education, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and RSD alleging racial discrimination in schools. A 2015 report funded by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans found that one-third of New Orleans principals had used means to screen out undesirable students. In the same year, Lagniappe Academies in Treme lost its charter due to administrators deliberately screening out special-needs students.

While the higher test scores don’t lie, they do leave out the fact that Katrina displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Many of the poorest and lowest performing students were never able to return to New Orleans.

Fifteen percent of New Orleans youth aged 16-19 are not in school or the workforce, leaving out a significant chunk of the school-aged population from the narrative that boasts rising test scores.

Part of the problem is that RSD is a state initiative put in place by officials elected by Louisiana’s white majority to control schools in a city with a black majority. Another point to consider is the blurring of public and private as public charter schools rely increasingly on funds from philanthropists and the private sphere.

Even a decade after New Orleans schools reopened, changes in the education system are still occurring, and the devastation of Katrina continues to manifest itself in the lives of students, families and educators.

The New Orleans school system must learn to maintain a sense of community and inclusion. It must find meaningful ways to incorporate community voices into public school processes. Until then, it is unlikely that New Orleans schools will ever be able to provide quality education to every type of student that calls the city home.

This is an opinion article and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Tulane Hullabaloo. Lily is a junior at Newcomb-Tulane College. She can be reached at [email protected]