Education reforms need nurturing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

17kd191-hurricane-katrina-photosPresident Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that Hurricane Katrina was the best thing to happen to schoolchildren in New Orleans because prior to the storm, the city had one of the worst performing school districts in America.

The graft, greed and corruption which existed on the New Orleans school board prior to Katrina led to several board members going to jail. At the same time, the outputs for students were horrific. Before Katrina, only 35 percent of students scored at grade level on standardized tests

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina led to a complete rebuilding and restructuring of New Orleans’ schools. Gov. Kathleen Blanco recommended the Louisiana State Legislature create the New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD), which took over control of the schools, wrestling it away from the corrupt school board.

The RSD began working with charter school operators from around the country to launch a host of charter schools throughout the district. Many of the top education reform funders also pitched in and they say that the students are better off as a result. New Orleans is now the most charter-friendly jurisdiction in the nation, with nearly all of its public school children now enrolled in charter schools.

As charter schools were taking hold in New Orleans, waiting lists continued to grow. In 2008, the Louisiana legislature passed a scholarship bill to allow low-income students to attend private school on public funds. That program worked so well that in 2012, the legislature expanded it statewide. As a result, Louisiana’s low-income residents have far more high-quality educational choices for their students than most other places in the country.

The poster child for education reform may well be the state of Louisiana, most notably New Orleans. A large majority of those in the education reform arena believe that the next big challenge is to make sure that these programs continue to grow and thrive. ‬‬

But another challenge looms large for the education reform movement in New Orleans. With all the academic success in New Orleans, far too many residents believe they are not a part of the reforms.

In 2014, former Milwaukee Schools Superintendent Howard Fuller interviewed several African-American New Orleans’ residents to get their views about the school reforms in their city. He said progress has been made, but a tremendous amount of animosity remains in which many feel that “reform was done to them and not with them.”

Many complained about feeling put upon, invaded and disrespected, he said. In fact, a surprisingly high number of New Orleans residents support going back to the old school board in power system. In the one American city where reform flourishes, too many low-income and working class families feel as though they are not a part of the change, Fuller said.

Similar feelings exist in nearly every city where aggressive education reform has been initiated. Almost like the bureaucratic system it is trying to change, parents say the education reform movement has fallen prey to the same top down approaches that, frankly, rub people the wrong way.

Far too frequently, education reformers are winning legislative battles for change, but losing the war over hearts and minds. All of this begs the question: How do we make change in education work for students in a way that people can accept? How do we win the hearts and minds of the people we seek to serve?

Some school officials say the answer lies in our learning from the New Orleans experience. In the zeal to get the best school operators to start schools, reformers and city leaders did not take the time to nurture relationships with existing residents, who understandably had been traumatized by Hurricane Katrina. Nor did they pepper the boards of these charter schools with citizens from the community. Moreover, many African-American educators were fired and young white teachers overwhelmingly ran new schools. In hindsight, greater care should have been given by the reformers to be more respectful and inclusive in its dealings with the indigenous New Orleans population.

In New Orleans, some say the biggest mistake was in believing that changing a school system alone, would create a sustainable learning environment. Others disagree, because they believe the only way to build a community of learners is to inspire people to want to learn; by tapping into that inherent will to be better and do better. That they say, only happens by engaging people.

September 8, 2015
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