Art by Brian Hubble
I am a parent of three, a black New Orleanian with roots going back at least five generations. I’m usually happy and optimistic, but when I talk about what has happened to my city, especially its schools, I become angry.
Even before Hurricane Katrina struck the city on Aug. 29, 2005, the schools of New Orleans were dilapidated. In the aftermath of the disaster, I participated in what felt like a hundred processes with parents and community members talking about what they would like to see happen. I thought we would be heard.
Many young people in our communities, even before the storm, had trauma disorders. Because of the hurricane, that number increased. Many of our children and families were in need of counseling, therapy and other services that we could have used the schools to deliver. We wanted a psychologist in every school. That didn’t happen.
Forty percent of people who died in Hurricane Katrina, died by drowning. Even though we live in a city below sea level and are surrounded by water, the people who designed our schools forgot to put in pools. That mistake could be easily corrected with the billions of dollars coming in. It hasn’t been.
We would rebuild in such a way that our children could finally break the cycle of poverty, by creating entrepreneur programs, and by funding high-school tech curriculums. We would have programs where students and our community would come up with ways to create new solutions for the city. We would train our teachers in new, innovative ways to reach children with different needs.
What actually happened was this: The state raised the cut-score on standardized tests and took over all the schools in Orleans Parish. It fired all of the teachers, counselors and administrators. Then Teach for America came in, because we suddenly had a teacher shortage.
Teaching is a profession that requires a four-year degree and classroom training. New Orleans embraced the notion that all you need to be a teacher here is to be smart, preferably white and from someplace else. Then, with four weeks of training you could come to a city with a devastated populace and properly educate children.
Today, what we see a lot of in New Orleans are charter entities getting more schools to run. Most of the charter operators and boards are white and from outside the city.
And children are being put out of schools. In charter schools in New Orleans, children can be suspended for almost anything. The most common transgression is willful disobedience. That can be coughing, laughing, picking up a pencil or looking at the teacher the wrong way. My own 8-year-old daughter was suspended for bringing a doll to school.
I could go on and on about how education has failed the children of New Orleans. I could tell you, for instance, about the roughly 15,000 young folks between 16 and 24 who are not working or in school.
With all of this bad news, there is good news. The good news is that there are people who are trying to address these challenges. The good news is that we can start doing this right in the next 10 years.
I’m still optimistic that all of these conversations will lead to action. I hope you will join me in this quest. I’m optimistic that together we can make New Orleans into a place that tells the story of people who were almost left behind but who then came together to make a victory for all.
Ashana Bigard is a New Orleanian and public school advocate. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright Ashana Bigard