State of the Union January/February 2007

Reading, Writing, Resurrection

Hurricane Katrina destroyed one of America’s worst school systems and made New Orleans the nation’s laboratory for educational reform. But can determined educators and entrepreneurs transcend the damage of the flood—and of history?


Doris Roche-Hicks

Doris Roché-Hicks

n the pre-Katrina landscape, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary for Science and Technology was a standout—a pride of the Lower Ninth Ward, one of New Orleans’s poorest neighborhoods. King’s modern building, completed in 1995, towered over a neighborhood of mostly shotgun houses. It had a piano studio, a science lab, a large playground, and a public library attached to it. “We never failed to remind the kids of what they had,” Doris Roché-Hicks, the principal, said. “We taught them to take care of it.”

With a performance score of 85.9, just below the state average, King was still considered a failing school—but it was the best-performing of the 107 so designated. Almost all of the city’s better-performing public schools either screened students based on past performance or served higher-income neighborhoods. Ninety-six percent of King’s 715 students were receiving free or reduced-price lunch, and King had the highest performance score of any school with that profile and number of students.

The secret to its relative success was a dedicated staff led by a charismatic principal. Roché-Hicks, sixty, had been running the school since 1995. A tall woman with rounded features and an aureole of beige curls, she has the timing and deadpan delivery of a stand-up comic, as well as a knack for both leading from above and encouraging ideas from below. She was raised in the Ninth Ward herself and had been educating its children for more than twenty-five years, as a teacher and then as a principal. When she called—and she was not above making wake-up calls to the homes of tardy students—parents listened.

Katrina and the subsequent flooding had walloped the Lower Nine, as the neighborhood was known, leaving twenty-two adults and children connected to King among the dead. A year later, the only sign of life amid the ruined houses and bent trees was the occasional trailer. Although the first floor of Roché-Hicks’s own house had flooded, she put her recovery on hold to focus on the school’s. She knew neither the city nor the state would move quickly to reopen a school in an empty neighborhood, even as she knew the neighborhood would not come back without the school. King’s fate was thus intimately tied to the larger questions about race and rebuilding that were stalking New Orleans.

Roché-Hicks had opposed charter schools because she thought they would kill off public schools. But after Katrina, a charter was her only hope for King’s resurrection. She gathered a board, and in the spring of 2006, King’s charter application was one of the first approved. There was no time to celebrate, though, because Roché-Hicks and her staff had too much to do. They scrambled to buy insurance, arrange transportation, hire custodians, register students—all without knowing where their school would be housed. Only King’s first floor had completely flooded, but the state had deemed the building uninhabitable. King’s leaders were pushing hard for the renovation of their original site, but the school needed an interim building for the fall. The state’s offer: a decayed seventy-seven-year-old school.

That school had been well built—because, Roché-Hicks loved to point out, it had been built for whites—but it had not been well maintained. It needed major rehabilitation, and as opening day neared and repair work had not progressed very far, Roché-Hicks began to agitate about the state’s lack of urgency when it came to “children of color.” Her sentiments were genuine, but also strategic: she was situating her school’s struggle in a long history of educational racism. In part because of the King name, the local and national civil-rights establishment rallied to the school’s cause. When the state informed the school’s leaders that their temporary site would not be ready for opening day, the school told its parents and students to show up anyway. After a prayer, an old-time civil-rights rally got under way. Like props, little girls in braids and bows and little boys in shorts below their knees arrayed themselves on the steps in front of the locked doors.


Charles Steele, the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, raced in, fresh from Atlanta, to liken officials like Jarvis to the Ku Klux Klan. He then led protesters on a march to sit in at the Recovery School District headquarters. After a lengthy meeting, the white Jarvis sat at a press conference encircled by black activists. She had been outflanked, and she had the grace to recognize it: Roché-Hicks agreed to accept a further delay in King’s opening in return for a better interim building—and the state’s promise to try to repair the Lower Nine site by early 2007.

“They got a great classroom experience today!” Steele said brightly. “How many kids can say they marched with Dr. Martin Luther King’s organization?”


Exile had changed the parents and students of New Orleans. In Texas, or Indiana, or Mississippi, they had found schools that were both better and harder. They came home wanting more, and the city, with its new educational setup and promise of total choice, seemed poised to deliver it. So it did not sit well when some of the choice turned out to be illusory.

The selective-admissions schools, which had opened their doors to all comers in the flood’s wake, had put the gates back up. All four of the public day schools being run by the Orleans Parish School Board practiced selective admissions, and the city, unlike the state, was allowing the charter schools it authorized to practice selective admissions too. In Katrina’s immediate aftermath, the Orleans Parish School Board had agreed to turn the building of a failing, black high school in the heart of Uptown over to a new selective-admissions charter high school that had been backed by Tulane University and that reserved spaces for the qualified children of Tulane affiliates. By the fall, that high school, Lusher, was almost half white—and for some black New Orleanians, its very existence seemed to confirm the system’s continuing racial stratification. Many of the state-run schools, meanwhile, appeared to be full, so students were being shunted into whatever schools had room.

As opening day—September 8—finally limped into view, the Recovery School District staff gathered in their new, thinly populated headquarters to evaluate the landscape. This was truly a rump district: there were fewer than two dozen people in the room. The assembled officials seemed to have brought with them an implicit disdain for the culture that had permeated the New Orleans school system, and a belief that they knew how to right it. Almost none of the Recovery School District staff were from the Orleans Parish school bureaucracy. This showed an understandable desire to jettison the past, but it also meant reinventing every aspect of the wheel. Only as schools opened did the Recovery School District staff realize that they had no system to track attendance. And for all the talk about culture, there was a cultural deafness. New Orleans has always been riven geographically: Uptown, Downtown; East Bank, West Bank; Eighth Ward, Ninth Ward. Total school choice had mixed their children together, and city residents shook their heads, predicting fights that soon came.

The struggle for teachers was continuing—the Recovery School District opened its schools 106 teachers short. At the meeting, a state official said that only fourteen of twenty-four applicants had passed the skills test that day. Forty calls to teachers who had narrowly failed, to ask if they would be interested in substituting, yielded only two yeses. And teachers were exercising their power: “When we try to move teachers [from school to school], they’re quitting on us,” one official told the meeting. “Our quitting ratio is higher than our hiring ratio.”

Much of the Recovery School District’s work involved trying to manage the web of mostly out-of-state contractors that had replaced the school-board bureaucracy. Providing security: Day and Zimmermann, a Philadelphia- based corporation, and the Guidry Group, a Texas-based security consultancy. Food and custodial services: Sodexho, the food and facilities management megafirm. Real estate and finance: Alvarez and Marsal, a New York–based corporate turnaround firm that had contracts of about $50 million to handle finances for the Orleans Parish School Board and real estate for the state. In preparation for its returning students, the city was on a war footing: National Guard units, called in to deal with high crime rates, had been ordered to be “very visible” in their Humvees outside schools, according to the Guidry Group’s Michael Guidry. He promised that his beefy guys would do “really aggressive patrolling” in the schools: “Believe me,” he said, “by the time we get through walking up and down the halls, they’ll know who we are.” The students, it seemed, had to be menaced, intimidated, tamed. Whether this was a fact or a self-fulfilling prophecy would prove hard to disentangle.

Amid all of this, students seemed of more concern for the needs they generated—books, buses, nurses—than for the minds they carried. Because there was no centralized record keeping, a child could easily fall out of the system. The presumption was that if children left a Recovery School District school, they had gone to a charter, or an Orleans Parish school; but couldn’t they just as easily have dropped out?

Jarvis deserved great credit for her openness and genuine desire to improve the schools. But even giving weight to all the post-Katrina challenges—and they were many—the planning by her and the state officials she answered to had fallen short. I feel compelled to put this on the record, only because it would be too easy to blame all of the looming chaos on Katrina, or on the problems of the past, or on the character of the children themselves.

It was easy to despair observing all this, and the schools’ tumultuous first weeks wouldn’t help. But these early days offered a snapshot, not a verdict. Some of the initial problems would recede. And the biggest change in New Orleans education was invisible. The system could now correct its course, whether by replacing principals or teachers (assuming, of course, replacements could be found) or closing underperforming charter schools, which face review every three years. The interim was painful to watch; after Katrina’s lost year, many children would lose months more to trial and error. But the long view, at least, allowed for hope.

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Amy Waldman is an Atlantic national correspondent.

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