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?

For the students of Sarah T. Reed High School in New Orleans East, the first day back on their own campus in mid-October began with a security protocol more thorough than any American airport’s. Uniformed security guards barked orders for students to remove earrings and belts before passing through metal detectors. The guards poked through bags and patted students down. They confiscated belt buckles over a certain size (they could be used to hit someone in a fight), sending boys down the halls clutching their pants. And they took chips and chocolate: Daniel Hudson, the principal, had ordered the guards to seize junk food, in part because African American teenagers were so at risk for obesity and diabetes.

Few schools so clearly revealed the early shortfalls of the Recovery School District and the difficulty of reviving and remaking a school system in a broken city. Six weeks into the school year, Reed, which was not a charter school but rather was being run directly by the state, was just returning to its campus in New Orleans East; it had spent the interim sharing the campus of another school across the city. Neither the auditorium nor the gymnasium could be used because of continuing repairs. The school had no computers and no telephones, meaning Hudson had to do all school business through his cell phone. He had no assistant principal. And there were no extracurricular activities.

With dozens of security guards—some of them barely out of high school themselves—and two police officers patrolling Reed’s halls, the guard-to-student ratio was as high as the teacher-to-student ratio. The city’s public-school culture, as articulated to me by Kenneth Jackson, the school’s stately “in-school suspension officer,” was that students needed something, or someone, to fear, “because they have gotten away with a whole lot.”

When I first met Hudson, he said he had been taking a year off, but had not mentioned why. A Google search soon explained: After stints in Virginia and Pennsylvania, he had been hired, in 2004, as the principal of Ballou High, the second-largest high school in Washington, D.C., and among the worst-performing. There, according to generally sympathetic press accounts, he had clashed with administrators, teachers, and students who resented his attempts to enforce rules and decorum. In June of 2005—three months before Katrina hit New Orleans—the superintendent, who had refused for the entire year to meet with Hudson, fired him.

Related graphic:

Making It Up in Volume?
Percentage of various countries' populations that have at least a high-school diploma.

Now here he was, once again facing a resistant culture—and to my surprise, given the accounts of Ballou, he called New Orleans “very unorganized” in comparison. Unruliness ruled the halls, despite Hudson’s bellowing efforts to police them. Several students he confronted for lingering in the halls could not remember the name of their teachers for that period, or even the subject. Hudson had idealized New Orleans since a visit fifteen years earlier, but as a principal, he had run headlong into a culture that was the city’s curse as well as its charm. He called it “Big Easy behavior,” as in “We always are all late.” He was determined to challenge that attitude, but one mother warned that “laissez faire” would not yield easily: “It’s part of our culture, just as sure as there are red beans and rice on Monday and seafood every Friday,” she told him. She was one of about thirty-five parents—out of a student body that ought to have yielded ten times that—who had shown up for Reed’s parents’ night.

Hudson was determined to break down students who defied authority. He got on the intercom to remind them that Reed was a school, “not a mall.” He told one sixteen-year-old who had threatened a teacher, “No teacher in this building is going to punk out for any student here. I am not going to punk out for any student here. I have too many kids like you who think they can say and do anything they want.” He tried telling the same sixteen-year-old about his own upbringing as one of eight children of a single mother who swept floors for doctors and lawyers, how he had been pulled up by football. But it seemed to make no impression on the young man. I couldn’t tell whether it was because the student was already too far gone, or because Hudson was so busy talking, and yelling, that he had forgotten how to listen.

Students watched Hudson and shook their heads, as if sure he would run aground on his own determination. “He tries, but it ain’t really working, what he’s trying to do,” said a student named Laura Hurst, who was sitting glumly in the cafeteria, boycotting lunch, like most of her classmates, because the food was frozen. “They’re still going to do what they want to do.”

As Hudson himself knew well, the time he spent in the halls, the endless meetings with parents, meant he knew little of what was happening in the classroom. What was clear, in the time I spent in classes, was how little of the training Jarvis had mandated for teachers seemed to have taken. In algebra, I watched students spend the whole class copying problems out of the textbook, as if graphic endeavor alone could transmit mathematical understanding. In another math class, a first-year teacher, straight out of college, ignored a girl standing and braiding a boy’s hair. In “Freshman Orientation,” a new course that had been created with no curriculum, the teacher had received no training at all, since she’d had only about eight hours’ notice that she had a job. She was a legal secretary whose only real teaching experience had come years before when she received her certification. Her ninth-graders mocked, disobeyed, and mostly just disregarded her.

Walking Reed’s halls with Jackson, the suspension officer, I had heard him say of two different students that they weren’t going to “make it.” Some kids, he explained when I asked about this, were “doomed.” “They don’t have right in them,” he said. Jackson said he always offered second chances. But if students didn’t take them, he believed in just waiting for them to mess up enough times to get themselves expelled—and out of the way of the kids who wanted to learn.

I admired Jackson’s efforts to shield those students who did want to learn, who tried to avoid the chaos by sitting at the front of their classes or walking away from fights. But as for the other students, I wasn’t so sure about predestination as an educational philosophy. Had God truly happened to concentrate so many bad seeds in poor, black New Orleans—or had there been a moment, earlier in their lives, when the right school could have provided salvation?

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Amy Waldman is an Atlantic national correspondent.

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