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?
THE LOCAL:
"EVERYBODY WAS SO HAPPY TO SEE ME"

"Peace” had been the first unit, for every grade, at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary in the Lower Ninth Ward, initiating new students into the school culture, and reinforcing it for older ones. That culture was one of respect and civic comportment. To create it, the school taught anger management and conflict resolution—key skills for children from families and neighborhoods where volatility was often the norm.

When King finally opened as a charter, on September 18, it faced, like other schools, the challenges of operating in a building not quite ready, and of having to manage everything on its own. But the school, now with students from prekindergarten through eighth grade, was functioning reasonably well and starting to appreciate the benefits of being a charter. Principal Roché-Hicks could deploy teachers as she wanted, and the school hired and monitored its own custodians.

Sheila Seals

Sheila Seals

The greatest challenge, instead, came from an unexpected direction: about 180 of the 430 students were new to King and its culture. Compared with other schools I had seen, there was remarkable order. But as Sheila Seals, the school’s longtime social worker, visited classrooms, she noticed that when classes were disrupted, it was by students who were new to King, and the few major incidents had also been caused by new students. The school was having to indoctrinate a whole new group of children into its ways—to knit a new community. Seals saw the King kids applying positive peer pressure to behave. That, she thought, along with the ambience of their aspirations, was slowly working on the new students.

The culture I observed at King was the opposite of Reed’s, in that King believed public-school children should be inspired and taught to be their best, rather than cowed into not doing their worst. This difference arose partly from the students’ ages—by high school, a hardness had set in on both sides; in childhood, change and redemption came easier—but even more from philosophy. Perhaps Roché-Hicks had more to teach many of the new and reconstituted schools than all of the outside experts who had poured into New Orleans. More was at stake in this educational experiment than a chance for reformers nationwide to see what worked. Without a better-educated populace, New Orleans would sink further into the metaphorical swamp, as it had been doing slowly before Katrina, and dramatically thereafter. New Orleans could no longer afford to write off its children—and King, in particular, and the story of one of its students, suggested it didn’t need to.

N

Trinesha Torregano

Trinesha Torregano

ot long after beginning sixth grade at King this fall, Trinesha Torregano stepped off the school bus and into a fight with her cousin. Neither the feud—the two girls had barely spoken in two years—nor the behavior was new. The twelve-year-old had a slicked-back ponytail, a love of double Dutch, and a short fuse—Trinesha guessed she had been suspended five times at her pre-Katrina school, a place where the teachers yelled, the students behaved “like animals,” and everyone fought. Such behavior was not acceptable at King, and Trinesha faced a choice. Roché-Hicks had suspended her for three days, and put it to her plainly: relinquish the feud or leave the school. Trinesha was just stubborn enough to contemplate giving up one of the few good things to come out of Katrina.

Trinesha’s post-hurricane odyssey had been typically epic. She had swum, then, with her mother and little brother, boated through the floodwaters, spent four days on the St. Bernard bridge, eating military rations, then been bused to the Astrodome, in Houston. Eventually her grandmother had collected them, and they had stayed in Houston for the year. Katrina had ruined the family’s Eighth Ward home, and when Trinesha returned from Houston last summer she moved—along with six family members—into a trailer nearby. The loss of a hard-won house, the experience of begging FEMA for a trailer, stung. “After Katrina, I felt like I was poor,” she said, obsidian eyes burning.

Her school in Houston—where she could talk to the teachers and made some academic progress—had been her first glimpse of a different kind of education. King was her second glimpse. The post-Katrina decision to eliminate zoned schools had opened King up to her, and she had told her grandmother that was the school she wanted. But having made that choice, Trinesha now confronted another in Roché-Hicks’s ultimatum.

In her few weeks at King, Trinesha had made certain observations. The teachers did not yell. The children were well-behaved. She could talk to Ms. Roché-Hicks and Ms. Seals. And then there was her return from suspension: “I came back, and everybody was so happy to see me. And they was talking to me. And the teachers keep on saying, ‘Oh you’re back, oh you’re back.’ And that’s what I liked—that they gave me support. And they showed me attention.”

She decided to stay. Support and attention—it had not taken much to turn Trinesha Torregano around. “After I pass to the seventh grade, I’m gonna know things that I didn’t never knew before,” she explained.

From the moment Trinesha made her decision, Seals, the social worker, had noticed a change: Trinesha smiled more, she behaved better. And even as the families insisted that the cousins would never get along, the school had placed them in the same classroom to force a rapprochement. The girls were speaking again; teachers spotted them sharing food at lunch. “It’s kind of fun talking to her,” Trinesha admitted.

Trinesha’s hold on King was still tentative. When she and I spoke in mid-October, her aunt and grandfather were talking of returning to Houston. And like many post-Katrina children in New Orleans, she was living without her parents: she had never met her father, and at that time her mother was still in Houston, for reasons the girl could not explain. This subject sent tears streaming down her cheeks. On the phone, her mother had warned her that if she got in trouble again, she would have to get on a bus for Houston. As much as Trinesha loved King, this threat held a certain attraction. Even as she retained a child’s wonderment, her hold on childhood was tenuous. She was being raised among women, her own mother among them, who had given birth as teenagers. King channeled her away from such likelihoods, and toward new possibilities. By turning her away from fights and suspensions, the school was also shielding her from a judgment, down the road, that she was not going to “make it.” “There’s just a lot of stuff I want to do!” she told me. “I want to be a pediatrician, and then I want to be a teacher. I want to go to Florida. Have you been to Florida? Disney World out there? I want to go to Washington, D.C., for Christmas so I could see how it would really snow.”

Trinesha’s trailer in the Eighth Ward sits just a stone’s throw from the train tracks. When the trains rush by, horns bleating, the trailer shakes, as if to remind her how fragile her world is. Each day, she steps out of her straitened home into desolation: abandoned houses, piles of debris, a wind with more urgency than her city’s resurrection. School is her haven, where the world holds steady, and this is as it should be. When I last saw her, at 7:10 on a frigid Friday morning, she was climbing out of the cold and onto her school bus, wearing her school uniform, a pink princess backpack, and a smile.

Amy Waldman is an Atlantic national correspondent.
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