What a Decade Has Done for New Orleans’s Schools

“I’m amazed not by the growth in test scores, but rather by how many people are talking about the state of public education in the city.”

Photographer holds a print of a photo he took in 2005, as he matches it up at the same location 10 years later, in New Orleans, United States. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

NEW ORLEANS—As a native of New Orleans, I found all the recent attention foisted upon my hometown for the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina both a blessing and a curse. While I’ve welcomed some of the best reporting and most thoughtful conversations I’ve ever seen about my city, I worry that the attention will dissipate just when the city needs it the most.

My feelings about where New Orleans is today oscillate between the “Katrina 10” narrative, pushed by officials who believe the city is better than ever, and the “Katrina Truth” narrative, pushed by advocacy groups who say the recovery effort has left out the city’s black residents.

I was a 17-year-old high-school senior living in the Treme neighborhood when the levees failed, flooding half the neighborhood but leaving my home untouched. My uptown high school suffered only wind damage, so my family was back in the city just two months later.

Nine months later, I was off to college hundreds of miles away from my still-reeling hometown. I felt guilty leaving a city to where so many other black residents, including neighbors and family members, could not return. Ten years later, many are still left out of the post-Katrina economic boom. Just over 50 percent of black children in the city live in poverty, up from 44 percent before Katrina. And a widely cited recent study found that more than half of the black men in New Orleans were unemployed.

The much heralded, school-choice-driven overhaul of the city’s education system has had mixed results, too. While test scores and graduation rates are up, a study released earlier this year by Tulane University’s Cowen Institute found that 18 percent of young adults in the New Orleans metropolitan area—many of them educated in the city’s new charter-school landscape—are neither employed nor enrolled in school. The city has the third-highest rate of “disconnected” young adults in the country. And the number of suspensions remain high—46,625 were issued during the 2013-14 school year, which was more than the number of students enrolled in the city’s public schools.

Such problems existed long before the storm, and before the Louisiana state board of education took control of all but a handful of New Orleans schools, eventually creating a city where almost 100 percent of the public schools are charters.

These facts and figures were on my mind during the week leading up to the Saturday anniversary of the storm. Across the city, hotel conference rooms and community centers played host to events reflecting on what the last decade has meant for the city. I attended one sponsored by America Healing, a racial-equity initiative designed to raise awareness of unconscious biases in order to help communities overcome them. (American Healing is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which is among the numerous funders of the news outlet that produced this report in collaboration with The Atlantic.)

While none of the attendees—most of whom are social-justice advocates—seemed shocked by the statistics that underscore the city’s uneven recovery, there was still plenty of anger and pain. The 16 people who made up my “healing-session” group each cited the points at which they thought the recovery had gone awry: how the fund for rebuilding homes had discriminated against black homeowners, how the rebuilding effort too often excluded minority-owned companies, how there had been too few workforce-training programs for young New Orleanians coming home to a city booming with construction jobs, and how thousands of veteran black teachers were fired and replaced with a much younger and whiter teaching force. One attendee, who came home and finished high school in post-Katrina New Orleans, complained that those new teachers were more interested in disciplining than educating him.

But the news isn’t all bad. During my week back home, I read about black graduates of New Orleans public schools beating the odds and going to good colleges, and I drove past blocks of 100-year-old shotgun houses restored to a luster not seen since white flight. I know that isn’t the whole story, but by the end of the week, I was more encouraged than disheartened about the city’s future.

As both a native and an education reporter, I’m amazed not by the growth in test scores, but rather by how many people are talking about the state of public education in the city. After decades of completely ignoring the city’s public schools, residents who can foot the bills for Catholic or private-school tuition now tout the public schools as a key sign that New Orleans is on the right track.

It’s good to see so many more people not treating the city’s nearly 50,000 public-school students as the “other.” Yet I wonder how many will enroll in a school system that overwhelmingly serves poor black children. Can New Orleans become a place that people move to for the public schools, not move away from because of them?

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.