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Guest Column: 10 Years After Hurricane Katrina

August 24, 2015

By: Brigitte Nieland

August 29, 2015 marks the 10-year anniversary of New Orleans’ direct hit from the now infamous Category 5 mega storm, Hurricane Katrina. The power of the massive, 127 mph hurricane compromised the below sea-level city’s levee system, causing levee breeches that led to widespread flooding in over 80 percent of the city. Hurricane Katrina was a disaster of unparalleled proportion in Louisiana. Over 1,000 people lost their lives in the storm, and hundreds of thousands of residents lost their homes and livelihoods. People who had evacuated from New Orleans returned to a city that, for a time, seemed to be without hope.

New Orleans was not alone in its devastation. Hurricane Katrina affected much of the Gulf Coast, with over 62 parishes and neighboring counties sustaining extreme damage. Approximately one-third of Louisiana’s economy was lost overnight and, within a year, almost 5 percent of its population had not returned. But, what a difference a decade has made.

Today, visitors to New Orleans experience a vibrant, thriving city that has rebuilt while maintaining its unique cultural identity. New Orleans in 2015 is a testament to the undying spirit of her residents, coupled with assistance from generous friends around the nation and world who united to provide support and aid to the ravaged city.

Of course, the business community had a number of priorities in the months following Katrina’s landfall. Locating employees, restoring power, and repairing buildings in order to return to business were all matters of urgency. Also at the top of the priority list was creating a new education system in New Orleans. With 261 school buildings damaged, facilities alone were a major challenge. But, just as important was the critical need to design a system that could improve student performance in a city that had trailed both the state and nation in student performance for decades. The new system had to look dramatically different from the system that was in place in 2005.

Prior to the hurricane, dysfunction was the norm in the Orleans Parish education system. In fact, the system was a model of dysfunction. Student failure was prevalent and tolerated, as leaders looked away as long as certain adults benefitted from the system. A few notable examples:

  • There were over 24 cases of legal actions (including indictments and plea agreements) that involved Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) staff, outside contractors and one school board president who pleaded guilty to a bribery charge.
  • In 2004, after setting up an on-site office at the OPSB office, the FBI indicted 11 people for financial mismanagement crimes. The FBI had come in as a response to the system’s inability to account for a missing $70 million in tax dollars. The state was forced to appoint an emergency financial manager for the school board.
  • The district operated under a suffocating union collective bargaining contract which made dismissal of employees, even on grounds of incompetency, very difficult.
  • In the 1990s-early 2000 years, Orleans Parish had nine school superintendents in 10 years. Most of them had about an 11-month tenure.
  • The leadership quagmire and rampant corruption negatively influenced student achievement. The district’s dropout rate was high, and few minority students went on to higher education. In 2004-05, Orleans Parish ranked 67 out of 68 Louisiana school districts. The high school graduation rate was 56 percent, 10 points below the state average.
  • In 2003, the Legislature passed business-backed legislation that allowed the state to take over chronically failing schools and move them into a Recovery School District (RSD). The RSD could operate these schools directly or allow them to contract with a charter school operator. Before Hurricane Katrina, five Orleans Parish schools had been transferred to the RSD.

Clearly, the goal of most state leaders and the business community was to develop a new, student-centered system of education, not replicate a failed model. (It is important to point out that no one wanted to “start from scratch.” Residents of the region were not given a choice. And, arguably, it is more difficult to create something of quality from nothing than to reform organizations and structures that are already in place.)

A number of things had to happen before a new educational delivery system could be imagined. In November 2005, business once again backed proposed RSD legislation that, for a specific time period, allowed the state to redefine “failed” schools and school districts to facilitate the state’s transferring most of the schools in New Orleans into the RSD. The higher performing, selective admission magnet schools remained with the OPSB. With limited tax dollars flowing into the system, the school board dismissed 7,500 of the system’s teachers and school employees. The teacher union contract expired and was not renewed nor replaced.

Ten years later, with total focus, commitment and enormous amounts of sheer hard work, the schools in New Orleans transformation has been nothing short of phenomenal. Though statistics and comparisons of pre- and post-Katrina schools are admittedly influenced by a number of factors – such as population changes, other schools that students may have attended before returning to New Orleans, and necessary adjustments for New Orleans in Louisiana’s accountability system – 10 years is sufficient time, and data points are numerous enough, to document authentic upward trends in student achievement gains.

Astounding improvements are being attained in New Orleans, which was once Louisiana’s lowest achieving school district. For example:

  • The number of failing schools decreased from 117 in 2004 to eight in 2014. The percentage of students enrolled in failing schools decreased by 66 percent and the percent of students enrolled in “A” or “B” rated schools increased from 13 percent to 37 percent.
  • The percentage of students scoring at “Basic” or above on state tests rose from 37 percent in 2007 to 63 percent in 2014.
  • The high school graduation rate improved from 58 percent in 2008 to 72.7 percent in 2014. (The graduation rate for black students exceeds the national average.) This cannot be attributed to counseling at-risk students to leave school, as expulsion and suspension rates have plummeted (expulsions from the 2013-14 to 2014-15 school years alone decreased by 14 percent).
  • Elementary and middle school student scores increased by 8 percent to 15 percent. Even with a high child poverty rate, the percentage of students who are deemed to be “Proficient” on state tests increased from 25 percent to 56 percent, over three times the state average for improvement on this indicator. Additionally, the percentage of black students’ proficiency increased from 21 percent to 59 percent, five percentage points higher than the state overall.
  • ACT scores have increased from 17 to 18.8 (the state average is 19.4). Results for black test-takers are higher than the national average for black students. Since 2013, Louisiana has required all students to take the ACT. Before then, only students who planned to attend college took the college readiness exam.
  • Every New Orleans school is now a charter school with a local governance board, allowing for maximum citizen/parent input.
  • The percentage of students enrolling in college doubled and the percentage of students earning TOPS awards increased by almost five times. (TOPS is Louisiana’s merit-based, state-funded college scholarship program.)
  • Differentiated funding for students with special needs that addresses the real costs of providing services per special education exceptionality was implemented. Before Hurricane Katrina, 11 percent of students with disabilities performed at the “Basic” level on state tests. In 2014, that number had increased to 39 percent, and high school graduation rates for students with disabilities exceed the state average by 17 percentage points.
  • A career education focus has been introduced, with at least 25 percent of high school juniors enrolled in Jump Start coursework for the 2016-17 school year. (Jump Start is a new state program that offers technical coursework and training to high school students, allowing them to earn national certifications and to be career ready upon their high school graduation.)
  •  Attendance zones were eliminated, allowing students to travel across the district to attend the school of his or her choice.

The new, decentralized education system in New Orleans is benefiting students and families in ways that once were barely imagined. Other education initiatives, such as a scholarship program that allows students to attend participating nonpublic schools, a tuition rebate program, and Course Access, which offers students courses that may not be available in their schools, are rounding out what many call a portfolio of educational options. And the improvement that is being demonstrated cannot be denied. At a recent presentation to the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education by RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard on the student and school improvements in New Orleans, Dobard stated, “…there’s no denying, unless you’re in the denial business.”

The traditional delivery system of public education has been expanded in New Orleans and in the state. The business community’s involvement in the creation of the new paradigm, which includes a transition to an all-charter system, has been instrumental to its success. Business people worked with education and state leadership to develop an environment where innovation can flourish and merit can be rewarded.

Some call the New Orleans experience a miracle, but there is nothing supernatural about it; it is the result of the hard work and dedication of the people who made it happen. Some call it an experiment, but there is nothing experimental about employing proven strategies to help poor kids learn, when you believe that poor kids can learn and you do not use poverty as an excuse for failure.

Some ask why it matters to the business community. New Orleans’ success is vitally important to state economic development efforts and, as one of the most populous parishes, business will employ most of the students who come out of that school system. Business owners and operators live and work in New Orleans, and understand that poor quality education impacts every quality of life indicator.

The business community has tremendous appreciation and admiration for the achievements made as the result of re-creating a broken education system that served few into one that offers hope and optimism for the future for every student.

God Bless New Orleans.

Sources: The Data Center, “New Orleans Kids, Working Parents, and Poverty,” February 2015; Louisiana Department of Education; Recovery School District, Ten Year Review, July 2015; and Tulane University Education Research Alliance, “Good News for New Orleans,” August 2015.

Notes/data points that inform the discussion:

  1. There are 47,000 public school children in New Orleans today (compared to 65,000 pre-Hurricane Katrina); 85 percent are African-American, and 83 percent are considered to be low-income.
  2. 39 percent of New Orleans children live in poverty, more than 17 percentage points higher than the national average. It is the ninth highest child poverty rate among 39 cities with populations between 275,000 and 600,000.
  3. In New Orleans, children in single-mother families has been at 48 percent since 2000. The poverty rate for a single mother household in New Orleans is 58 percent.
  4. Of the educators in the RSD, 53 percent are black, and 43 percent are white. More than half of the RSD principals are black, as are the superintendents of both the RSD and the OPSB.
  5. More than half of the members of the boards that govern charter schools are black.