Rebuilding Education in New Orleans
Four years after Hurricane Katrina, 12 Lang students spent spring break in New Orleans investigating school systems still in recovery. The trip was a practicum that complemented Rebuilding Education in New Orleans, a seminar-based class taught by Jaskiran Dhillon, chair of Lang's education studies department.
The class examined theoretical aspects of rebuilding school systems and the trip, as Professor Dhillon explained, enabled students to “experience education in New Orleans in a very emotional and sensory way.”
Students were in groups that focused on specific facets of the education sector, like charter schools, nonprofit organizations' after-school programs, and direct work with students. Students were exposed to multiple perspectives on the meaning of rebuilding education. “I would go from one meeting where I would be presented with the benefits of a charter school system, and walk out of there feeling like I knew what my opinion was. Then we would immediately hear from someone who could convincingly explain how charter schools and bussing are harming teachers, families, and neighborhoods, and my entire outlook would be thrown for a loop,” student Sonny Farnsworth said.
According to the Louisiana accountability standards, New Orleans public schools were among the worst in the country even before the storm. “Katrina showed us how structural inequalities were already present in NOLA, but it also impacted and magnified them,” Farnsworth said. Katrina inflicted damage on more than half of the public schools in New Orleans. Sixty-four thousand New Orleans public school students were displaced from their schools and had to attend schools in other cities. More than 4,000 teachers were fired or lost jobs when schools shut down.
In November 2005, the Louisiana State Legislature passed Act 35, allowing the Recovery School District (RSD) to take over most New Orleans public schools and changing the school system’s structure. Ruthie Dreyer, another Lang student, explained, “Pre-Katrina featured a centralized public school system that was run by the Orleans Parish School Board. Katrina was the catalyst for the beginning of the privatization of public education.” Instead of a strong central districts operating schools, most were privatized or became charter schools. The RSD said this change was driven by the need to open schools quickly. However, the change was also a way to access federal funds and build a less centralized public school system.
Dhillon said that, since 2005, efforts have been made to improve the public school system, but important challenges still remain. Coordination is still poor between schools and districts, and special education, including structures for disabled students and mental health services, is lacking. Also, many children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder associated with Katrina.
As Lang student Rosy Clark put it, “The public school system in New Orleans is not only to be rebuilt, it is to be redefined.”