After the storm

Last week, Americans watched in horror as governments at all levels failed to provide the basic necessities for our fellow citizens; this week Americans watched with pride as educators at all levels sprung into action to help cope with the human devastation in Katrina's wake. The hurricane displaced tens of thousands of school-age children across the Gulf Coast, who are now living in shelters scattered across the country, with large concentrations in Texas. The nation's schools and many school systems wasted no time preparing to get those kids into classrooms and back to some semblance of normalcy. Education Secretary Spellings called a meeting yesterday to organize a national response; Deputy Secretary Ray Simon said that the "red tape would be put in a drawer"; and most impressively, local school systems have flung open their doors to their newest arrivals. (See excellent Education Week coverage here.)

The Lone Star State's reaction - especially Houston's - has been impressive and praiseworthy; information about ways to assist their schools' massive response is here. Other states are following Texas's lead. We know of one charter school in the Midwest, for example, that's seeking an amendment to its charter so it can serve fifty children from New Orleans now living in a church shelter across from the school. Many more acts of heroism, generosity and kindness, big and small, can be observed in schools across the land. (For more information on available resources or how to help, see here and here.)

Thousands of families face difficult months, or even years, ahead, and Gadfly encourages all readers to give whatever they can to charities with extensive experience in disaster relief, such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, or Mercy Corps. Eventually, however, this period of "first aid" will end, cities and towns will rebuild, families will return home, and most children will go back to their local schools. But what type of schools should they go back to?

Many Gulf Coast districts will work to return their schools to their pre-Katrina state, as they rightfully should. The Biloxi Public School District, for example, was posting relatively high achievement before the storm - 90 percent of its kids were proficient in reading in 2003-2004, compared to 78 percent statewide, with steady improvement over time. Such communities are right to focus on getting back to normal and resuming those promising trends.

New Orleans, however, presents a completely different education challenge. Its public schools have struggled for decades and have shown few signs of getting better. Yet the needs of the Big Easy's children are so great. Fully 27 percent of New Orleans residents live below the poverty line. Perhaps the most shocking part of last week's tragedy for many Americans was to see, through the intimacy of the television screen, that severe poverty and destitution are still compelling realities in pockets of our nation. That social challenge deserves our attention and compassion. And poor children deserve excellent schools. They weren't getting them in New Orleans pre-Katrina, which means getting back to the status quo ante does little to meet those kids' education needs.

Nobody knows how much of New Orleans will be rebuilt, or how many families - especially the desperately poor - will return. But assuming that most of the city will be reborn, what kind of school system should the new New Orleans create? Obviously, Louisiana's and New Orleans's leaders and educators cannot tackle that question at this moment, but when that day arrives - and knowing the spirit of New Orleans's citizens, it will arrive sooner rather than later - we'd like to offer some ideas for city and state leaders to ponder.

Without a doubt, the public school system that emerges from the wake of Katrina should be vastly different from the one that stood before the storm. A growing chorus, including Brendan Miniter, writing on the Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal.com (see here), is starting to imagine a new future for the city's children - perhaps even a beam of education sunshine after a very dark night. Let us join them. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Build from the bottom up. Rather than re-creating a school system, New Orleans should create a system of schools. This is a chance to keep the central office minimal. The early focus should be on creating new, excellent, autonomous schools and figuring out what services they need (from a central office or something else) later. Through chartering and contracting, the city (or the state - which already has authority to charter schools in high-need areas) could create such a network, holding each school to rigorous academic standards while giving them room to innovate. Finally, parents should be able to choose which school in the city (or state) best suits their children's needs. (Yes, many will need help with transportation.)

  2. Turn to new schools experts. Over the past decade and a half, the charter school movement has been developing expertise in building schools from scratch. The city should issue an SOS, asking some of the best school networks - such as KIPP, Aspire Public Schools, Achievement First, Edison, Center on Reinventing Public Education, etc. - to set up shop. Some of these outfits already have a local presence. Many more would surely respond to this historic opportunity to do right by a devastated city. 
  3. Tap the potential of private and religious schools. Even more than most states, Louisiana boasts a strong tradition of excellent parochial schools. The city and state should ensure that these critical community assets are also rebuilt and that the poorest children in New Orleans have a chance to attend them. 
  4. Open the doors to new talent. Certainly the city's educators will play a large role in its revival, and long-time residents will be crucial to restoring the community's broken fabric. But New Orleans will also have a rare opportunity to invite talented teachers and leaders from across the country to be part of the rebirth of a great American city. Teach for America and the New Teacher Project already have presences there; they should be encouraged to bring thousands of new teachers to the region who are committed, over the long-term, to building the best network of public schools in the nation. Same goes for school principals.
  5. Break the mold on school buildings. The physical structures of schools should be a means to an end - housing excellent educational institutions - not an end in itself. With the whole city a rebuilding project, why not throw out our old notions of stand-alone buildings, behemoth high schools, and other vestiges of the industrial age? Instead, New Orleans could build schools that are more integrated into the community - as part of housing developments, or near offices, or strategically located near recreation opportunities. Most important, the educational design should come before the facility design.

It's hard not to feel that the nation failed New Orleans last week. With a serious attempt to rebuild its schools as models of excellence - using federal funds as well as private money from generous sources such as the Gates Foundation - we can start to make amends. Out of tragedy comes an opportunity. Let's get it right.

"Across Nation, Storm Victims Crowd Schools," by Sam Dillon, New York Times, September 7, 2005

"In Their New Homes, Evacuees Find A Familiar Divide," by Gary McWilliams and Melanie Trottman, Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2005

"Houston Readies For Students," by Lisa Rein, Washington Post, September 7, 2005

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