On Saturday, July 15, 2006, at about 1:00 p.m., dark clouds gathered and lightning and thunderbolts filled the New Orleans sky. One hour later the sky opened and dropped buckets of rain on the city. But rain, dark clouds, or thunderbolts could not keep eager students, faculty, staff, and parents from gathering at Southern Oaks Plantation to celebrate the end of the school year for Lawless High School.
Alfred Lawless High School, the only public high school in the Lower 9th Ward (below the Industrial Canal), was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. For the first time in the school’s 42-year history there was no ring ceremony, no prom, no homecoming, no winter formal, no sweetheart ball, and no graduation. So the July 15 celebration represented many different milestones. For some people this was a Lawless family reunion. It was a graduation for the class of 2006. For the class of 2007, this was a Junior Prom. The classes of 1986 and 1996 took this as their class reunion, and for 20 of the 68 faculty and staff members, this was a retirement party. For those going back to distant places like California, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas, it was a bon voyage party. But sadly for many others gathered there, it was a memorial for the four Lawless loved ones who died during the storm.
This celebration was for the Lawless family, but the sentiments of the whole city were felt in that room. For you see, there are so many parallels between what happened in the city in general and what happened to Lawless and New Orleans Public Schools in particular. Lawless lost four family members due to the storm, while the city lost more than 1,500 family members. The school district, which had more than 100 schools before the storm, lost all but four of its schools as a result of a state takeover of public schools in Orleans Parish. Charter schools became the buzzword for what was needed to reform the school system in New Orleans. Even schools that were already exemplary became charter schools.
Pushed by the state, the school district terminated more than 4,000 educators. Twenty Lawless faculty and staff members were among the 2,000 educators forced to retire. I am among the 20 retirees from Lawless, and I can say, like many others, I was not ready to retire but was forced to in order to maintain some semblance of benefits and peace of mind. I am highly qualified according to the No Child Left Behind Act, because I continually upgraded myself in my content area. In fact, I was lead teacher on a U. S. Department of Education grant to the New Orleans Public Schools to improve the teaching of U.S. history. This massive termination of educators caused the current shortage of qualified teachers. Further-more, New Orleans lost at least 8,000 people who were part of its middle-class tax base. In other words, at least 4,000 highly qualified educators will educate children in other states and districts, because they have been denied jobs in the new charter schools and the state Recovery School District.
Many highly qualified educators are not working in the new charter schools and the Recovery School District, because these districts are using unfair tactics to undermine the professionalism and the respect of veteran teachers. The test that these districts administer is an insult to the profession of teaching. Orleans Parish is the only district in which such tests take place. In any other school district, the state deems its certification system, which includes the national praxis exam, a good measure for hiring teachers. I worry that these new schools only want to hire teachers who have never taught before. They want to hire inexperienced teachers so that they can pay them little or no money and also so that they can treat them like sharecroppers or, better still, like slaves with no rights and no input or say about what happens in the schools.
For three hours on July 15, the Alfred Lawless High School family forgot about the troubles of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans and concentrated on the school’s happier days and memories. In fact, someone had a flashback and began to shout the Pythian (the school mascot) victory yell: “L- A- W- L- E- S- S, BUCK ’EM UP, BUCK ’EM UP, PYTHIANS, BUCK ’EM UP!” The victory yell symbolized an end to the festivities for this year, but not to the spirit of the school and the family.
The festivities are over for this year, but the questions remain. What’s next for Lawless and all the other public schools in the district? Does anybody know? What’s next for the highly qualified, unemployed, displaced educators? Does anybody know?Katrena Jackson-Ndang taught in Cameroon for 13 years before teaching in the New Orleans Public Schools. She is vice president of High Schools for United Teachers of New Orleans and represented the American Federation of Teachers on international task forces on human rights.