Into the Flood and Out Again
A year in the life of a New Orleans schoolteacher
Illustrator: Smiley N. Pool
It was Wednesday, and the staff started to trickle into my classroom at New Orleans Charter Middle School. We were in the process of rearranging the tables for our weekly staff meeting. We joked and chatted as we collected snacks and drinks and settled in to discuss the next week. We’d gotten through the first two weeks of another school year, enough to feel well under way. I was teaching a unit built around Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Wonderland. We had enjoyed a real tea party in my classroom just the day before. For my 30 6th graders, it was an opportunity to wear “church clothes” (not their school uniforms) and to try real tea and teacakes.
But the following week we were going to take the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. We were all in a funk about going through the rigmarole of standardized testing yet again. The tests posed scheduling headaches, for one thing, especially because of our school’s unusual block scheduling of core subjects, where students focus intensively on one subject for two weeks then move on to the next. Should students take the Iowa in homeroom or core class? Should we keep this rotation of students or move on to the next rotation? As we debated the relative merits of each idea, one teacher shouted out, “Come on, Katrina!” We all laughed. Wouldn’t it be great if we got a little brush of that storm they had just named in the gulf? It would probably hit the Florida panhandle, as was being predicted. And we might get off school for a day or two — no real problem, just a little lagniappe vacation to take the bite out of the September doldrums.
The lighthearted mood vanished when I awoke Saturday morning and read the paper. The storm had changed direction. It was heading for us! By noon Saturday our worst fears were confirmed as our mayor, C. Ray Nagin, appeared in an emergency press conference aired on all the major networks. He was calling for an evacuation. He couldn’t call for a mandatory evacuation yet, but he was making it very clear that that was just a legal formality — evacuate and evacuate now was the unambiguous message. My family and I hurried into our evacuation routine. As my husband began closing and securing our hurricane batten shutters, I called the airlines and wrangled three tickets on an American Airlines flight the next morning at 9:00 a.m. We viewed our decision to evacuate as just being extra cautious. Our neighborhood, on the high ground of the original French settlement, was not prone to flooding (even the catastrophic post-Katrina flooding didn’t reach us). As a single guy, my husband would have never left. As a couple, we might have toughed it out, but as the parents of an almost-3-year-old son with asthma and another on the way — I was five months pregnant at the time — there was no question we were going to, in the colorful vernacular of neighboring Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, “haul ass, partner.”
I stayed up all night watching the weather channel and calling the airlines making sure they hadn’t canceled the flight. Sunday morning at 5:00 a.m. the American Airlines agent told me to leave for my 9:00 a.m. flight. She reported two-hour lines to get through security. I shook my husband awake. Time to go. We loaded the car with the three suitcases and our still-sleeping son and headed out to the airport. What was usually a 20-minute trip took much longer — about an hour. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper, but steady. We were on the last flight out of town, one of the only ones not cancelled. We left behind hundreds of desperate passengers with worthless, cancelled airline tickets, because major airlines like United didn’t want to spring for the fuel to fly an empty plane in from Houston to honor the tickets they’d already sold.
We landed at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, safe and sound, a few hours later. We fully expected we’d be back at the airport on Tuesday to return home after everything blew over.
Monday, Katrina came and went. We called and talked to my mother-in-law, who had stayed. She said the storm was scary, but all was well. We told her we’d see her the next day. But something had happened that few people yet knew about. Multiple levee failures had opened up the city to the sea, which had begun pouring in. People went to bed Monday night not knowing. Many awoke in the middle of the night to the sensation of water washing over their bodies. By Tuesday morning, national headlines proclaimed the utter devastation of our hometown. We were dumbfounded. But it wasn’t until Wednesday morning that I broke down and cried. There on the front page of the Chicago Tribune was a now iconic photo taken by Smiley N. Pool of the Dallas Morning News. There it was: my city under water.
In the foreground, just above the fold, my school, sitting in the middle of a 10-foot deep lake stretching for miles. All I could think about was our gardens. Ms. Skipper and the kids in the gardening elective, who had lovingly planted and landscaped the school grounds. Begonias and azalea bushes at the bottom of a dark, oily pool, deprived of sunlight. What about Ms. Benoit’s math class, on the first floor? Her room was so small and cozy, every inch of space utilized. All her years of materials gone. Then more terrible conclusions dawned on me. If the school was under water, then so was Ms. Benoit’s house. My students’ houses. Slowly the magnitude hit me. As it happens, the demographics of Katrina’s devastation were skewed against us. New Orleans Charter Middle School students were almost 100 percent African-American; more than 86 percent of our students received free or reduced lunch. We had no selective admissions, just lottery. Our kids came from the “at risk” population that formed the average student body of the New Orleans Public Schools. Also, I knew from late afternoon drop-offs exactly where many of them had lived — in the heart of the “toxic soup” that everyone in America was talking about. Where were my kids? I began to watch CNN, scanning for students. Were my students on their roofs? Were they at the Convention Center, the Superdome? Where were my colleagues?
Over the next few weeks it became painfully clear that New Orleans Charter Middle School was over. My colleagues were scattered. Our students were scattered. I waited to hear from the director of the school. The call only came weeks later, after almost a month of an excruciating total silence.
The state had requested that all school employees be furloughed. I was out of a job. Period. The school where I’d put in five years of my most rewarding professional growth was a total loss. We’d be paid for the two weeks we had worked at the start of the semester, and that would be it. My health insurance was gone. All of a sudden my pregnancy seemed less joyous. The child who had been conceived so perfectly according to schedule now seemed an ill-conceived notion. It would have been perfect. Work all year. Leave to have a baby right before the Mardi Gras break. Twelve weeks later, when my maternity leave would have ended, school would be over and I’d have the extra months of June and July and some of August before having to go back to work. Before, I had bemoaned how small and unfair my maternity leave pay was — 60 percent for six weeks and then another six at no pay. A pittance by European and Canadian standards, but now: Nothing. No maternity leave pay, no notice to start saving money in advance, and, to boot, I was joining the ranks of the uninsured. My pregnancy would now become a pre-existing condition. My son, an asthmatic, was also suddenly without coverage. I had been a teacher. Even if the pay wasn’t the best, I had great benefits. Now it was all washed away due to the criminal negligence of the Army Corps of Engineers and the people in Washington who refused to give them the funding they asked for anyway. For me, this just underscored the very political nature of the disaster that befell New Orleans. The very people who oppose health care for all Americans won’t even give us an infrastructure that will protect us from injury.
So I spent a few very dark months sitting in exile, shocked at the gall of Republican lawmakers and pundits who saw in the disaster they created an opportunity to insult the people of New Orleans. It was our fault for looting, for having public housing, for having too many black people, for being too French. We deserved it and why should they help us?
On Sept. 30 my exile ended. The mayor reopened the city (that is, the unflooded area, roughly the 19th-century footprint). I could go home — to no job, but at least to a house. As we drove into the city from the airport, I was struck by the signs outside the schools: “Welcome Back,” “Answer the Bell,” school start dates, registration dates, little time capsules on buildings devoid of life for weeks. New Orleans, a city with a school population of around 68,000, was emptied of its school-age children.
The Charter Way
By November, a few private schools had opened, and the fate of public education in New Orleans was under debate in the state legislature. Pre-storm, the Orleans Parish School system had been a mess. It was in receivership and, like many other poor, urban school systems, was struggling against all odds to fix all the social ills its children faced in school and out, with little or no resources to do so. With the legislature called into emergency session, Gov. Kathleen Blanco proposed a dramatic move: The state would use its power to take over “failing” schools, more than 107 of the 128 public schools. With a lopsided vote in the legislature and a stroke of the governor’s pen, the landscape of public education in New Orleans changed forever. The Orleans Parish School Board still held on to a few schools — those that had been magnets and therefore had good test scores. However, in Louisiana, a school administration, with a demonstration of parent support, may apply for charter status, first to the local school board, then to the state. So the most elite magnet schools, fearing the school board might choose not to reopen them in a timely fashion, fled the sinking ship by voting to charter themselves anyway. They wanted to reopen soon and had powerful Parent Teacher Organizations and well-connected parents.
Then the West Bank of New Orleans broke with the East Bank and created a charter district, comprised of some eight schools, with its own school board and superintendent. The few existing charters, such as New Orleans Charter Middle School and its sister school, Green Charter School, as well as the International School of Louisiana (offering French and Spanish immersion education), struggled to figure out how to reopen.
New Orleans Charter Middle School merged with Green, since Green’s building had escaped major damage. The staff (those of us who had returned, or could return) met in November. Some of us drove in from as far as Baton Rouge, an hour and a half away. The good news was that anyone who still wanted a job had a job. The school would reopen and we would start planning at the end of the month. But then weeks went by and it became clear the school could not open yet. The date to begin planning was postponed to Dec. 18. Then it was postponed again. As time dragged on, I became increasingly alarmed. I was getting closer and closer to my due date. Would the school really have a place for me if I was leaving in February to have my baby? In December, I sat down with the school’s director. It became clear that the school wouldn’t reopen until January and that because of my pregnancy and impending maternity leave, I couldn’t stay at the school.
A New Year in a New School
Despite my job search frustrations, I ended up at a great school, which, I’m happy to say, had already begun serving New Orleans children before Hurricane Katrina. The International School of Louisiana (ISL) is a six-year-old charter school built around foreign language immersion (currently French and Spanish, though another language will one day be added). Like many school startups, ISL started with kindergarten and 1st grade and adds a grade each year; it is just this year embarking on its middle school. ISL is also, like the city’s high-performing public school magnets, evenly integrated. Unlike these magnet schools, however, ISL does not use selective admissions standards, and half of the student body is considered “at risk.” The ISL philosophy of greater international and multicultural understanding through language acquisition was particularly attractive to me. The broad ethnic and social range of the student body, all engaged in mastering French, Spanish, and English, seemed to represent a valuable way for our unique city, after so much suffering and insult, to love what is best about itself, to find a usable past worth celebrating as we face the extreme makeover.
Like the many other ghosts of New Orleans, Katrina still haunts us as we start the 2006-07 school year. My school’s opening day, like the opening days of many other schools, has been delayed by weeks due to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) typically inept approach to readying the school buildings (mold remediation, etc.) for the start of school. Many questions remain for public education in New Orleans. For one thing, as new schools scramble to become “high-performing,” which will guarantee their survival, the temptation to restrict admissions becomes great. What happens to students with learning challenges then? Will there be any place at all for them? Most new schools seem to be concentrating uptown, what about downtown residents like me? And how many of these brave new experiments will fail, anyway? What will happen to students who plug away for a few years at a school that then folds? Uncertainty, to be sure, is a big part of the educational equation here now. As a recent New Orleans Times-Picayune headline put it, “New Orleans Education System Has Dizzying Options” (Aug. 6). These options are so dizzying that parents without the time to do meticulous research may simply feel left out of the loop. A friend of mine recently bemoaned the fact that she couldn’t just send her child to a competent district school down the street.
Yes, the state-run Recovery District is reopening many of the old district schools. But since they won’t have access to any more resources than the old schools did, it’s easy to be pessimistic about how these schools will perform — barring, of course, a sudden renewed commitment to public education statewide (or nationally). Middle-class parents may simply seize their chances to snag a spot at one of the handful of excellent free public schools and not worry much about the fate of less fortunate children. Proactive parents will have more, and more varied, choices — with and without selective admissions criteria. But the jury’s still out on the political will to commit truly to universal public education. New Orleans may differ from the rest of the United States in a thousand ways, but in this last regard, according to my friends around the country, it’s an average American city after all.