Voices from the Big Uneasy

Keva Carr, left, Maria Hernandez, center,and Rodneka
Shelbia, right, participants in Students at the Center

The following articles are from participants in the Students at the Center (SAC) program, which encourages current and former New Orleans students and teachers to write about their lives, in school and out. Thanks to Jim Randels for providing these materials. For more information, see www.strom.clemson.edu/teams/literacy/sac

—the editors


By Ashley Jones

Nearly one year after Hurricane Katrina, we are finally in the rebuilding stages of the city as well as the school system—or systems, since within the title “public schools,” we have three different types set up in the city. There is the Recovery District public school system that is state run; the charter school system, which itself can be seen as individual systems, since charters create their own criteria in selecting students, teachers, and curriculum; and the barely-here New Orleans Public School system, which consists of five schools. The Recovery District school system claims that it offers its services to all students.

Yet even before Hurricane Katrina when it, along with the University of New Orleans, chartered its first school, Capdau Middle, it was able to purge this school of the 20 percent of students who had learning disabilities or behavioral problems. Since the storm, however, the state now has to take on these “rotten apples,” not just the wonderfully ripe, red, and polished handpicked pupils that populated the schools its accountability plan labeled most successful.

The selectivity of student populations is not the Recovery District’s biggest problem, however. Recovery District schools have to start weeks later than the New Orleans Public School system due to the lack of teachers and administrators needed to properly run its schools. This scramble for staff is made difficult since the flat-out firing and forced retirement many veteran teachers were subject to in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Now there are not many seasoned teachers available. Most of the veteran teachers have relocated to other places around the state and across the country, while those who have decided to stay are teaching in the New Orleans Public Schools. Many charter schools are hiring recent college graduates, who only have theory and not the practice of teaching, because they are less expensive and easier to manipulate than veteran or union teachers. This means that many of these young teachers will be stepping into a real classroom for the first time, in front of 20 to 30 storms—afflicted kids who truly do need teachers who understand their culture and their personal circumstances. It is hard to believe that a first-time teacher from Boston who has never been to New Orleans prior to Katrina and who has never had a natural disaster uproot his or her own community could give these students the kind of attention and development needed for them to not only cope with but move past the devastation of their city and their lives.

The land-, or building-, grab involving the charter and state-run schools explains why out of the five truly public schools in the city, two share the same building.

The bottom line is that it is impossible for us to repair our city as one community when our children have to navigate three very different school systems.

The one good thing about the dismantling of the public school system is that those still working within it have the space and freedom to rebuild it into the school system it needs to be. With help, the public school system will be able to educate and uplift all of our community’s children in a way that will validate and utilize all their talents and gifts, giving each and every student the feeling of being valuable because of his or her differences, not left to fail because of them.

Ashley Jones has been a member of Students at the Center for nine years, since she was in 10th grade at McDonogh 35 High School. A 2005 graduate of Clark Atlanta University, Ashley is now a staff member of Students at the Center and principal member of the Listen to the People project, an oral history archive of New Orleans after Katrina. In fall 2006, Ashley will run a community-based media and technology center for Students at the Center to develop digital media production opportunities for St. Claude Avenue-area residents and for the students and families she works with in school-based residencies.


By Keva Carr

All my life I lived in New Orleans. Now my memories are all washed away, floating with the dead bodies that couldn’t ride out Katrina.

Then came [Hurricane] Rita saying, “Kick them while they’re down.”

From Aug. 28 on, while sitting at my little desk in Sabine Hall at Northwest-ern State University, my eyes were glued to the news every minute I could get. Every second I could get away to watch it, I did. I sat there moving my lips over and over, and they were starting to make a song:

“It always went past us; it always went past us.”

But my broken record of a song couldn’t repair my house or the other hundreds that went under all over the world. I’ve been sheltered all my life, and spoiled, never had to ask for anything. I could call on my aunt, grandmother, or mom, and they’d be anywhere I needed them at the drop of a hat. But now what was I to do? They were miles away, trying to fight off something that they couldn’t stop. There was a point where I did not know whether they were OK or not. I spent lots of time calling my mother’s cell, only to receive her voicemail over and over again. As I watched the news, my eyes became a waterfall, and the waterfall wouldn’t stop. It just got full until it made several individual puddles of waterfalls on my small desk. I saw that New Orleans residents had nothing, nothing but their lives. And as we were exploited on NBC, CNN, etc., I saw that they were fighting for that. How could a heart be so cold? How could a soul be so black? How can someone see people in need of help and just do nothing? I stared so hard at the television as if I could cha–nge it. As though I was the president and with my hard staring eyes I could change everything.

I rubbed my hands together, and I started to write this. One thing was going through my head, and it was the thought of this piece reaching thousands of people. Everyone’s saying that all the things we have lost are material. They can be replaced. We should be thankful for our lives. We should, and I am, but it’s still going to be so hard after so much we have worked for.

New Orleans helped make this girl you see before you. This summer, when we moved to Chalmette, in St. Bernard Parish, I thought I’d never look back. Well, I didn’t want to. I was tired of seeing the same old crooked things on my block, and I was ready for our move.

Why am I looking back now? Well, when a friend is in trouble, you do not turn your back on her. But in my case it’s a city. A city that has given me laughter and tears. New Orleans has given me my education. I’m not saying that my city meant nothing to me before. It’s just that I treasure it more now than ever. Because desperate times call for desperate measures. Because my city needs me. It needs my prayers, my hope, my words, and my strength. My city can recover, and so will the people in it. New Orleans was more than a city; it was my home.

So to New Orleans I say, “Hold your head up. Although the people of my city may ask why, don’t lose hope. Although you might say, What is there to believe in? hold your head up for your family, your children, and believe in you.”

To: My City

I love you, and you




Keva Carr graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in May 2005. She is a sophomore at Northwestern Louisiana University. Keva, who took her first Students at the Center class at Thurgood Marshall Middle School in New Orleans, has won statewide writing awards, participated in writing exchanges with students in New Mexico and New Jersey, and co-facilitated writing workshops for teachers in Greenville, S.C., and New Orleans.


By Katrena Jackson-Ndang

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.

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.