When Angela Lockley started to reconstruct her family’s life after the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, two big questions weighed on her mind: Where would her children go to school? What would the schools be like?
“Before the hurricane, there were concerns about buildings being up to standards and how the school system was run,” says Lockley, who has experience teaching in Catholic and public schools. “After Katrina, I was nervous about those same things once the school system got back up and running.”
Lockley began researching her options. One day, she saw a billboard for Cohen College Prep, a charter middle and high school, and decided to pay the institution a visit. That was then. In May, her daughter graduated as the school’s salutatorian. And Lockley is dean of students at another campus in Cohen’s charter network.
She is one of the faces of the new Crescent City education landscape that has seen many changes, including a switch largely to the charter model, a significant number of Black teachers fired and the loss of several thousand students due to depopulation after the storm. The change is quite unique too. Unlike most American cities, nearly all New Orleans schools employ a charter model, taxpayer-funded schools with independent governing boards. The state’s Recovery School District (RSD) runs the vast majority of schools. Only six traditional district-run schools remain under the old local Orleans Parish School Board, which also operates 14 charter schools.
And despite nationwide concern over what seems to be an educational realignment with charter school principles, current signs indicate it’s working in the Big Easy. The city housed the nation’s lowest performing systems prior to the hurricane; now, according to the State of Public Education in New Orleans, an annual report from the Cowen Institute at Tulane University, the results have massively improved. Far fewer students are in so-called “failing schools”—from 62 percent in 2005 to 7 percent today.
“There is absolutely no doubt that according to most independent measures—high school graduation rates, standardized test performances—the schools are doing better today than they were doing 10 years ago,” says National Urban League President Marc Morial, a former New Orleans mayor (1994 to 2002). “You cannot take away from the successes that have occurred, but you’ve also got to qualify them.”
By “qualify,” Morial refers to the drop in the number of students.
New Orleans schools once enrolled approximately 85,000 students and operated about 120 schools. Today, there are about 46,000 students in 82 schools. More than 90 percent of students attend charter schools, the largest percentage in the nation. Enrollment is overwhelmingly African-American, and most come from economically disadvantaged families.
Still, as more parents and residents cite greater confidence in the schools, there are lingering concerns—and in some circles even outrage—over the price at which progress might have come.
“For me, there’s still the larger goal of developing a system where people feel we’re all in this together,” says Andre Perry, an education expert and early New Orleans charter school operator. “It was this sentiment that led to neglect of the public school system.”
By most accounts, a storm had hit the school system long before Katrina. In 2005, only one other parish posted lower state test scores than Orleans. The federal government had ordered the school board’s finances to be overseen by a private consulting firm. There had been nine leaders in 13 years.
Without question, students suffered. RSD superintendent Patrick Dobard, a 25-year educator and New Orleans native, has vivid memories of the school system in the 1980s and 1990s.
“There wasn’t a lot of quality teaching and learning going on,” he says. “Not to say that was the case in all of the schools, but I think in the overwhelming majority of the schools with the highest concentration of poverty, students were not receiving a quality education.”
He remembers a high school valedictorian who repeatedly failed the state’s basic skills test. Years later, he still wonders aloud, “How is that possible?”
Given how far behind New Orleans schools were, they had to move after the storm not just to reopen, Dobard says, but to urgently improve.
“Initially after Katrina, I think a lot of the reforms were done to the community and not with the community,” he says. “The best interests of children, however, were always at heart. And we are now much more inclusive.”
But, he adds, “I would ask anyone: If it were your child, how could you argue to wait or not go as fast and as hard as we did to change the lives of children immediately?”
Good intentions aside, the decisions to take over the schools and fire the employees, many of whom were African-American and middle-class, left deep distrust.
“There are still people who are uncomfortable with the idea that the public school system is sort of being run from Baton Rouge versus being locally run,” Morial says. “The scars around the mass firing of teachers are going to be with the school district for a long time.”
Alexina Medley, one of the school employees who lost her job, initially had mixed feelings about the charter school influx. Now the principal of Warren Easton Charter High School, she is more pragmatic.
“Change has to come to make things better,” Medley says, “or to wake us up.”
Henderson Lewis Jr., the Orleans Parish School Board superintendent selected in January, hopes to be a unifying force. His goals are to make the school district one of the nation’s premiere systems and for all RSD charter schools to come “back home” to Orleans Parish.
“Citizens want the school system back in their hands,” he says.
Lockley, who once worried where her children would attend school post-Katrina, now appreciates being able to take matters into her own hands on behalf of their education.
“As parents have more of a voice and more of a choice, I think those memories of the past will begin to fade away,” she says. “Watching the kids excel, I think the past will be just that, and we can celebrate the successes of our children.”