Fixing the Broken Parts: Can Schools Save New Orleans?
New Orleans's unprecedented building boom has schools as its centerpiece. With new construction—and new ways of teaching—revolutionizing education in the blighted city, one big question remains: Can a city be remade through its schools?
This article originally appeared in GOOD Issue 020: The New Orleans Issue, on newsstands now. Read more from The New Orleans Issue here.
The way Steve Kennedy likes to tell it, he didn’t show up in New Orleans with grand designs of rebuilding a storm-ravaged city. He came to feed his family. When work dried up near his hometown of McComb, Mississippi, he began to drift farther and farther south, foraging for a paycheck in whatever industry could supply it. Two years ago, with a wife and five children to support, Kennedy, 46, again traveled to where the work was: this time at a school-construction site on the west bank of the Mississippi River.
Today, Kennedy is helping to oversee the construction of L. B. Landry High School in the Algiers section of New Orleans. When the 70-hour, seven-day workweeks get to be too much, he sometimes spends the night in a nearby furnished apartment shared by half a dozen construction workers. But most of the time, Kennedy chooses to sleep back home in his own bed, a two-and-a-half hour drive on I-55.
The fifth school in New Orleans to be rebuilt since Katrina, Landry is a $54-million, 210,000-square-foot pile of steel and masonry block that is designed to be able to withstand wind gusts of up to 130 miles per hour. From far away, it looks less like a school building and more like a futuristic, fortressed museum. If another storm were to hit, this school wouldn’t be going anywhere; Kennedy and his 300 fellow construction workers toil around the clock to make sure of it.
Kennedy is hardly alone in his migration to New Orleans for work. In the parking lot of the school’s construction site, license plates on the backs of pickup trucks advertise neighboring states—Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama. As unemployment around the country swelled to double digits during the height of the economic collapse, the rate in New Orleans remained far lower, hovering at around 6 percent. Federal disaster money and the building boom it has funded have provided jobs to thousands of people—and if you consider what is actually being built, it’s fair to say that some of them have been hard at work rebuilding New Orleans’s schools.
Schools alone have received an unprecedented $700 million in FEMA money, with another $1.3 billion likely coming down the pipeline—which might explain why, apart from one building downtown, the Mahalia Jackson Theatre, schools are the only public buildings that have been rebuilt since the storm. So far, out of a total of 88 public schools, five have either been built from scratch or completely rehabilitated, 22 have been renovated, and another nine will break ground this fall. Over the course of the next decade, if the school district’s new master plan is realized, the hope is that every child in New Orleans will attend school in a building that’s either brand new or fully renovated.
Above: The modular campus of the Abramson Science and Technology Charter School is on the site of the former Marion Abramson Senior High school, which was demolished after the storm.
The school buildings going up in New Orleans are part of the largest federal investment in school construction since the Civil War. But physical structures aren’t the only things being radically upended. New Orleans is now the only U.S. city in which a majority of students attend a charter school. As both projects move forward, we may soon find out if a city can be remade through its schools. Both experiments are in service of a similar mission, namely whether a city can be remade through its schools.
All over New Orleans, vacant school buildings surrounded by chain-link fences sit like relics from another era—their marquees stuck in late August of 2005, just before Katrina made landfall. At one former elementary school in the Seventh Ward, a spray-painted X from a search-and-rescue team declared the three-story building unfit for entry on September 11, 2005. It has remained empty ever since. The cleverly rearranged letters on its sign now read, “2005 GALE CEASES 2 CAGE US.”
Ramsey Green, the chief operating officer of the Recovery School District—the state-run entity in control of the city’s schools—is tasked with overseeing this building boom. “Rather than just putting Band-Aids on buildings and hoping that kids show up, schools are being rebuilt better than they were before,” says Green, 30, from behind the wheel of his red Toyota truck. He counts himself among the group of ambitious young reformers who flocked to post-Katrina New Orleans with the lofty goal of proving to the residents that its government wouldn’t always fail its people—that it could finally be held accountable. “If you’re young and you want to do something pretty exciting and take on a decent amount of responsibility, you can actually do that in New Orleans,” says Green.
A San Diego native, Green taught high school in Franklin, Louisiana, after college. By the time Katrina hit, he was in graduate school, studying public administration at the University of Pennsylvania. He traveled to New Orleans for what was supposed to be a two-month sojourn, but he’s been there ever since. He’s on a mission, he says—aware that as much as the RSD is about building good schools, it is also about creating a sense of security for the city’s kids. “For a lot of children in New Orleans, the only time they’re in a stable building or getting a decent hot meal is when they’re in school,” says Green.
If there is a silver lining in any of this, it’s that the storm has also provided the city with an opportunity to build schools that are not only new, but more sustainable. While other districts around the country have embraced green building principles, it is happening in New Orleans at an unparalleled, all-at-once pace. “You can’t try and teach kids they are valued in a place where they can’t breathe and they can’t hear their teachers and expect them to believe you,” says Anisa Baldwin Metzger, the U.S. Green Building Council’s New Orleans building coordinator. All new schools in the master plan are aiming for LEED Silver certification. So while the structures going up are elevated to prevent flooding, have missile-resistant windows, and use terrazzo flooring that can be pressure washed, they also include solar paneling, water-catchment systems, and bike racks, among dozens of other modifications.
Meanwhile, education reformers are hard at work to make sure that what goes on inside these fancy new buildings is as well thought-out as their structures. Says Sarah Usdin, the founder of New Schools for New Orleans: “The meaning comes from the people. Public buildings are shells otherwise.”
Green and others would be among the first to admit that fancy architecture does not make a good school. But in a post-Katrina New Orleans, the need for new structures is more palpable. Even if the hurricane had never made landfall, the city’s schools would still have been among the oldest and most neglected educational facilities in the nation, with $1 billion in deferred maintenance costs. And so, in the rebuilding of a city and a revitalization of its troubled schools, school construction is part of a larger, possibly even more immediate need.
Above: Betty Coulon, the RSD’s executive director of operations, and Ramsey Green, chief operating officer of the Recovery School District, talk shop in one of the portables of the Abramson Science and Technology Charter School that functions as a cafeteria.
Before Katrina, two-thirds of New Orleans’s schools were not only failing, but also chronically under-enrolled: 63,000 students in a hollowed-out district built for nearly 120,000. On a 2004 high-school exit exam, 96 percent of New Orleans students scored below the standard for basic comprehension in English, with 94 percent scoring below the criteria in math. Earlier policies of racial segregation dictated multiple schools within relatively close proximity, with separate schools and historically inferior building materials for black children. As in many cities, whites and middle- and upper-class blacks had fled to neighboring suburbs; most who could afford it sent their children to private school. That meant that prior to the storm, the student body was 93-percent black, more than three-quarters of whom qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch.
Left: Steve Kennedy stands before the nearly complete L.B. Landry High School. It will open in August.
The Recovery School District is not named because of Hurricane Katrina. It was created two years earlier to help turn around a chronically failing school system. The way Leslie Jacobs, one of the creators of the RSD explains it, the RSD was set up like a Chapter 11 bankruptcy court. Instead of taking over the failing district—controlled by the Orleans Parish School Board, which was so rife with corruption and dysfunction that the FBI had set up a field office in its central headquarters—the RSD was empowered to simply remove failing schools from the OPSB’s control. “Like bankruptcy court, the RSD took away what was inhibiting the school district from succeeding: It stripped control of the local school board, eliminating its policies and collective-bargaining agreement—and out popped the buildings, students, and money to start over,” explains Jacobs.
Flash forward to after Katrina. The RSD’s reach expanded, with 90 percent of New Orleans’s schools coming under its control. Its mission changed, too. The RSD was now responsible not only for turning around failing schools, but also for restarting and rebuilding them. Charter schools were seen as the vehicle to transform the troubled district. The result: In New Orleans the majority of students—61 percent—now attend a charter school. Next year, that number will increase to nearly 70 percent. In this way, New Orleans is in the midst of the most ambitious system-wide reform in U.S. education history. So far, the laboratory is yielding impressive results—in four years, the percentage of failing schools has been reduced by half—but there is still, by all accounts, a long way to go.
With any change this ambitious, there are bound to be detractors, and New Orleans is no exception. “These buildings are supposed to educate children, but they’re not easy to operate and maintain,” said Louella Givens, a member of the state board of education, at a recent oversight-committee meeting. “What will it take to maintain these buildings and not bankrupt us all in the process?”
Above: When the rest of public school students in New Orleans are already on summer break, second graders at Benjamin E. Mays Preparatory School, a charter school, are still in session.
But Jules Lagarde, who works for the firm managing the design and construction of schools for both the RSD and OPSB, says the rebuilding is being done with long-term financial resilience in mind. “Our job is to get buildings that are manageable, not pie-in-the-sky dreams, not ‘We never should have built that,’” he says. Lagarde is required to follow the standards agreed upon in the master plan, adhering to the code requirements of local, state, and federal authorities.
When the detractors get to be too much, Lagarde thinks back to the kids who returned to New Orleans after having been exiled to other cities. Their request was a fairly straightforward one: “Why can’t we have schools like the ones we saw when we were away?”
When Katrina struck, on August 29, school had been in session for nearly two weeks. Half a million residents scattered across the country to cities like Memphis and Houston, where many glimpsed for the first time what a school was supposed to look like and how it was supposed to function.
Like the corner bars, parks, and churches that make up any neighborhood, schools are a community anchor—particularly in New Orleans. “It’s not uncommon for the great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and grandchild to have all attended the same school—the same elementary, middle, and high school,” explains Grisela Alejandro Jackson, 54, the board president of the Lawrence D. Crocker Arts and Technology School. “You can’t bring back these communities without bringing back their schools.”
For Jackson and others, the rebuilding of their schools is about feeling a sense of permanence again. “When do children in this city ever learn they are respected if they’re living in substandard housing and going to substandard schools—when does the environment show them they are respected?” asks Lona Edwards Hankins, 45, the mother of three New Orleans public-school children, who would routinely choose a school for her kids based on the condition of its bathrooms—whether they had stalls, for instance, or rolls of toilet paper. She joined the RSD as director of capital improvements to fix not only the bathrooms, but the entire buildings.
Stan Smith, the chief financial officer of the Orleans Parish School Board, worries about just how long the one-time allotment of FEMA dollars can last. While the remaining $1.3 billion of the $2 billion is likely to come through, it hasn’t yet, because of a lump-sum settlement between the district and FEMA that is still being agreed upon. Worse still, Smith fears that the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico will divert not only attention, but precious resources, from his city’s rebuilding. “A lot of that one-time money is going away, and we’re now returning to a funding level at which we’ll have to figure out how to live into the future—we’ve been living above our means since the storm.”
Meanwhile, later this summer, once the job at L. B. Landry High School is complete, Kennedy will be transferred to a new site, where he will begin another construction job. That is, of course, until the federal disaster money dries up. Until that time, however, there are schools to build.
This article originally appeared in GOOD Issue 020: The New Orleans Issue, on newsstands now. Read more from The New Orleans Issue here.
Photographs by Daymon Gardner.