Fixing the Broken Parts: Can Schools Save New Orleans? Fixing the Broken Parts: Can Schools Save New Orleans?

Fixing the Broken Parts: Can Schools Save New Orleans?

by Amanda M. Fairbanks

July 21, 2010

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?

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.

Left: Steve Kennedy stands before the nearly complete L.B. Landry High School. It will open in August.



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.

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Fixing the Broken Parts: Can Schools Save New Orleans?