Students Say New Orleans Schools Are No Education "Miracle"

Students from six New Orleans high schools say that when it comes to post-Katrina reform, it's far too soon to declare "mission accomplished".

Last year Education Secretary Arne Duncan infamously quipped that Hurricane Katrina was "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans" because it swept away the city's dysfunctional school system. Indeed, in the six years since the levees broke, the reform efforts in New Orleans schools have been held up nationally as an education "miracle." But according to a report (PDF) released today that surveyed students at six New Orleans high schools, it's far too soon to declare "mission accomplished."

The survey, conducted over 18 months by the city's Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association, collected data from 425 students at six schools, making it the most extensive youth-led, student-centered study since Hurricane Katrina. Through surveys, focus groups and individual interviews, students rated their schools on 12 criteria "that local students identified as integral to a quality education—teaching, student support services, physical environment, textbooks, school food, family inclusion, rigor and college readiness, English as a second language, school fees, access to school options, transportation, and safety and bullying."

While the findings show some progress, it also reveals a huge disconnect between what education reformers see happening in New Orleans schools and what students are experiencing. One school earned an A- average grade and one earned a B-. Two campuses earned Cs, and two were given a dismal D+.

Why the low grades? Fewer than 30 percent of students believe their teachers make lessons interesting and 70 percent feel their teachers aren't able to manage their classrooms. Only one in four students feel comfortable turning to school staff if they have an emotional or social problem. More than 70 percent of Vietnamese students and 80 percent of Latino students say their parents rarely or never receive forms in their native language.

The data on academics and college readiness is particularly concerning. One-fifth of students say they never complete any homework. Sixty percent of juniors and seniors say their high school isn't preparing them for college, and more than half of students not taking AP classes say they were prevented from enrolling in them. At two schools, 80 percent of students say they're "never" or "rarely" able to take textbooks home to study.

The report makes 40 recommendations for improving New Orleans' schools, including everything from asking students to evaluate teachers each semester to purchasing enough textbooks that students can take them home. The report is already making an impact on education policies in the city, with Recovery School District officials agreeing to five of the recommended measures, including the student evaluations. Let's hope this marks the start of a new era in which students have a real say in the direction of the city's schools.

Julian Meehan

Young leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York Saturday to address arguably the most urgent issue of our time. The Youth Climate Summit comes on the heels of an international strike spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, who arrived in New York via emissions-free sailboat earlier this month.

Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

This new generation of activists' most pernicious enemy is denial. The people in charge — complacent politicians and corporation heads who grossly benefit from maintaining the status quo — are buffered from real-life consequences of climate change. But millions of people don't share that privilege. For them, climate change isn't an abstract concept, but a daily state of emergency, whether it comes in the form of "prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa…devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific…[or] heatwaves and wildfires," as Amnesty International reportsare all too real problems people are facing on a regular basis.

RELATED: Greta Thunberg urges people to turn to nature to combat climate change

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"We need to act right now to stop burning fossil fuels and ensure a rapid energy revolution with equity, reparations and climate justice at its heart," organizers say.

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