Veterans of the pre- and post-Katrina educational landscape, three current leaders share their thoughts on the similarities and differences, and where we need to go from here
This time the cavalry is not coming. We all need to do this ourselves. We need to find that well of patience and humanity and work through this.”
Leslie Jacobs, co-founder and chair of YouthForce
When Hurricane Katrina hit, New Orleans public schools were considered some of the worst in the United States, with one reform effort after another doing little to improve outcomes.
Katrina changed everything. Control of all but a handful of schools was taken away from the Orleans Parish School Board and turned over to a state entity, the Recovery School District. Only in 2018 did local control resume. In the interim, every single public school in New Orleans has become a charter school, an experiment unique in our nation.
More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic caused schools to cease in-person learning in March 2020 and only at the beginning of the fall 2021 term did most welcome students back into the classrooms. Just as students returned, however, Hurricane Ida made landfall just west of the metro area. While the devastation was not on the level of Katrina — at least within the city and immediately surrounding parishes — again, the storm is affecting public education systems in crisis. .
Ida’s impacts caused at least two weeks of school closures, with some systems out for much longer, and most experts consider that students are already at least one and a half years behind in their learning due to the COVID-19 complications.
Where do we go from here? Can some of the lost educational ground be made up? Will lessons from Katrina help in the aftermath of Ida?
“There are a lot of similarities to what it takes to return,” observed Jamar McKneely, CEO of InspireNOLA Charter Schools, operators of eight New Orleans schools. “This rebound is still very stressful, but we see ourselves rebounding a lot faster than after Katrina.”
McKneely, who was a teacher at Edna Karr High School when Katrina hit, cited several factors that he feels will accelerate the recovery, including stronger civic leadership and the existence of social media.
“Social media is a game-changer,” he said. “We can provide updates much faster, communicate information and assurances to parents, even send pictures of the schools.”
“The resources we have in place are one key difference,” agreed Sabrina Pence, CEO of FirstLine Schools, a network of five New Orleans schools. “We have robust special education, we have social workers in the schools. We know about social and emotional learning, what it means to be trauma-informed. We have much more concrete plans in place. We can support kids and families differently.”
Leslie Jacobs, co-founder and chair of YouthForce, is a former Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) member who was serving on the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) when Katrina hit. She noted that the New Orleans schools today are in much better condition financially and physically than they were at that time.
“New Orleans laid off teachers within one week of Katrina,” Jacobs recalled. “OPSB was bankrupt at the time. After the storm, we had a $2 billion investment in new school buildings, and they did not experience much damage from Ida. After Katrina, only the river sliver and Westbank schools could open.”
Jacobs added that many other Southeast Louisiana parishes had considerably more damage to their facilities from Ida than Katrina, but noted that all parishes are still paying their staffs, and even teachers who have been displaced can still find places to live within a reasonable radius of their homes. Although many districts will take longer to get back up and running than Orleans Parish, it likely will not be the full year that was lost after Katrina.
However, said Jacobs, “This storm happened in the context of real fatigue. With Ida coming on the heels of the pandemic, people are weary. Teachers and families are running on lower resiliency.”
This applies nationally as well as locally.
“We had an influx of talent coming into the region after Katrina, in all areas, not just education. We had millions of philanthropic dollars. This time the cavalry is not coming. We all need to do this ourselves. We need to find that well of patience and humanity and work through this.”
Ida’s arrival during the COVID-19 impact also troubled McKneely.
“We already had major challenges returning to school,” he said. “This accelerates the impacts of social and emotional challenges on faculty and students, and dampens the gains we were beginning to make on the learning losses.”
McKneely’s analysis, based on initial assessments within his network of schools, is that students are as far as two and half years behind in their learning, with the youngest students being the most highly impacted. “The staff has been through a lot as well,” he added. “We are bringing in professional development resources for them just as soon as possible.”
“The biggest lesson out of Katrina is to work with people where they are,” said Pence. “We have to understand the family situation, understand what the kids need, and approach this from a place of understanding and humanity.”
While the use of remote learning became commonplace during the COVID-19 school closures, Pence is worried about falling back on it after Ida.
“Remote learning is an advantage when it comes to keeping kids connected to school,” she observed, “but it’s also a place where we see a lot of inequities. Many of our families struggle with broadband access or computer access. The data is really clear that virtual learning is just not as good.”
What’s evident is that there are no simple answers, no fast solutions. And, while everyone in Southeast Louisiana is thoroughly tired of the word, our region’s resiliency is once again going to be our biggest asset.
“Our students are definitely resilient,” McKneely said. “They are looking forward to returning to school. It provides a sense of hope.”
“After we address the immediate needs for our students, families and staff, we need a really strong push to get everyone back to school,” echoed Pence. “It returns some normalcy to life, and gets everybody focused on learning again.”
“We are fundamentally resilient,” Jacobs said firmly. “Our way forward is one step at a time. After Katrina, the Orleans schools got better each year, not all at once. This is a challenging time, but we’re going to get through it. That’s what humans do.”
We already had major challenges returning to school. [Hurricane Ida] accelerates the impacts of social and emotional challenges on faculty and students, and dampens the gains we were beginning to make on the learning losses.
Jamar McKneely, CEO of InspireNOLA Charter Schools