There is No Levee We Can Build Here
However, lessons we learned following Hurricane Katrina can benefit New Orleans’ education system, we just have to act now.
AS NEW ORLEANS MOVES FURTHER INTO THE COVID-19 quarantine, the comparisons to Katrina have grown louder — and there is an eerie similarity. Once again, we are seeing the compounded challenges of our high poverty, under-resourced city placed on national display for public judgment. Once again we’re seeing a flat narrative of culpability make the rounds — ‘They should have canceled Mardi Gras!’ — attempting to recast the national failure to act as a problem of laissez faire local leadership.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians learned a heartbreaking lesson about the government’s neglect of its most vulnerable citizens. This is the trauma that simmers just under the surface as we grope our way through COVID-19. But unlike Katrina, there is no levee to build or an exact time frame for when our city will get back to business as usual.
We need to stop thinking of this moment as a natural disaster after which we will return to life as normal — there is no normal that we are returning to. And while that is a scary proposition, it is also an opportunity. So far, in the education realm in New Orleans, COVID-19 has brought many new lessons. We are learning in real-time that it is possible to be a system where schools share resources and collaborate to support students regardless of their OneApp assignment. We are learning that it is possible to get students to college without high stakes testing.
So, what will we do with these new insights? Will we treat them as a momentary blip in a system of winners and losers where competition, scarcity, and extraction reign, or will we treat them as a portal inviting us to rethink the fundamentals of how we fund, support, participate, and hold accountable all of our public institutions and workplaces, including school? These questions are especially urgent for New Orleans education, as we have some significant challenges ahead of us.
When we return to school, educators are going to have to make up for at least three months of lost learning in a system where even pre-COVID only 26% of Orleans Parish students are scoring at grade-level on state assessments. The loss of sales tax revenue and readjustments to home values as vacancy rates increase during social distancing will have a negative impact on the minimum foundation program (MFP), the main funding vehicle for our public schools. This means a perfect storm of increased pressure to accelerate learning with fewer resources to do so. And all of this will disproportionately impact black and Latinx children from impoverished communities who constitute the majority of our public school system. Also vulnerable are black educators who disproportionately lead smaller, stand-alone schools attended by students with the highest concentration of needs and the lowest access to non-governmental dollars to address them.
Fortunately, we are doing some good things to prepare the way for thoughtful solutions to these challenges. NOLA Public Schools has purchased thousands of wifi hotspots to distribute to schools to ensure that our most vulnerable families have access to the internet at a moment when we don’t know when in-person instruction will resume. As of early April, the Louisiana Senate Education Committee was reviewing a bill that, if passed, would enable school districts to electively opt-in to Louisiana’s fiber infrastructure so that every student in Louisiana can receive increased access to technology-supported learning.
This is a good start. But if we are willing to cross the portal, and seize the opportunity of this moment, we should hearken back to lessons learned from Katrina and do three things now:
1. COMMIT TO STABILITY.
In the fall of 2020, more than 25 schools are up for renewal or extension. Every year this high-stakes review process leads to a set of recommendations on which schools to keep open and which schools to close. For the next 18 months, we need to put these decisions on hold in the name of stability and give educators the support and flexibility needed to focus on accelerating learning for every child. Additionally, we can learn from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s response to COVID-19, and look for ways to share resources and surge support to the schools and students who need it the most.
2. STRENGTHEN AVENUES FOR PUBLIC VOICE.
Now more than ever we need a nimble school board able to respond to community needs. That means listening deeply to a broad, diverse range of stakeholder voices, but it also means centering the voices and experiences of those most impacted by our challenges. And where there is dissonance we need to lean in, not silence. We can pave the way for this deep listening by ensuring that public meetings don’t proceed without the opportunity for public participation and temporarily suspending the school board’s supermajority voting requirement on certain issues in favor of a simple majority.
3. SEEK GROUNDWATER SOLUTIONS.
Many well-meaning individuals peddled a flat narrative of who was responsible for failing our children in the aftermath of Katrina, advancing solutions that could only ever be partial because the root causes weren’t adequately named. Let’s not do that here. In the parlance of equity work, we need “groundwater” and not “fish-level” solutions. In other words, the educational inequities we face, exacerbated by the COVID crisis, cannot be addressed with programmatic interventions alone. We need solutions that address what Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings calls the “education debt,” or the cumulative impact of fewer resources and other harm directed at students of color. That means seeking interventions that build assets in communities of color, engage families and communities, and shift policies and practices towards acknowledgment and repair of harm.
The recently passed CARES ACT will be an interesting test case for our willingness to step through the portal and apply the lessons learned from Katrina. Monumental in breadth and scope, it provides $13.5 billion in K-12 emergency aid to schools impacted by the COVID crisis. It also gives significant latitude to state and local education agencies to determine the best use of those resources. The last time we were here, 15 years ago, we dreamed a big dream to create a “world-class education system” but left behind a lot of people who were still trying to catch their breath. The gift of this moment is to practice another way.
Our organization has spent 100+ hours working in schools this year, alongside some of the most committed black leaders in our system. We have heard from over 200 black education stakeholders across the city about their hopes and dreams for our education future. One thing is certain: Now is not the time to recreate a system of winners and losers or shore up what isn’t working. COVID-19 is teaching us that none of us are well until all of us are well, and we need to keep that front and center as we move forward.
Adrinda Kelly serves as executive director of BE NOLA (Black Education For New Orleans), an organization whose mission is to support black educators and black-led schools to provide a quality education to New Orleans children. Immediately prior to BE NOLA, Kelly was the national managing director of staff diversity, equity and inclusiveness strategy at Teach For America.