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August 24th, 2009
10:55 PM ET

After the storm: Rebuilding schools from the ground up

Eighth grade students at Carver School, a public school in New Orleans.
Eighth grade students at Carver School, a public school in New Orleans.

Sean Callebs
CNN Correspondent

Katrina washed away so much in New Orleans. Neighborhoods, homes, and lives.

It also washed away a horribly under-performing public education system, but is now giving the city a rare opportunity: the chance to rebuild public schools from the ground up.

Spend some time with 14-year-old Donnell Bailey and it is possible to see signs of improvement from what was once a broken school system.

By his own admission, Donnell was a lazy student. He failed the fourth grade and didn’t focus at all on his future.

Now, after four years of reform, he’s done so well in public school he just earned a scholarship to a $17,000-a-year private school.

He credits the teachers who came to the city in the aftermath of Katrina.

“The expectations were higher,” Bailey said. “My teachers expected me to live up to those expectations. So, the drive that my teachers gave me, it really pushed me up to that level.”

There is no denying public schools were horrific in New Orleans before the storm.

So many students were failing so badly, the state had taken control of about 85 percent of the city’s schools.

Bailey said now most kids want to learn, and want to be challenged.

“Stereotypes are going to be there. There are going to be critics out there who say the kids in New Orleans aren’t doing their jobs,” Bailey argues. “You actually have to be here to know what’s going on. I believe each kid here works hard.”

The man responsible for this rebirth, for turning around the city’s schools, is long-time educator Paul Vallas.

Vallas came to New Orleans after improving schools in Philadelphia and Chicago. He wants change, and quickly.

“Prior to the hurricane, the overall vast majority of these schools were failing, or near failing and the vast majority of the kids were below grade level,” Vallas said.

As schools superintendent, one of the first things he did was allow students to apply to attend any school in the district. The storm wiped out entire neighborhoods, and in the process wiped out a number of schools.

Vallas also gave principals incredible autonomy. Administrators were able to hire new teachers and also dismiss those who were underperforming.

“It is very exciting to be able to build a district from the ground up like this,” the superintendent said.

Vallas hired a small army of young, motivated teachers from around the country from the organization, “Teach for America”.

“They bring a certain energy and a certain personality and drive into the schools that really creates a culture of high expectations,” Vallas said. “So I think for the students in our schools, they are realizing that schools are a different place. That schools could be an avenue for success.”

Todd Purvis, 28, is the principal of the Kipp Central City Academy which stands in the shadow of the New Orleans Superdome. Louisiana and Mississippi go back-and-forth year after year as the state with the worst ranking in public education in the country. But Purvis believes that will change.

“I am very optimistic,” Purvis said. “When I talk to teachers and families, especially teachers that we are trying to convince to move here, I tell them I firmly believe that New Orleans in five or 10 years will become the model for how we reform a school system.”

But New Orleans is a long way from whole. Crime remains a huge problem, as does the dropout rate.

Vallas himself admits a staggeringly small number of public school students actually go on to graduate from college.

“I have no reason to doubt that fewer than 10 percent of the kids who ultimately graduate from high school went to college, completed college,” he says.

After doing some quick math, we realize that number is actually a paltry 7 percent. That’s right, just about 7 percent of New Orleans public school kids graduate from college.

Vallas is spending millions of federal dollars to improve schools. The money buys better teachers, and provides smaller class sizes that offer more one-on-one training.

High school students get their own laptops. Dilapidated schools are being upgraded and outfitted with all the latest technological advances.

Still, not all the stories are positive.

While we were out reporting this story, an apparent disgruntled teacher left an envelope near our equipment. In the letter, the unnamed teacher wrote that many educators don’t like what Vallas is doing and fear that speaking out could lead to their dismissal.

There were only a handful of words in the letter, and the apparent unhappy instructor misspelled the word “losing.” The letter also said teachers would talk, but left no contact information so that we could follow up.

There is no question some students fall through the cracks.

Kids like 15-year-old Curtisha Davis.

She does academic work at her kitchen table because she isn’t enrolled in school right now. Davis failed the eighth grade twice, and doesn’t want to go back a third time.

Under state law, students must pass an exit exam before being promoted to high school. Davis has failed that test every time.

Her mom, Dana Johnson, says her daughter is depressed, and embarrassed.

“I feel that she has already fallen through the cracks,” Johnson says. “I mean she is already three grades behind where it stands now. I mean she is going on 16-years-old and we’re looking at her returning to an 8th grade elementary setting.

Johnson says the district hasn’t provided necessary tutoring, and other assistance that would help Davis.

Vallas says, ‘it’s disappointing”, and that he doesn’t like one-shot, pass or fail tests.

“I’ve always felt that you give the high stakes test, and if a child doesn’t pass all the components of that test, then you conditionally pass the student if the student hits other benchmarks.

Vallas originally signed a two-year contract following Katrina, but he just signed one for two more years given all of the work still to be done.

“In the last two years we saw an increase in test scores in every subject and in every grade level,” Vallas says.

So, he will continue to watch the district, and its students.

And many are also watching him.

Vallas knows the city only has this one chance to overhaul the schools and do it right.

And in a few years he will be known as the man who turned around the program, or allowed a golden opportunity to slip away.

Program Note: Four years after Katrina, what is New Orleans like now? Some residents continue to face challenges as the Big Easy keeps trying to rebuild. Take a look at In Depth: After the Storm. And to learn about ways you can make a difference, visit Impact Your World.

soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. mandmitchell

    I live in NOLA. The situations with the education system down here is dire and it needs help. Many people have begun homeschooling their children in this area because of lack of educational opportunities. The good schools have waiting lists and your chances of getting in are ridiculously low. The other schools have teachers that should not be teaching. I know, I volunteered in my daughter's classroom until is just got too much for me to take and I pulled her out and homeschool now myself. NOLA needs help. Making sure our youth is properly educated is a huge step in that.

    August 25, 2009 at 10:21 am |
  2. ROGER HILL

    hey anderson, what happened to our money? we lost over a trillion in wall street stocks and bonds, where did it go? if we could find that money, then we wouldn't need help from (the government) or china, or? and the banks are still getting raises and bonuses? what?

    August 25, 2009 at 8:23 am |
  3. anita

    the no child left behind issue needs looking into for some answers.schools here are more concerned in where you live instead of schools performances.the kids in lower income areas are sometimes looked over.

    August 25, 2009 at 2:04 am |
  4. Mario

    I am from Gulfport, MS, where Katrina hit. Every since the storm hit all of your attention has only been on New Orleans, why is that? The damage to New Orleans was man made. The storm destroyed the Mississippi gulf coast. Places like Bay St. Louis, Waveland, Gulfport, Biloxi, and Ocean Springs are still recovering from the storm. Yet we are forgotten. After the storm, the mayor of New Orleans told his citizens that the city dodged a bullet. That was before he knew of the levee breach. No one from my area(MS GulfCoast) told anyone that they dodged a bullet because no one did. The strongest part of the storm hit Mississippi but you all only talk about New Orleans. Where is all the help for Mississippi? We still have plenty of people without homes here. Most of the beachfront where beautiful homes and businesses stood is still empty. We are the real victims of Katrina, not New Orleans.

    August 24, 2009 at 11:38 pm |
  5. Annie Kate

    Enthusiastic smart teachers who hold high expectations of each and every student and then help to get those students to where they can meet and exceed those expectations is a good start in improving the level of education anywhere but especially in NOLA. Fulfilling expectations is a very important step – if they fulfill their teachers expectations then hopefully they will start to form their own expectations to achieve and exceed. When they get to that point you have a student that got by changed into a student who excels because he/she expects themselves to excel.

    Hopefully they will be able to inspire more students into attending college after high school – good scholarships will help here instead of loans that just burden the student with more debt when they graduate.

    August 24, 2009 at 8:36 pm |
  6. Christina L.

    School reform is easy. Just meet Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs for teachers and students:
    1) Physiological: Spend enough money to give teachers and students pleasant surroundings to work in, (freshly painted, regularly cleaned rooms with natural light, comfortable seating, clocks that work, air conditioning and heating that works, clean drinking water and places to get food when needed). JUST LIKE PRIVATE INDUSTRY! Students also need a set of books at home as well as at school. The text books these days weigh a ton and carrying six 'encyclopedias" around in your backpack all day is not fun.

    2) Safety: Employ enough proctors to monitor the campus PROPERLY. Have an effective school discipline policy that supports teachers and students and REPAIR things when they get damaged.

    3) Love/Belonging: If you don't love kids and don't really enjoy their company, DON'T BE A TEACHER! Kids are instinctive, they can smell fear, they can tell if you're lying or if you're incompetent and they can tell if you don't like them or are indifferent. Teachers must take an interest in their kids, but that's definately hard to do when classrooms are so overcrowded. Do it anyway. Principals: Create a climate of fun and camaraderie at the school for the teachers!

    4) Esteem: Positive rewards for kids when they work hard have an amazing effect! Surprise surprise, the same works for teachers! Teachers are sick and tired of being the scapegoats for everything to do with education. They need to be REGULARLY motivated, validated and rewarded for doing well! The majority of teachers give and give and give their all. Recognize that. PRIVATE INDUSTRY DOES!

    5) Self-Actualization: Students need to be taught to think and work in the real world. They need to know how to win friends and influence people, how to make money, how to have a positive outlook on life and have fun, but also to understand morality. They also need to know how to make relationships work and how to be responsible in society. Unfortunately, testing, testing and more testing takes precidence over helping our young people become well rounded, productive citizens.

    August 24, 2009 at 4:45 pm |
  7. Karran Royal

    Vicky,

    Curtisha's mother was able to get her enrolled in a school last week, but it s far from the best situation. We will be working with this family to make sure that Curthsha does not fall through the cracks as her brother Curtis has. Thanks for your concern.

    August 24, 2009 at 3:26 pm |
  8. Jack L. Crain

    A Catholic Schools just recieved more than three hundred state of art lap-top computers from the Governor, a memeber of an extreme Catholic sect. How many public school students got free computers from the State? Rebuilding funds have gone disproportionately to Catholic schools since the beginning (both FEMA and State funds).

    August 24, 2009 at 2:57 pm |
  9. KIm

    Cheers to all making it happen ! Vicente Fox has yet to sign a bill that would eliminate penalities in Mexico. There is no compromise ! Say no to drugs and stay in school !

    August 24, 2009 at 2:12 pm |
  10. Vicky, Ottawa

    Sean,
    Looking forward to your updates from New Orleans. Many people in New Orleans have told me that Katrina exposed many problems that had long been festering, and I think if there is any positive at all to the flooding, it is that it gives a chance to make changes and start afresh, to make things better than they were before.

    I'm glad to hear that Paul Vallas is staying on, as I thought I had read recently that he was leaving. The children of New Orleans are really the future of that city, and they deserve to be a focus of rebuilding efforts and to have people who are really committed to their futures.

    Wondering about Curtisha Davis, and whether anyone has fully explored her learning difficulties, so that she can experience success and not feel depressed and embarrassed. There must be other students who are experiencing the same difficulties, and I'm wondering what alternative programs or supports are available. I hope she doesn't give up on her education.

    August 24, 2009 at 2:03 pm |
  11. Danielle - my body is in Los Angeles but my heart will always be in New Orleans

    It's good to see that CNN keeps New Orleans on the radar some 4 years after the terrible disaster that nearly wiped out the city I love so much. I visit New Orleans at least twice a year to visit family and friends. It's good to see and know that something is being done about the public education there. The schools were bad before the hurricane and Katrina only made things worst. I applaud Paul Vallas for walking his talk to help turn around the school system.

    August 24, 2009 at 1:45 pm |
  12. Michael in VA

    Why has there been NO coverage on Mexico's LEGALIZATION bill that was just signed into law on Friday?

    Is this not big news that 5 grams of marijuana are now legal to carry? CNN spent a whole week on your Special Coverage "America's High" but now that something possitive has occured the main stream media hides it's heads and doesn't talk about it???

    GREAT REPORTING!!!

    August 24, 2009 at 11:33 am |