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.
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
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