The New Orleans School Board’s firing of 7500 employees in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina lacked decency, leadership and integrity.
During a time, when most New Orleanians were trying to recapture a semblance of home, the mass firing took a piece of it away from teachers and the Black middle class whom they represent. On the 10th anniversary of Katrina, I want to make sure that teachers’ pain and suffering are validated.
The court battle over the offing is over as the U.S. Supreme Court denied hearing the teachers’ case, but that shouldn’t preclude our community from saying we are sorry.
As Florida Woods, then principal of Paul L. Dunbar Elementary School, said at the time: “The people who were there should be the ones given the opportunity to rebuild. … We know the history, we know the culture of the city, the district, and the people.”
Ms. Woods was right.
Governments must give their citizens every opportunity to participate in their own recovery after a disaster. Surrounding parishes found ways to get their teachers back to work. The takeover of more than 100 schools by the state and the potential insolvency from the dramatic reduction in schools (revenue) supposedly tied the hands of teachers’ official ousters – The New Orleans Public School Board. So we know many had a stake in the offing. But let’s not play the blame game.
Let’s all own the fact that teachers were treated horribly so we can truly reform our mistakes.
In his keynote speech during the W.K. Kellogg Foundation America Healing event, James Joseph, Ambassador to South Africa under Bill Clinton said, “Forgiveness empowers the victim and disarms the enemy.” An apology would certainly start healing a wound that still hasn’t mended ten years post-Katrina.
Data show that African Americans are less likely than whites to perceive progress. Adding insult to injury, many offer statistical rebuttals to essentially invalidate what teachers and the black middle class know and feel.
Teachers of the storm, the bandied about question of is reform working, must hurt you to the core. For whom, you reply. As I reflect on the last ten years, I ask myself would we have fired the teachers if the current reforms were in place before the storm?
If you truly believe in structural change, then you have to repudiate the decision to fire the teachers. System failures hurt our children and teachers. The cashiered teachers would have thrived in the current system. In fact, many do.
Educational leaders like Rene Lewis Carter, Louisiana Middle School Teacher of the Year, has a successful school comprised primarily with teachers trained in the prior system.
Lewis Carter’s mentor, Mary Laurie pulled the newly form Landry Walker High School with teachers from pre-Katrina NOPS.
Doris Hicks, lives the quintessential recovery story by orchestrating the resurrection of her successful ninth ward school, Martin Luther King Charter School.
Sharon Clark, principal of Sophie B. Wright, turned around a failing school with local talent.
Jamar McKneely of the Inspire Network is one of the most successful leaders of a charter management organization, and he was developed in the prior system.
When teachers are supported (in any system), they thrive, but too many former teachers were not given that opportunity. As a result, New Orleans public schools saw loss of black teachers. “Public school teachers in New Orleans are considerably more likely to be white, inexperienced, without local roots and lacking formal teaching credentials as a result of the charter school movement that has remade public education in the city since Hurricane Katrina,” found one study.
And the firing didn’t stop in the wake of Katrina.
One of the biggest mistakes that I made as a school leader as CEO of the Capital One-University of New Orleans Charter Network was to summarily fire many of my principals and assistant principals without truly giving them a chance to develop. I am sorry.
Our collective lack of support for NOPS teachers facilitated layoffs more than a budget or legislative changes ever could. Much of the public checked-out of the public school system, and being dispersed certainly didn’t help. Teachers bore the brunt of our disengagement and disaffection of public schools. Current reformers, past board members, legislators and the general public shoulder a great deal of blame for not innovating a longitudinal effort to bring teachers back and update their skills.
This effort should have been done as vigorously as we tried recruiting and importing new talent to New Orleans. There is nothing more innovative than care. And we all should apologize for not caring enough.
The current arrangement of schools has engendered support from a wider range of the public than before the storm. Non-profit boards comprised of real people representing faith-based organizations, non-profits and local business govern independent charters. These newcomers to the education scene now realize how difficult it is to provide a quality education. I believe there is a newfound appreciation for teachers’ good work.
But too many former teachers are not involved in New Orleans’ charters. The fact is students need former teachers’ engagement and leadership.
We now know that we can’t improve schools in spite of community. We can’t fire our way to success. To what end is improvement when our mothers, fathers and friends are hurt by it. Giving the broken teacher pipeline that currently exists, we have to develop talent. There’s no way to turn back the clock, but we can apologize and promise to do better. We can create a community-based effort to recruit, retrain and hire local talent. Teachers of the storm, our children need you.
New Orleanians are resilient, and teachers helped build that resiliency. I thank you for all that you’ve done. I pledge to do better. I hope others will make the same pledge.
But first it starts with an apology.
Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is the former founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. Previously, Perry worked in both academic and administrative capacities, most notably as CEO of the Capital One-University of New Orleans Charter Network, which consisted of four charter schools in New Orleans.