School Climate & Safety

Rookie Teachers, Stressed Students Confront Realities of New Orleans’ Schools After Storm

By Lesli A. Maxwell — March 12, 2007 8 min read
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Scores of teenagers streamed out of John McDonogh Senior High School in this city’s storied Treme neighborhood on a recent afternoon as a dozen security guards and city police officers stood watch along the sidewalk.

From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., they had gone to classes in the century-old school building where, since Hurricane Katrina struck, a heavy piece of chain link has substituted for a handle on the front door. At least 20 security guards and three New Orleans police officers were scattered throughout the three-story building, their presence meant to contain hostilities that have flared among students since they returned to their devastated hometown.

Vision Is Elusive

McDonogh High’s challenges, and similar hardship at other public schools that have reopened in New Orleans, were not part of the vision advanced by politicians and educators who saw the storm’s destruction as an unprecedented opportunity for schools. To them, Katrina, terrible though it was, had delivered a chance to rebuild an urban education system that was largely failing its students, most of whom were poor and black.

Some 18 months after the storm, the Recovery School District—now running 20 campuses, including McDonogh High—is the city’s largest school operator. With more than 10,000 students, and as many as 50 new students registering every day, the state-run district’s enrollment is 97 percent African-American and 67 percent poor.

As the school day ends recently at John McDonogh High School in New Orleans, security guards keep a watch on students.

Charter schools have sprung up all over the city, and private and parochial schools are coming back, but the “RSD” exemplifies how difficult it is to rebuild schools in a city struggling to come back to life.

Half of McDonogh’s 55 teachers are rookies—replacements for members of the city’s teaching corps who were fired after the storm. The cafeteria, on the ground floor where two feet of water stood, has new tables, but still is not equipped to prepare hot lunches because of code violations that existed before the hurricane.

When school let out, some students lumbered on to a waiting yellow bus that would ferry them to the “evening school” program that had started days earlier at a campus across town. There, they would take extra courses to help make up for lost school time and a shortfall of credits—just one of many disruptions to their education wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

At “John Mac,” the school’s popular nickname, Principal Donald Jackson estimates that as many as 25 percent of the 925 students missed all or most of the 2005-06 academic year, after the storm displaced families to other cities just as school was starting. The three-story brick school sits on Esplanade Avenue in Treme, the neighborhood just north of the French Quarter that is famous for producing some of the city’s most talented musicians and brass bands.

‘A Lost Year’

That gap in schooling has made placing such students in the right courses difficult, especially without academic records to help guide decisions, Mr. Jackson said. Most records were ruined in the storm.

“Last school year was a lost year educationally for many of these students,” said Mr. Jackson, who is a first-year principal. “They are coming back here, and we are evaluating them based on what they tell us about where they are, what classes they have taken. We are having to make lots of adjustments.”

There are no figures districtwide for how many children were out of school for significant periods because of Katrina, officials said, but students are continuing to enroll who missed some of last year and may not have been to school even in this academic year.

Security guards are a constant presence at McDonogh, where fights erupted last fall. Since then, behavior has improved, and donated instruments allowed the band to take part in Mardi Gras.

Aaronika Johnson, 17, fled to Memphis with her family after the hurricane. She registered at a high school there, but after attending for a few days, stopped going. “I didn’t like it there; I didn’t get along with the kids, and I was really homesick, so I just didn’t go,” said Ms. Johnson, who is a junior at McDonogh.

When she came back to school in September, Ms. Johnson found out immediately that she had fallen behind. She had to switch her mathematics class twice. “It’s been really hard,” she said late last month. “I mean, I hadn’t done math for a whole year. I forgot a lot.”

Charlene Jackson, an English teacher at McDonogh, said she has had to help many of her students “just get used to being in a classroom again.”

At McDonogh No. 42 Elementary School, a pre-K-8campus that opened only a month ago in the Seventh Ward, Principal Terri Wide estimates that 20 percent of her students “were out of school altogether last year, and even more only went to school part of the year.”

That situation, she said, is further complicated by having a teaching staff that is even less experienced than Mr. Jackson’s. She estimates that 90 percent of her 27 teachers are brand-new to the profession.

“I’ve got only a handful of teachers with the experience to be mentors,” Ms. Wide said, “so I have to do a lot of modeling myself in the classroom for my new teachers.”

Across the RSD, officials don’t yet have numbers for how many of the 584 teachers are novices. Since the current school year began in September, however, 83 teachers have resigned.

Security Focus

Kathy Boisseau, the mother of 15-year-old Benjamin Boisseau, knew returning to New Orleans from their temporary home in Memphis earlier this year would bring challenges. Getting a job. Finding a home to rent. But enrolling her son in school wasn’t a hardship she had anticipated.

“That’s why we came back,” Ms. Boisseau said. “We heard that schools were open, more were going to open, and that there was a lot of choice.”

Indeed, charter schools, which were seen by education experts as a big part of the new landscape, are prominent here. So far, 31 are operating, including 17 run by the RSD enrolling 7,544 students. Nine more are slated to open in the fall. Five schools—four with selective admissions—make up the district run by the elected Orleans Parish school board.

After being turned away by five schools, including some charters, because of a lack of space, Ms. Boisseau placed her son on a recovery-district waiting list with 300 other students. After a month passed and public outrage mounted, the RSD opened two new schools and had placed all the students on the waiting list in schools by the start of the second semester on Feb. 5.

Benjamin Boisseau, 15, center, plays with his brother, Kevin. His mother, Kathy, left, would like to transfer him out of McDonogh.

Benjamin Boisseau registered at McDonogh High. His mother was not happy with the placement. She had heard about the arrests of students there last October for attacking a teacher and security guards, but she felt relieved that her son would at least being going to school.

“The worst part is all the security,” said Benjamin, who is a freshman. “Every day, they take our book sacks and want us to empty out our pockets. It seems like they are more worried about security than they are about teaching us something.”

Mr. Jackson, the principal, said the climate at McDonogh was tense in the fall when the violence erupted. Following those incidents, he had as many as 37 security guards and three police officers on school grounds every day.

“What we were dealing with were kids who are really angry about what’s happened to them, kids who weren’t living with their parents, and kids coming to this school from all over the city and neighborhoods that have rivalries,” he said.

The school year started inauspiciously at McDonogh, without enough textbooks for students and with 14 teaching vacancies, most of them in math and science, Mr. Jackson said. There were days early on when students sat in the auditorium during what was supposed to be a science class because no one was available to teach them. Principals in the district’s four other high schools faced the same problems, Mr. Jackson said.

“It was hard to imagine that this is how a state takeover would look,” he said. “Starting the school year without enough personnel?”

Settling In

But as conditions at McDonogh High have improved, Mr. Jackson said, so has behavior.

Late last year, McDonogh’s library reopened with new furniture and a new collection of books to replace what had been ruined. The school has dozens of new Dell computers, though as of late last month, many weren’t in use because they still needed connections to the district’s network.

In January, a shipment of new trumpets, saxophones, and other instruments made it possible for McDonogh to reassemble a 130-member marching band in time to rehearse and polish a routine for last month’s Mardi Gras parades.

“It really gave the kids something to rally around that was positive and that made them proud,” said Ray Johnson, McDonogh’s band director and one of the few faculty members who taught at the high school before the storm. “It also gave them something productive to do after school.”

The school’s widely publicized problems attracted visits from Bill Cosby and leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization. Those visits, said Mr. Jackson, “made students feel like someone cared about them. It’s had a positive impact.”

At McDonogh No. 42, Principal Wide was beginning to see her 400 students settle into a routine as they neared the end of their third week in the school late last month. For many, the first couple of weeks back were emotional.

“It’s been a lot of tears,” said Ms. Wide, who has 20 years’ experience in New Orleans schools. “Sometimes, they just start crying, and you don’t really know why. But you find out they are angry because they still don’t understand what happened to them.

“And you know that their parents are stressed out,” she said, “fighting with [the Federal Emergency Management Agency], and they are living in trailers and temporary homes, and they bring all of that to school.”

When Aaronika Johnson came home from Memphis last August, she thought she’d go back to her old school, Alcee Fortier High in Uptown. It was among the lowest-performing high schools in the city, with an enrollment of 1,000 students, and was on the verge of being taken over by the state before the hurricane.

“All we found out was that there was a school in Alcee Fortier,” Ms. Johnson said, “but it wasn’t the school I’d gone to.”

In fact, her old campus had been taken over. Lusher School, which had been one of the few high-performing elementary and middle schools in New Orleans before Katrina, had become a charter school and wanted to start a high school in the building. With the approval of the Orleans Parish school board, Lusher, a selective-admissions school, moved into the Alcee Fortier campus to serve middle and high school students. Many are the children of faculty and staff members at the city’s Dillard, Loyola, Tulane, and Xavier universities.

For Ms. Johnson, as it turns out, the change to McDonogh High has not been so dramatic.

“There are a lot of people I didn’t know before,” she said, “but the classes and the teachers seem a lot like my old school.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Rookie Teachers, Stressed Students Confront Realities of New Orleans’ Schools After Storm

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