On this drizzly August morning in the Lower Ninth Ward, music teacher Alonzo Bowens hurriedly summons his boss to listen to student musicians rehearse a number they’d only begun to learn a day earlier.
Doris R. Hicks, the principal of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology, strides into the band room. At Mr. Bowens’ cue, the trumpeters, clarinetists, saxophonists, and flutists launch into a slightly shaky version of “Hail to the Chief.”
Ms. Hicks nods approvingly. “Sounds good, babies,” she tells the 7th graders.
Doris R. Hicks, principal, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology. The charter was the first public school to open in New Orleans’ devastated Lower Ninth Ward.
Today, the students will play the anthem for President Bush. The president and first lady Laura Bush are visiting King—the first public school to open in the city’s devastated Lower Ninth Ward since Hurricane Katrina struck exactly two years ago.
Lately, the King school’s return to the Lower Ninth Ward has been the story of recovery and rebuilding in New Orleans. An article and photo spread in People magazine, a visit from Oprah Winfrey’s producers, and a live broadcast of a syndicated radio show had already made King famous. And now, the surprise appearance of President Bush, whose visit the school learned about only on Friday, after previously being told that U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings would be stopping by on the storm’s second anniversary.
“To think that just a year ago, we were fighting and screaming for a decent building to put these children in,” said Ms. Hicks, the indomitable principal at King since it opened in 1995.
Two years after Katrina decimated the Lower Ninth Ward and drowned their school, King’s students, faculty, and staff members have come home to the bright yellow building on the corner of Claiborne and Caffin avenues. On Monday, they started their third week of the new school year. More than 500 students in prekindergarten through 8th grade are here, all of them wearing vibrant combinations of the school’s colors of red, green, black, and white.
Only subtle signs of Katrina are still visible inside King: some discolored grout in a stairwell where 14 feet of standing water left its scar and a rusted metal sign hung outside the Ellis Marsalis Jr. piano lab, marking the room that was a gift from the famed music family.
But just outside the chain-link fence that surrounds the school’s newly outfitted playground, the ruins of the storm are everywhere. Empty, crumpled houses across the street are still branded with the spray-painted symbols left by rescuers to mark the numbers of deceased inside. Weed-infested lots where houses stood have only a concrete foundation left, or maybe a set of three stairs that used to lead to a front porch.
Still, 95 percent of the school’s pre-storm teachers and staff members are back. Seventy-two percent of the students that King served before the hurricane are here, too, even though very few live in the Lower Ninth Ward anymore. Those who do live close by don’t walk to King—their parents drive them so they don’t have to traverse deserted blocks.
Last year, those numbers were almost as strong, even though the school was forced initially to postpone its start because it had no building.
Getting back home has been a long, challenging journey for King. “A miracle,” said Joseph Recasner, a 4th grade teacher at the school.
By October of 2005, two months after Katrina scattered the entire King community to places like Baton Rouge, Cincinnati, and Houston, Ms. Hicks and several teachers began to meet in New Orleans to hatch plans for reopening the school.
No public schools were operating in the city at that point. It had also become clear that the state of Louisiana was about to take over most of the city’s schools—those deemed to be failing academically.
King had, time and again, beaten the odds for an open-access school serving children from one of the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans.
Its performance score—assigned by the state and based on a combination of test scores, attendance rates, and dropout figures—had reached 85.9 at the end of the 2004-05 school year, an improvement of more than 30 points since 1999. But that score fell just short of the statewide average of 87.4, putting King into a broad category of “failing,” along with more than 100 other city schools that came nowhere close to its achievement levels.
“First of all, we all refused to accept that label of failing … and I put that in a letter to the state superintendent, that King is not a failing school,” said Ms. Hicks. “And then, we realized we had to become a charter.”
King’s teachers, most of them either unfamiliar with or opposed to charter schools before the hurricane, agreed. To save King and ensure its return to the Lower Ninth Ward, they would have to become an independent school. By March of 2006, King had won its charter from the state. It was the only school approved for a charter at the time without the help of an outside management group or nonprofit organization.
“It was more than the great responsibility of reopening for the kids that drove us … it was also the responsibility to this community,” said James Mack, a 3rd grade teacher at King, who drove from Cincinnati for the planning meetings after the storm.
Though it was only a decade old when the hurricane hit, King had become as embedded into the identity of the Lower Ninth Ward as the narrow streets of historic shotgun houses that lined this neighborhood tucked deeply between two canals.
For years, residents had clamored for a new elementary school here, and when King opened in 1995, it instantly belonged to the community in a way that schools in other parts of the city did not. There was a branch of the New Orleans’ public library, which reopened this week, and a room designed to host all manner of meetings and activities for the neighborhood after school and on weekends.
To save that relationship and be a catalyst for rebirth in the neighborhood, getting King back to the Lower Ninth Ward became the newly chartered school’s biggest goal and its most daunting challenge.
But before Ms. Hicks and her team could focus singularly on repairing the school, they had to scramble for temporary space for the 2006-07 school year. The only site offered to them was a decrepit, brick building that had served 2,000 middle school students before Katrina. It was completely unfit, wrecked both by years of neglect and the hurricane. State officials insisted there was no other choice for them, until King held its first day of classes on the steps of the broken down building and demanded something better.
The following week, King started its first post-Katrina school year on the second floor of a campus in Uptown.
Now, back home in the sparkling, rehabilitated campus, King’s students and teachers have returned to many of their pre-Katrina traditions. They still follow the lines of blue tile in the hallways to move between classrooms, the playground, and the cafeteria. Parent volunteers are back at work in the school, and on Aug. 28, some were helping the staff get ready for President Bush’s visit.
But new traditions are taking shape at too, especially around instruction.
King’s 2nd and 3rd grade teachers are “team teaching” and have divided their students into small groups for core subjects to ensure that the children struggling most, especially in reading, get extra time and help. As a whirlwind of preparations for the presidential visit were under way all over the school, Ann Ford, a 2nd grade teacher, kept 13 students with no reading skills engaged in a vocabulary exercise that had them working on words like “pretty,” and “what.”
In King’s two other 2nd grade classrooms, students with better reading skills were receiving instruction in mathematics and language arts.
“We did this last year and had 10 nonreaders reading at grade level and passing their tests by the end of the year,” Ms. Ford said.
The 13 “new readers” were perched attentively at Ms. Ford’s feet as she promised them that if they work hard and read every day, they will catch up to their classmates.
“I want to read like Rochelle,” said one little boy, referring to his older cousin who attends King. “I want to practice my reading,” declared another. Smiling, Ms. Ford told them, “You will boys, you will.”
Coverage of public education in New Orleans is underwritten by a grant from the Ford Foundation.