On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall over southeast Louisiana and Mississippi, unleashing unprecedented devastation. Flood waters eventually covered 80 percent of New Orleans and caused more than $125 billion in damages across the South. Today, fifteen years later, the Gulf states are facing not one, but three unprecedented challenges—the devastation of eerily similar Hurricane Laura, a national reckoning with systemic racism and the undercurrent of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reopening in these conditions is challenging, but it is not the first time that the region has gone through this process of rebuilding and healing. In this blog, Ed Firster Margo Roen reflects on the challenges of rebuilding—fifteen years ago and today.
On Saturday, August 28, 2005 I packed a small bag of clothes, a few pictures and keepsakes, and Friday’s Geometry quizzes and tried to psych myself up for the inevitable traffic that comes with a hurricane evacuation. I had evacuated New Orleans multiple times over the past few years, and as before, planned on returning to the city a few days later, tired of travel but happy to return unscathed. It’s August 2005 and I was a high school math teacher at one of the lowest performing schools in the state of Louisiana and in the country. The emphasis of the school was student regulation and safety, including having barbed wires around the fences, metal detectors at the doors and officers on every floor. Rather than college-prep, this school had a prison-prep environment with horrifically low outcomes to match. There were pockets of greatness at the school—some truly excellent teachers, students who worked hard to overcome incredible challenges, a school leader doing whatever he could to get more resources for the school, a great band program that marched in the Mardi Gras parades—but based on some of the most critical measures, like whether students can read, the school was failing its students. I focused on these pockets of greatness, learned from them, and created a classroom built on high expectations, positive relationships and support. There was a lot to fix about the school, sure, but I loved teaching here. I left exhausted every evening knowing that I was doing all I could to provide my students with a supportive environment and a great education. In retrospect, things could have continued on like this for a while, perhaps even for a lifetime, but they didn’t. On August 29 and the days and weeks that followed, I watched from a safe distance as Hurricane Katrina demolished the city, school and community I loved.
Words cannot describe how angry and hurt I felt watching Katrina and its aftermath. The travesty on TV was horrific, the longing to be there for my students was non-stop (several of whose faces I saw on TV waiting outside the convention center or Superdome)…and then I was laid off. With an unknown future and massive devastation, the district let go of its teaching force. In just a few weeks I had lost my city, my career, and perhaps even some of my students.
I felt anxious, but was also compelled to do something. I quickly found a way back to New Orleans ahead of the city reopening as a Federal employee helping with the clean-up and rebuilding efforts with the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA). FEMA was my way back into the city, but it was not my calling. After long days helping newly and historically homeless New Orleans residents try to meet their basic needs, I would catch up with former colleagues scattered across the country to find out about opportunities to get back into teaching. Finally, I heard about an opportunity in New Orleans to join a team starting a charter high school. New Orleans Charter Science and Math (“SciHigh”) was one of the first schools to open its doors in New Orleans after the storm. The nonprofit, open-enrollment charter school quickly found its hallways full of 9th to 12th grade students, both because of the reputation of the leader and because the school was one of the only options in town. I talked to the leader, did a sample lesson and quickly jumped at an offer to teach again. After many months of feeling hapless and adrift, I felt like I’d reached some kind of meaningful conclusion. It wasn’t until the first day back in school—everything perfectly in place in the classroom, “Catalyst” written on the board with a warm-up activity—that I was reminded that this was just the beginning of my own rebuilding.
Staffing and opening an entire school is a challenge in normal times, let alone after a major hurricane. It was through the sheer pluckiness of the founding team, that SciHigh opened its doors to any and all students who found their way back to New Orleans in January 2006. The school opened in a former elementary school (teaching Physics in a Kindergarten classroom feels very crowded), the Individualized Education Plans for our students with special needs were washed away by the storm—leaving us to learn the unique needs of each student from scratch—and students and teachers (understandably) had severe mental health issues and/or post-storm trauma that was very raw. Every time it rained outside the giant classroom windows, my teenage students would recede and sometimes even cry. The memories and pain of the storm stayed at the surface as we all tried to get back to the normalcy of teaching and learning.
But those challenges did not define the school. Rather than chaos, excuses or the “every teacher for him/herself” environment I worked in prior to the storm, my experience of reopening at SciHigh was one of respect, empowerment and collaboration. The respect came in many forms, starting with the trust the principal had in every teacher, her allowing us to be true leaders in our classroom. We were empowered to make our own decisions about curriculum and instructional methods, as long as we could justify our choices as both mission-aligned and student-focused. It came in the patience and support we teachers had for our students as we worked together to try and come to terms with our pasts (the good and the bad, and especially Katrina) and build toward a brighter future. We also empowered our students to embrace their own learning by offering a wide range of specialized courses—from interventions/remediation to advanced courses and Robotics—working to make each of them feel successful in school. The autonomy we had led us not to be more independent, but for us to be a better collective whole, all working and healing together while holding each other accountable for real student progress. It is because of this school, and the relentless and resilient teachers with whom I worked, that I came to know the limitless potential of every student no matter their age, academic history or exposure to traumatic experiences. Like the city, we were all capable of rebuilding ourselves as beings.
Shared Trauma, Shared Purpose
My SciHigh experience is a powerful reminder that schools create a shared purpose and a path to recover together. While we each experience the pandemic, racial injustices and protests, and the natural disasters coast-to-coast differently, we share the trauma of 2020. Educators and students, curriculum, district plans and school settings are changing, but when we come together to learn and grow we regain a sense of who we are and what we are here to do. Critical to this growth is agency—families, educators and students must be empowered to articulate the path forward.
Collective healing and progress in the face of these challenges can happen, and schools play a critical role in listening to what their families and students need, creating spaces for their educators to live into their own experiences through these challenges, and create meaningful relationships and choices that keep everyone invested in their learning and each other’s success. My experience at SciHigh is the source of my optimism as schools reopen in the most extraordinary of circumstances. And as we get past reopening and plans inevitably change, it is this sense of connection and compassion that will ensure we are each able to recover and thrive in what lies beyond our current moment.