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No Matter What, New Orleans’ Educators Press Forward

Saturday marked the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. People have been quick to talk about education in New Orleans after the storm, and to the extent that it fosters learning and progress, that’s a conversation that matters. New Orleans’ educators have been working hard for their students, before and after Katrina. And because of that hard work, we’ve seen progress in the last decade. From graduation rates to ACT scores to college enrollment, New Orleans’ students have made substantial gains.

But last week was about so much more than that. While many discuss where our teachers’ classrooms have come in a decade, our teachers are pressing forward with persistence for the audience that matters most—students and their families.

I’ve seen that spirit shine in a colleague of mine, Angele DeLarge. Angele grew up in New Orleans, and she taught for eight years in the city before beginning to work with me to coach new teachers. Last week, she wrote about the storm:

Thinking about the 10 years that have passed since Hurricane Katrina, the only time I really think of systematic changes are through conversations with others. Honestly and truthfully, my thoughts are much more personal and far more difficult to articulate than my stances on political, social, economic, and education issues.

I think about the exact moment I looked at the news and realized my home was underwater.

I think about the fact that we weren’t able to hear from my father for a week, as he stayed behind to rescue others.

People begin to tell you, “Aren’t you lucky that things have gotten so much better since the storm?” They remind you of how “bad” things were before.

They forget about the human experience.

They forget they are talking about your life.

Angele emailed this reflection to the group of teachers she works with. After her thoughts, she jumped right into links and resources titled, “Important Documents Driving our Work for Kids this Year.”

That struck me as extraordinary, and in our city, all too familiar. Angele, like so many great educators, keeps pushing on for children, no matter what. Like her father, who stayed in the city after the flood to help others, Angele’s first thought after her own pain last week was to be the change she wishes to see—to work for children.

After Katrina, the power of that persistence was so visible in leaders who pressed on despite the obstacles and who did incredible work for children. I think of the teachers who evacuated to Houston and went to the Astrodome and other shelters to search for New Orleans students. Upon arriving, they found some of the students they’d taught for just a few days before the storm. The students asked their teachers a question that everyone knew there was no answer for: what was going to happen with school this year? In the face of having no answers, they created one alongside longtime local educator Gary Robichaux. Gary guided them to create a makeshift school, one that later became permanent, so that students had a place to learn.

I’m inspired by the stories of educators who, in the absence of schools to work at, stepped up to help at FEMA centers. Folks would wait in long lines just because they “only wanted to talk to the teachers,” who had become experts at navigating the complex web of paperwork and support. Our city’s educators were there for students and families, even when the walls of their classrooms were not.

I think of Mary Laurie, a New Orleans native and veteran educator, who came back to New Orleans after the storm and opened the doors of her school a full year before the system was ready. She brought together a diverse team of veteran educators and new teachers to give children a place to learn, even before the city was fully reopened. Today, her school is a beacon of pride in our community.

I think of Adam Meinig, who began his career as an educator with Teach For America five years prior. Adam and other educators knew what the first Mardi Gras would mean to our city after the storm—and that many of our citizens would return still recovering and in need of fellowship with one another. So he spent an entire week walking up and down St. Charles Avenue giving beads to our city’s children and families with school contact information visible, recruiting children to come back to school before any information was centralized. Adam’s students are now sophomores in college.  

Every day that I have lived and worked in this city, I have seen educators in New Orleans doing what Angele, Gary, Mary and Adam have done. They are extraordinary, but they are in good company. They are among countless others, those who have taught for two weeks alongside those who have taught for two decades, who press forward with pride and joy because that’s what children and families deserve. Above all the statistics and reports, beyond all the analysis and opinion, this moment of remembrance in New Orleans calls us to acknowledge what’s true—that our educators, families and students press on, despite the odds.

 

Kira Orange Jones is the executive director of Teach For America-New Orleans and she serves as an elected member on the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. In 2015 Kira was named to TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. An earlier version of this post appeared on Education Post.

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