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15 years after Hurricane Katrina, how 5 New Orleans educators are tapping lessons from the storm to confront COVID-19

Beth Hawkins | August 27, 2020

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New Orleans, October 2005 — A destroyed classroom at St. Dominic’s school in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina left the school flooded. (Getty Images)

On the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the devastation wrought by the storm and subsequent flood is still hard to fathom. Within a day of the storm’s landfall Aug. 29, 2005, 80 percent of New Orleans was underwater. Tens of thousands of evacuees crowded into sports arenas and convention centers there and in Baton Rouge and Houston.

By the time engineers had pumped the last of the floodwaters out of the city on Oct. 11, some 1,200 lives had been lost and an estimated $106 billion in damage done. Vast areas had been destroyed.

As in the pandemic today, the reopening of schools was an urgent issue. Families could not rebuild without a safe place to leave their children. Kids needed to be with other kids to continue to develop socially and to process the trauma they were experiencing. And in one of the lowest-performing school systems in the country, no student could afford lost learning.

Reams have been written about the unprecedented effort launched in the wake of the disaster to reform New Orleans’s schools. The state seized all but the top performers and contracted with nonprofit charter school operators to run them. No shortage of controversy still attends the experiment, but 15 years later, academic achievement, high school graduation and college attendance have all risen significantly.

Research by the Tulane University-based Education Research Alliance for New Orleans shows that students who returned to the city’s schools in 2006 and 2007 lagged behind where they had been before the storm, as measured on state standardized tests, but surpassed 2005 achievement levels within two years.

Overall, in the decade after the storm, test scores had risen from the 50th percentile to the 66th. According to a 2018 alliance report, high school graduation rates increased by as much as 9 percentage points and college graduation by up to 5 points.

Today, many people working in New Orleans schools are survivors of the storm, educators whose life trajectories were shaped by their experiences trying to keep learning or teaching in the years after the disaster. Here, we offer the stories of five individuals, all of whom have tapped the resilience they developed during Katrina to address schooling in the time of COVID-19.

‘Katrina planted a seed’

Raven Matthews was 11 when Hurricane Katrina made landfall, threatening the New Orleans East neighborhood where she lived. Her dad, a school bus driver, called friends and family when the evacuation order went out and offered transport to anyone who could get to his house. Every seat on the bus was occupied by the time he turned the engine over, the yard full of cars.

The first stop was Pineville, a small city halfway between Baton Rouge and Shreveport. “We’d never heard of it before,” says Matthews. “He was just driving.”

(Raven Matthews)

The mothballed factory where evacuees were being sheltered made her mother nervous. It was filthy, the floor littered with sewing needles, and people in prison uniforms were wandering around. So they drove a little further northeast to tiny Deville, where they slept in a church.

“That’s when I started thinking, ‘Oh, something’s wrong,’” she recalls. “We’re not going home.”

They didn’t, for two years.

Matthews’s father drove the bus from town to town, dropping off passengers and staying a while wherever there were relatives to bunk with. The family lived in a hotel in Tennessee for two months before settling in Houma, a small city near the gulf coast.

At every stop, Matthews’s mother enrolled her in school. She was a good student, and the fact that her older brother and sister and her cousins attended with her helped buffer the discomfort of perpetually being the new kid.

When the family moved home to New Orleans nearly two years later, Matthews was supposed to be in seventh grade. She tested out, however, and was placed in eighth-grade classes. The school system’s bureaucracy — one of the nation’s most dysfunctional before the storm — was still in chaos, and Matthews didn’t take the state’s mandatory end-of-year exam. So when the next school year began, she was forced to repeat eighth grade.

Matthews wanted to follow her best friend to Sci High School, but at a school fair, her mother unwittingly enrolled her in a new public charter school, Sci Academy. When they realized their mistake, they decided the new school, with its promise of challenging academics and a path to college, was the better option.

At Sci — since renamed Abramson Sci Academy — Matthews had a Spanish instructor who captured her imagination. Lisa Maria Rhodes was animated and passionate, and Matthews started thinking about becoming a teacher. But first, she had to get through college — a journey that would be as bumpy as middle school.

Matthews first enrolled in the University of Louisiana Monroe, but she was homesick her entire freshman year. She transferred to Delgado Community College, a New Orleans two-year school that she knew had a notoriously low graduation rate and little student support. She tapped Sci’s alumni support network to cobble together a group of fellow graduates who held each other accountable for finishing.

After earning an associate’s degree in elementary education at Delgado, Matthews enrolled in Southeastern University, which operates a lab school where its student teachers can work. “I visited, saw it and fell completely in love,” she says. “I can do everything here.”

Once again, her best-laid plans fell apart. Her community college credits did not transfer — a common hurdle for low-income students — so she was looking at three more years of college instead of two. And she was told she would not be able to do her student teaching in the lab school.

Exasperated, Matthews enrolled in the University of New Orleans, where she was able to graduate within a year — albeit without a teaching license. While she works toward a formal credential, she’s in her second year of teaching Spanish at Collegiate Baton Rouge, a high school in the same charter school network as her alma mater.

“Going through the hardship I went through with Katrina planted a seed,” she says. “Moving again and again, it set me up for college in a way it wouldn’t have otherwise. It trained me to get over the hurdles.”

The experience of being an evacuee, Matthews says, informs her teaching. “I want to be the teacher who says, ‘Keep going,’” she says. “I want them to keep looking for opportunities that will change their lives for the better.”

‘We were like lost boys’

Neil Williams had his senior year at Edna Karr High School planned out before it even started. In addition to prom and graduation, he and a friend had been tapped to do color commentary for the football season. He was on the student council and helped classmates raise money for a trip to China.

New Orleans’s academic year starts during hurricane season, but storms usually close schools for just a couple of days. When Katrina threatened, Williams packed up his homework and video games and headed to a friend’s house, imagining they’d barbecue and game all weekend.

“But then, all of a sudden, it turned into a monster storm,” he recalls. He and his friend Kevin ended up driving to Houston to stay with Kevin’s aunt. They watched and waited all weekend, finally getting word that back home, the levees had broken.

(Neil Williams)

“It started to sink in that we’re not going anywhere anytime soon,” Williams says. His siblings and parents were scattered in other parts of Houston, Dallas and Arkansas, without reliable means of communication. So Kevin’s aunt enrolled him in high school in Sugar Land, a Houston suburb. Williams had his New Orleans school schedule with him, so he tried to sign up for the classes he thought he would need to take to earn a Louisiana diploma.

The house where he was staying was crowded, so when federal emergency officials offered Williams a hotel room, he took it. He got a job in the adjacent mall and was trying to track down his family when, on Sept. 21, it became clear Hurricane Rita would force mass evacuations in Texas. “People were just terrified,” he recalls.

Williams was trying to figure out how to evacuate from Houston when he heard from the family that owned a California ranch and summer camp he had attended a few years before. The family bought Williams a plane ticket and set him up in one of the two gigantic ranch houses at the Jameson Ranch Camp in Bakersfield.

One of his summer counselors was also a teacher at nearby North High School, so Williams started a new school — again — three days after arriving in California.

“At that point, I was just emotionally beat down,” he says. “I went to school and everything, but I was checked out.”

Williams’s old New Orleans school, Edna Karr, had been damaged in the hurricane, but it reopened by Thanksgiving. So he flew back to Houston and hitched a ride home with an uncle.

The family’s house was in ruins. The first floor was covered with six inches of muck and mold, and the second floor had been looted. He moved in with a great-aunt and worked the overnight shift for a company that cleaned stores.

“Everything after Katrina was just uncertain,” he says. “Before, I had a plan. It was like, graduate, go to college, get a job and buy a house. And after the storm, that was all upended.

“A lot of us, our parents were working remotely or in another city. We were like lost boys — a lot of people living in their parents’ houses alone or with their friends … We all had to become some level of adult at that point.”

Williams was relieved to graduate from Edna Karr in the spring of 2006, alongside 100 of his classmates and 50 students from schools that had been destroyed. “That was a really big deal to me, because the other schools I was at, I just couldn’t see myself with their tassels or their colors. I thought if I have to be here” — in Houston or Bakersfield — “I’m just going to wear purple and gold.”

After graduation, Williams enrolled at Alabama A&M University, a historically Black college in Huntsville, on a full scholarship. He was a decent student, but unhappy, and bounced around over the next few years, from Southeastern University to the Army National Guard and finally the University of New Orleans.

One of his teachers had gone to work for what would become FirstLine Schools, now a five-school network of public charter schools. After he graduated, FirstLine offered him a job. Today, he is the director of facilities and transportation for the entire network.

Using the experience he gained keeping systems operating smoothly in the guard to ensure that kids will be transported, fed and supported at school is more satisfying, he says.

“I had a lot of people who knew me, and I had an opportunity to go from student to colleague, and it felt good. I get to work side by side with people who taught me.”

With his experience in Katrina and his stints in the military, Williams started thinking about the challenges a pandemic could pose in December, two months before the first U.S. case was documented. By the time schools were shut down in March, he had surveyed families about their technology needs and was figuring out how to keep custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria workers employed.

In an odd way, it has reinvigorated his passion for his work. Ever on the alert for potential future contingency plans, he’s looking for ways his schools’ distance learning experiences will enable FirstLine to better respond to future storms.

Managing upheaval, says Williams, is his superpower: “I went from being a pretty sure kid, who was confident where his life was going, to someone who just reacts to uncertainty.”

‘We have to keep moving’

The August that Katrina hit was showtime for Principal Sharon Clark. Her chronically underperforming city school had been taken over by the state-run Recovery School District, and on July 1, 2005, her middle school was granted permission to operate as a charter school.

Clark had argued that freed from the district’s notorious bureaucracy, her staff could turn Sophie B. Wright Middle School around. “It was now time to put our money where our mouth was,” she recalls. “Now we have no excuse for failure if we are responsible for every aspect of running our school, operating our school.”

By her lights, the timing of the switch to a charter was a blessing. Seeing that parents working on the city’s reconstruction needed a place to send their kids to school, she made a plan to enroll students in grades 4 to 8. She did not need to ask permission.

On Jan. 3, 2006, she was able to reopen Sophie B. Wright to 140 kids — many of them the children of first responders. Students were offered group counseling, and a pen-pal program was started so they could share their feelings in letters to kids in a school outside the state.

But Clark’s team stuck to their original school turnaround plan of rigorous academics. Even before the hurricane, the students were at risk, she says.

“As an educator, and as an African-American educator, I think it is important that we never dummy down curriculum or anything for our students,” she says. “We owe it to them to normalize the process of education no matter what, no matter if it’s a storm, if it’s COVID.”

 There were no year-end exams in 2006, but by the following spring, 16 months after Sophie B. Wright reopened, academic achievement had leaped. In 2005, 41 percent of eighth-graders scored “unsatisfactory” in reading and 43 percent scored “approaching basic,” the two lowest categories. In 2007, 12 percent scored “unsatisfactory,” 46 percent “approaching basic” and 37 percent “basic.”

The school had no fourth-graders in 2005, but on the 2007 test, 71 percent scored “basic” or higher in reading and 80 percent in math.

As she reopened school for distance learning last week, Clark had the same goals. “I’ve learned through both of these processes, both of these situations,” she says. “Two to three years from now people forget, and they want you to be like before. There’s very little allowance or understanding or forgiveness. In my mindset, we have to keep moving for when that time comes and this goes away.”

‘You have to lead with love’

One of a handful of charter schools that existed before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Charter Middle School was a success story — so much so that the state Recovery School District asked its leaders if they would be willing to take over Samuel J. Green, a struggling pre-K-8 school.

“We said, ‘Of course we can,’” recalls Sivi Domango, now executive director of culture for all five FirstLine Schools public charter school campuses.

The effort was barely underway when the storm forced Domango to flee to Baton Rouge. She had been there two weeks when her higher-ups called and asked whether she would be willing to partner with a charter school in that city to open a temporary school on the second floor of the downtown arena that was serving as a shelter for evacuees.

(Sivi Domango)

“Our goal was to provide a sense of normalcy for children,” Domango says. “But we quickly realized it was about allowing their parents some time to organize their business, to see what their next move was.”

Upwards of 100 kids attended the makeshift school at the River Center, arrayed around library tables set up to suggest classrooms. “They all would get up in the morning and ride the escalator up to school,” she says. “Clearly, nothing was normal. They were sleeping on cots next to people they did not know.”

Before the storm, Domango had been dean of students at New Orleans Charter Middle School, a job that entailed discipline, among other things. Setting up a makeshift school in the arena forced her to change her approach.

“They say educators are superheroes, but underneath that cape we had also gone through a traumatic experience with our students,” she says. Domango’s home in New Orleans East was so far underwater that just the top of the roof can be seen in aerial photos of the flood.

When students did not show up on time for class in the temporary school, Domango could take the escalator down to find them. “But I had to restructure the way I interacted with them,” she says. “There were parents at the River Center who did not want to see me coming, because they were already stressed.

“I couldn’t say, ‘Hey, why isn’t your son in school?’ I had to say, ‘Hello, good morning, how are you? How about we send this child up to school and I will sit with you and help you with whatever you are trying to figure out?’”

The storm destroyed New Orleans Charter Middle School and badly damaged Green. Domango was among a group of employees who made the trip home to see whether Green could be reopened. As they stood outside, a family came out of a house across the street to say neighbors were eager to move back but couldn’t until there was an open school.

The neighborhood association protested a plan to tear the building down, says Domango: “They said the neighborhood would not have come back if it weren’t for that school reopening.”

This past March, when the coronavirus forced FirstLine’s five schools to close, Domango herself was sick with the virus. When she recovered, her first goal was to plan ways to tend to students’ emotional needs in the new school year — to foster togetherness at a distance.

She can trace a direct line from her experiences in the River Center to the strategies she and FirstLine’s educators will use to nurture relationships in remote learning: “When a student is absent, I can’t go bang on their door right now, but I can use social media. I can go to a parent’s Facebook and say, ‘Hey, Ms. So-and-So, how can I help you?’

“You can have high expectations,” says Domango. “You can have high academic standards. But you have to lead with love. You have to show people you care.”

‘I was a refugee. That gives me certain soft skills’

Monday, Aug. 17, looked nothing like J’Remi Barnes imagined it would. It was the first day of his first year as the teacher in charge of a special education classroom at Collegiate Academies. He can still support students, virtually, in everything from money management to math, but he is acutely aware of the responsibility he now shoulders: “When it comes to this work, it’s all on me.”

Barnes was in third grade during Hurricane Katrina and has the disconnected memories of a child. He remembers his mother getting a call at the Texas hotel where they took shelter, informing her that his grandfather had had a heart attack in his flooded apartment building. He remembers that the way his grandmother hugged his mother at the airport was “just different,” but not which airport.

(J’Remi Barnes)

His family bounced around Georgia, where his stepfather had family. A quiet boy, Barnes worried that he was behind the other kids. “In third grade, they were talking about the difference between facts and opinions and doing multiplication,” he says. “If we did the tables right, we got to participate in a sundae party.”

He was relieved when his mother announced she was leaving his stepfather and they were moving back to New Orleans midway through sixth grade. Back home, his family dived back into church, where Barnes would spend entire weekends involved in activities, including competing with the drill team.

He taught himself to play piano, and then drums and guitar. On enrolling in Abramson Sci Academy, he started a club called Garage Band. He taught classmates to play various instruments, and the group would perform at school events.

Exposure to Georgia’s more challenging schools meant he was ahead when he got home, a fact he took pride in. “High school was tough, but I was grateful for it,” says Barnes. “I excelled. I was surrounded by teachers who were invested in my achievement. I was invested in my achievement.”

His success attracted the attention of the Posse Foundation, a national program that identifies students and veterans with leadership potential and supports them, with scholarships and mentoring, in small cohorts at four-year colleges. The program matched Barnes and 10 other New Orleans graduates with Grinnell College, located in an isolated pocket of Iowa.

“The culture shock was surreal,” he recalls. “I had interacted with white people. The vast majority of my teachers [at Sci] were white. But I was used to people at school looking like me.”

In a discussion about refugees, a classmate made a comment that was, to Barnes’s ears, so devoid of empathy he wanted to hide. “Someone brought up Katrina survivors, and it just got me,” he says. “I didn’t want to single myself out as ‘that person.’”

He thought about quitting during sophomore year. Of the 11 students in his cohort, six graduated.

His freshman year, Barnes took an education class that sparked his interest in teaching. As good as his teachers had been, he recalls thinking, students in New Orleans needed more educators who look like them.

“They still don’t have so many Black role models,” he says. “I would love to be that person for students, if I can.”

Starting his teaching career in a pandemic is more than Barnes imagined, but it’s something he feels uniquely positioned to do. “I was a refugee. That gives me certain soft skills,” he says. “It taught me to think in a way other people can’t. I can create relationships within my class that allow for conversation in a better way.”

This article was published in partnership with The 74. Sign up for The 74’s newsletter here.

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