I was 10 years old when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. My family and I evacuated the day before the storm and ended up in Houston, Texas and I didn’t start school there for another two months. The system was new to me and so were the standardized tests.
That’s how I failed the fifth grade.
I would end up in summer school for each of the three years we spent in Houston. In eighth grade, we moved back to New Orleans and I finished the year at what was then Live Oak Elementary. There was an eerie prison-like energy in the dilapidated building. Students were searched at the entrance and classes were constantly interrupted to line students up in the hallways and search for stolen items. Substitute teachers who could not help with the material often taught required classes.
It has been ten years since Hurricane Katrina, but the city is still waiting for much of the recovery to occur.
The New Orleans East neighborhood that my family returned to is missing a neighborhood market or grocery store. Two enormous, undeveloped empty lots face my family’s home. Nearby, other blighted properties have not been renovated or even demolished.
This is a neighborhood that used to feel vibrant with businesses, family and fun, but for the last few years it has remained desolate, much like many other predominantly black neighborhoods in the city.
The city lost nearly half of its black population and still has plenty of damage to certain parts of its infrastructure, particularly in the lower ninth ward, central city and New Orleans East.
The New Orleans public school system has recently become the nation’s first completely public-charter school system.
I did not know anything about charter schools until I attended Miller McCoy in ninth grade and Lake Area New Tech Early College High School for my sophomore, junior, and senior years. Miller McCoy was in trailers, students had to walk in a straight line inside of a line of tape that stretched the hallway, a practice in prisons, and remain silent at lunch. At Lake Area, there was a real building and we could socialize more freely but there were three different principals during my three years attending the school.
I am currently a student at Dillard University and working as a paid intern with a national peace organization called American Friends Service Committee. I have been blessed. One of my siblings works as a cashier at a Family Dollar franchise. Another works as a cashier in a store in the central business district receiving minimum wage.
Data of academic performance of students in the city’s public-charter schools may show an improvement since Katrina. However, youth of color face a huge lack of opportunity. The unemployment rate for black men in New Orleans is at 52 percent, New Orleans lacks teachers of color that are from the city. According to educatenow.net, just 25 out of 79 schools had an SPS score of 85 or higher last year. The lower ninth ward, which had the highest percentage of black owned property in the city of New Orleans, still looks as if it were hit by the storm just yesterday.
The Times Picayune reported that the city of New Orleans took in a record $6.47 billion from the nine million tourists who visited the city in the year 2013.
It is very clear that New Orleans is a city that receives plenty of money from the tourism industry, which is tied to the profit of many hotels and businesses in the central business district.
When the city can generate billions of dollars simply from having tourists come and spend money in the city, why is there any need to educate the youth and citizens of this city to think critically so that they can start businesses or pursue a career and be better contributors to society? My point exactly. There is currently no reason for the New Orleans school system to educate students unless it serves the purpose of them working in a hotel or in a restaurant or business in the central business area which directly profits from the tourism industry.
With this kind of system set in place, students who are not aware of this harsh reality have a tough time earning a decent living in this city and securing a future for their families and themselves.
More than 50 percent of students in the New Orleans public school system live in poverty. Students with big dreams are preyed upon by robber-barons who benefit from the tourism industry – an industry that needs plenty of workers at its bottom level to bring in large sums of money.
The citizens of this city deserve more than just upgrades to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, a brand new maximum security prison and upgrades to the Armstrong airport.
New Orleans must provide more jobs to the local disenfranchised adults and youth of color, jobs that do not require the citizens to be in a subservient position and enough to live above the poverty line in the city. It should also create more therapy and mental health institutions and spaces for the youth to engage positively with one another, like art programs.
With these opportunities, the crime rate and unemployment rates would decline exponentially. The citizens of New Orleans would gain resources to rebuild their neighborhoods.
New Orleans contributes much to American culture. These solutions would help the city to contribute to its own well being.
Glenn Sullivan is a student at Dillard University in New Orleans.