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Education after Devastation


TC Students Witness the Devastation first hand

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  • New Orleans Tour

    Join Diane Dobry on a narrated slide show of New Orleans with the students of the "Experiments in Content: Education and Architecture" class.

A visiting TC class asks: Can New Orleans build better schools the second time around?

"You will be dealing with real people who are very frustrated and angry."

That was the warning issued to a group of students from TC and Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) who visited New Orleans and other areas of Louisiana in February. The students were there as part of a unique course, "Experiments in Content: Education and Architecture," created and co-led by TC doctoral student Kelvin Sealey. Sealey also works on staff at the College's Center for Outreach and Innovation (CEO&I), which co-sponsored the course. Inside's Diane Dobry joined the group for three days and found scenes of Biblical devastation-'"and a city struggling to reap the potential upside of an opportunity to start from scratch.

To a tourist walking around New Orleans' French Quarter in late February, things looked as though they'd gotten pretty well back to normal. The bright pink and purple azaleas and rhododendrons in bloom muted the damage that was still noticeable. The area near the Monteleone Hotel was bustling with newly re-opened restaurants; music blared from the open doors of the jazz clubs; young people spilled out of the bars onto the streets. Shimmering green, purple and gold ribbons, balls and masks were everywhere, and colorful beads filled the souvenir shops in preparation for Mardi Gras.

But a bus tour of the city led by Dan Etheridge, Assistant Director of the Tulane School of Architecture City Center, would give our group a closer view of the destruction. In fact, conditions around the city were still so dangerous that students in our group were asked to sign a release that acknowledged their consent to visit the area in its current condition. I asked the students why they had wanted to come.

"The service aspect of it," said Deanna Belcher, a TC alumna who works as Service Learning Coordinator at The School at Columbia. Belcher had brought a bag filled with boots and respirators for a clean-up session she planned to do on Sunday. "Part of my job at the School is to get the kids involved in community service as part of the curriculum to make their learning more exciting and real."

"It's disheartening to see so much destruction and so few people returning," said Jeremy Robbins, a student in TC's Klingenstein Private School Leadership Program who would later don a Tyvek suit, respirator and goggles to shovel dirt and debris out of wrecked houses.
It was clear that Belcher, Robbins and others would have their hands full. Abandoned cars found in the city after the waters receded were lined up for miles under the I-10 Interstate overpass. More vehicles lay overturned on street corners, and boats stood in the median between roadways and under the rubble of houses. Etheridge pointed out the brown lines on the outside of houses-'"just below first-floor windows on some, but just below the roof on many others-'"that marked where the water had stood for more than four weeks after the initial flooding. The brown lines also marked tombstones and crypts at the midpoint of their marble facades in St. Roch's cemetery.

Other streets we passed were filled with houses turned to rubble amid dirt, garbage, and piles of two-by-fours; moldy, water-stained furniture; muddied clothing; broken toys; eating utensils; and other belongings. Some homes had slid off their slab foundations into the middle of the street. Roof tops lay in backyards, fallen telephone poles lay along the curb, and curtains fluttered in the breeze framing what had once been picture windows.

Along the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, an entire neighborhood of brick homes once populated by white middle-class families lay in ruins. Fallen trees rested on rooftops, wires lay on the ground, foundations heaved up under houses they were meant to support, and whole walls of homes were down, leaving open views of what seemed like life-sized doll houses waiting to be cleaned up and played with. On a retaining wall near the neighborhood someone had scrawled, "Stupid wall didn't keep the water out, did it?"

The bus passed a prison where, Etheridge told us, prisoners had been left for four days in water up to their chests. He pointed out a median between two roadways where "debris from people's houses was piled up five stories high and about 12 blocks wide."

The bus did not take us into the Ninth Ward-'"one of the city's poorest areas and the place where the most dire consequences of Katrina lay. When we went there the following day, we were greeted by the sight of a 180-ton barge that had come to rest on a neighborhood street when the levee broke. Belcher became physically ill at the sight of the conditions we saw. Miles of empty homes stood amid piles of dirt and wood, rusted cars, pieces of clothing and furniture. Volunteers in pale blue Tyvek suits, boots and respirator masks combed through the devastation. Their presence elicited little more than skepticism from the few residents in evidence.

"You don't know if anyone else is coming back or if there will be help from the government," said a man who told us he'd been staying with relatives in Maryland and was visiting his house for just the second time since the storm. "It seems like they don't want us to come back. If the government wanted the city to come back, they would be helping. By not helping, they are essentially saying -'Don't come back.'"

It's the schools that perhaps best reflect the ongoing chaos in New Orleans-'"and that most embody the city's hopes of reincarnation along stronger lines. Near St. Roch's, we came upon a community park that now consists of row upon row of white trailers guarded by men in tee shirts that identified them as "security." The area is home to about 120 adults and none of the children are in school. One officer told us he had been assigned to a similar FEMA trailer park in Baton Rouge that is a temporary home to 900 people, including hundreds of school-aged children who are not enrolled in any kind of education program.

Thousands of the city's school children are not attending school. School buildings destroyed by water, mold and wind are waiting for the resources to put them back in shape. And for many, the rebuilding cannot begin until the city knows who is coming back and where they will live.

We learned that FEMA has provided about 30,000 trailers to the state, only about 2,000 of which are occupied. The state has taken over 102 of 115 schools and about half of those schools are slated to be torn down. Another 30 need substantial renovation before they can re-open. Currently, there are 18 schools open in the city-'"15 of which are charter schools. Meanwhile, there is a very real deadline to put things right: Currently, only 12,000 students are enrolled in New Orleans schools, but 30,000 are expected in August.

After our bus tour, Tulane University President Scott Cowen, who is leading the educational committee of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, explained in very concise terms what was being done and what still needs to happen.

Over a period of two months, his committee worked with a consulting firm that put together a report of the pre-Katrina school system based on interviews with children, teachers, principals and parents. To that they added a report on the best practices from schools around the world. "What came out were design principles necessary for any transformation effort," he said, adding that the goal is to create a school system whose performance, currently ranked among the lowest nationwide, will be among the top 10 percent within a decade. (The report produced by the committee can be found at:

More specifically, the agenda for New Orleans' schools is a mixture of longer-term goals and short-term essentials. The list includes empowering principals with authority to run their own schools, while at the same time holding them accountable for the success of what they build; creating networks of schools with common denominators-'"such as neighborhood, themes or partnerships-'"under the control of a network manager (perhaps outsourcing network management to organizations like the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) or the Edison group); centralizing schools' administrative functions within the superintendent's office; and dealing with short-term issues such as the flight to charters. In addition to 25 percent of its schools possibly becoming charters-'"higher than any other municipality in the country-'"Cowen said that the city also anticipates working with state and local school boards on their individual plans for the fall; adding or restoring 20 schools to the city system, assigning children to specific schools; and determining how many students each school will accommodate.

Altogether, it's a daunting task. Given the current dysfunctional state of the city government, the odds for success are not encouraging.

"We basically need someone to come in and make the tough decisions without concern for the political backlash," Cowen told us. "Someone like Jack Welch or
New York's Mayor Bloomberg, who can do it without worrying about whether it is the right move for them politically."

The city's universities, too, are in a dire state, Cowen said. Dillard, a well-respected historically black institution, is fighting for its life, while Tulane, which had 84 buildings affected by Katrina, was back to about 92 percent enrollment after being shut down for repairs during the fall semester.

"People admire that we have gotten through this," Cowen said proudly of his own institution. "And, there is no better university in the country to come to where you will be part of the largest recovery of a city in the US. It takes a student who wants to make a difference. Where better to be than here, right now?"

Yet in recovering, New Orleans must balance the desire to create a more ideal city against the desperate need to put something, anything, in place now. That dilemma was the focus of a talk by Douglas Meffert, the Eugenie Schwartz Professor of River and Coastal Studies at Tulane. The mayor of New Orleans is encouraging businesses to return and open up immediately, Meffert said, by offering easily approved permits. Insufficient consideration is being given to the lack of available utilities and the need to rethink the city's design in order to prevent New Orleans-'"and particularly its poorest citizens-'"against catastrophic flooding in the future.

Charter schools are also double-edged swords. On the one hand, the flight to charters threatens to undermine the entire public school system. On the other, charters located within the system not only represent one of the best hopes for quickly getting things back up and running, they could also act as change agents system-wide. For the charters, too, this is both an opportunity and a risk.

"They have asked us if we can do 10 schools," Adam Meinig, an official from KIPP Schools, told the TC-Columbia group, "and we would love to have a large impact, but we also need to be very selective in finding school leaders that can train over a period of four years." He added that KIPP Schools would open four schools at the fifth-grade level and add one grade level annually, up to eighth grade, with the possibility of adding a high school once the schools are well established.

"We have an amazing opportunity to say the bar has been set far too low and here is what the school can do," Meinig said.
The KIPP mission is to start slowly and do what it takes to make sure kids succeed. The hours are from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and teachers, who work up to 80 hours a week, are on call to their students by cell phone during off hours. For this reason, many of the teachers KIPP recruits are younger and have fewer personal ties and obligations. All KIPP schools, Meinig noted, have a theme around which their curriculums are designed, and the schools he is establishing in New Orleans will be no exception; their  themes will be centered on social justice and community service. He encouraged the TC students to apply for positions and to tell their friends.

After returning from New Orleans, Sealey and Scott Marble, co-instructor of the "Experiments in Content" course, joined the other GSAPP groups that visited New Orleans at a Princeton University School of Architecture Symposium in March focusing on the Gulf Coast's future development.

The TC-Columbia students have also had time to debrief and rethink their original impressions of what they might do to help the New Orleans schools. Steve Bingler, the leading architect working with the schools to rebuild and founder of Concordia LLC, a planning and architectural design firm based in New Orleans and Pasadena, spoke to the class after their return and shared his own ideas for the revival of New Orleans.

Sealey said the students are invited to return to New Orleans at their own expense, where Bingler will take them to a school district where he is beginning his work. "We want to locate each [education] project to a given site," Sealey said, "and find those sites and gain more information from the school administrators at the board level about their needs." Bingler's groups will also look at the private and parochial schools in the city-'"all of which are functioning.

Deanna Belcher, for one, wants to return to New Orleans to talk further with people in the schools. She sees charter schools as a temporary solution at best. "New Orleans has such an opportunity to do the right thing by all its students and that is what I want to focus on," she said. "I don't think that schools competing as in a marketplace situation is the answer to public schools' problems."

Jeremy Robbins said he, too, wants to help give New Orleans residents the chance to return. He is raising money for respirators for the grassroots organization Common Ground, which is leading the clean-up effort.

"There is tremendous hope because the city can recover," he said, "but the question is, -'Can it become better than it was and how can it become a model for other cities in its reconstruction?'."

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