I just returned from New Orleans after nearly a week of shooting a video for the upcoming Domino Effect concert. Once again, I’m so impressed with the progress being made there, especially in the area of education. Let’s face it, for many years New Orleans was not exactly widely known for the quality of its education. I don’t like to say that, but it’s the truth.
Hurricane Katrina certainly caused a lot of harm, but there is a silver lining. As administrators, teachers and community leaders struggled to re-open schools in an educational environment that was already under tremendous stress prior to the storm, they found a new willingness by the community to listen to innovative ideas and try new approaches to learning. It was: “don’t worry about the bureaucracy, just get the schools open. But make sure they perform!” Boy, are they performing!
At places like Lusher, Sci High, Sam Green and Arthur Ashe schools, children from often difficult circumstances are now succeeding academically in every measure. Here are some reasons why:
- I’ve lived in several states and known a lot of great teachers and administrators, but don’t know any that are more committed and hardworking than those I know in New Orleans. They know they have a special task – to try to save a generation that has been stricken by tragedy – and they dedicate extra hours (after school, on weekends and during the summer) to their students.
- Some teachers go home after a normal day, but many others continue to give instruction as part of the extensive after-school programming that is provided to many students in New Orleans. Those students don’t go home at 3 or 3:30; instead they stay at school until 5 or 5:30 and take classes in art, music, gardening, foreign languages, science and literature.
- New Orleans schools are taking the lead in implementing innovative programs like gardening and cooking. When children spend a regular portion of their school week on planting, maintaining and harvesting their own food, plus cooking, eating and selling it, they receive all kinds of benefits that include better physical and emotional health and improved academic performance.
- Schools in New Orleans now have much higher standards for academic achievement than in years past. As an example, all high school students must now take four years of science and four years of math. That exceeds the requirements for most U.S. students.
- Finally, educational leaders in New Orleans have implemented ways to significantly increase parental and community involvement in the schools. This critical element allows students to learn from multiple adults, and to take what they learn home with them, where those concepts and learning can be reinforced in their families.
Is all of this working? Absolutely. Test scores are up significantly everywhere and graduating seniors are receiving opportunities to attend college that probably wouldn’t have existed in the same numbers prior to Katrina.
I had a great week. I learned from a second grade student at Ashe that monarch butterflies like to lay their eggs on milkweed plants, while tiger swallowtails prefer fennel. I for the first time experienced the beauty and power of spoken word poetry from students at New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School. I watched a well-known opera singer teach music to elementary students at Green as part of New Orleans Outreach’s after-school programming. I listened to several families describe their hopes that people would continue to move back into their still-struggling Gentilly neighborhood – and show off the new park and playground that they had recently joined together to build.
I witnessed an attorney take time out of her morning to lead 8th graders thru an exercise on how to locate jobs and prepare effectively for interviews. When asked what they most appreciated about their school, I heard students at Lusher say it was the school’s diversity and the opportunity to have teachers and classmates from multiple backgrounds and ethnicities.
The progress of rebuilding in New Orleans might appear to be slow, but it’s also unmistakable. New Orleans is coming back, in some ways better than ever.
I’m glad to have been able to be part of this community, in some small way, over the past two years.
On a side note …
Do you wish you could help? Well, if you live in New Orleans or will be in-town on May 30, consider attending the Domino Effect concert at the New Orleans Arena. Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Wyclef Jean, Junior Brown and others will be there, and a significant portion of the proceeds will go to benefit the Operation Kids: Rebuilding Dreams in New Orleans campaign in New Orleans. Check it out at www.dominoeffectnola.com!