Saturday, March 31, 2012

Preservation Hall

So, 2004, before hurricane katrina was a sparkle in anyone's eye, my parents and I visited New Orleans. Needless to say, the charm of the city was irresistible to me. I decided then that New Orleans was where I would live when I was older. As an 11 year old, I didn't really understand the ninth ward or know it existed. On our visit, we spent a lot of time in the french quarter, and I ate up the tourist spiel just like the beignets in the wonderful french-reminiscent cafes on every corner. The next year, when Hurricane Katrina hit, it was almost impossible to hold these two visions of New Orleans in my head at the same time.
Growing up on a strict musical diet of old-school jazz, my enchantment with New Orleans reached its peak when we visited Preservation Hall. Originally built in 1750, this hall has fluctuated in its established purposes from residence hall or jazz club, tavern, etc. However, it has always held a strong connection to Jazz music in New Orleans, and is now committed to keeping alive the musical roots of the city through performance and education. To give you a sense of the space, it is a tiny, tiny room, packed with people and noise. It is so overheated, and so full of good music and lovers of good music. Whether or not this is trick of marketing, I felt like I was living jazz history.
The first 30 seconds of this video is probably the best way I can demonstrate how it felt to be there, and the rest of the video is a montage of photographs of Preservation Hall/music recorded there.

If I had more time, I would really be interested in exploring how much of this 'history' Preservation Hall puts out there in this relatively privileged part of New Orleans (the french quarter) is constructed for tourism and to give visiters a palatable-feel good image of New Orleans, or whether it really is an act of cultural preservation... maybe its somewhere in the middle.

Regardless, I love it. If you're ever in the french quarter, I encourage you to check it out.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Ending Hunger in New Orleans, One Student at a Time

As soon as I started thinking about what to write for this blog post, I knew immediately to turn to my housemates. Everyone (except me) in the house met by going on an epic adventure to New Orleans during winter break of their freshman years. The majority of their time in New Orleans was spent at a school in the Lower Ninth Ward, Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG). 

OSBG is an important example of the ways in which the community of New Orleans, and specifically of the Lower Ninth Ward, has come together to re-establish their home in a post-Katrina world. The school is based in experiential learning, and focuses mostly on educating high school students, but clearly (since my house went there) also offers internships for college students/groups. The students of the school learn farming skills, that allow them to begin to sustainably grow their own food, in a neighborhood that is often referred to as a food desert (meaning no fresh food/produce is available). In reading through their website, I stumbled upon a paragraph describing their teaching method as "backwards design." In this model, every learning objective and activity is tailored back to an essential question, which for OSBG is "to what extent are we empowering at-risk youth to take leadership in making New Orleans, Louisiana the City that Ended Hunger? OSBG is successfully helping to rebuild post-Katrina New Orleans, because not only does it provide survival skills to youth in need, it also empowers them to leave OSBG and bring the same ethos of backwards design to other parts of the communities that the students are a part of. 

While OSBG is run by a teacher who is not from Louisiana, the program gives back to the community, and encourages the community to rebuild their home for themselves. This model becomes especially important in comparison to FEMA, and other federal aid attempts, in which local populations have little say in their own destiny. Through programs like OSBG, New Orleans can begin to take its fate back into its own hands. 

For further reference and information: (there's also a bunch of newspaper articles!) OSBG's blog is @

Diaspora and City Attachments

Studying New Orleans has made me think about an old friend of mine. Charles McMaster is from New Orleans and during Katrina, spent a couple days on his roof before being airlifted to safety. Shortly after, he moved into his aunt and uncle’s house a block away from my house in Tacoma, WA and went to my middle school until he moved back to New Orleans about a year later. I was not very involved in current events as a middle schooler and didn’t think of Katrina as anything much more than a horrible natural disaster. The weight of Charles’ situation did not really resonate with me at the time, but he has inspired me to explore the Katrina Diaspora.

The chart below gives a visual of the Diaspora. While most people moved locally, a significant amount landed as far as the West Coast, like Charles.

A former resident of the French Quarter in New Orleans, Ellis Anderson wrote “One town’s post-Katrina diaspora” from her town Bay St. Louis five years after the storm.


While she did not experience the storm from New Orleans, her writing reveals the difficulties in having a community torn apart, the struggle to keep it alive (whether by communicating via telephone or email to their old friends or by bringing their own Mardi Gras traditions to a new city) and come to terms with separation.

The following article offers information about the experiences of diaspora from New Orleans:

Like Denise in New Orleans After the Deluge, who fears going back to New Orleans but at the same time feels a sense of cowardice and shame for neglecting her community (see pg. 177), both articles document residents’ complex feelings for their city. While some simply don’t have the resources to return, others like Cheryl Banks-Jones don’t want to go back as they feel that the city has failed them. Meanwhile, people like Ellis are begging their friends to resettle or return themselves because they “do not feel fully alive any other place”. The personal accounts highlight how much a city can become an integral part of ones’ identity, and the manner in which big parts of New Orleanians were swept away in the hurricane as Denise describes. While Hurricane Katrina may have left many of the hard aspects of New Orleans in shambles, the soft aspects of music, food, and common experiences, are what Ellis says people miss most and what have kept the city alive. Whether residents resettled elsewhere or chose to rebuild in New Orleans, Katrina has brought to surface the deep and complex relationship that a city and resident can share.

NOLA architecture: The "Shotgun House"

Having visited and lived in numerous states throughout the U.S., I've noticed there tends to be a dominant theme in the style of architecture in different parts of the country.  In New Orleans, a predominant  style of house I noticed while watching the documentary Trouble the Water and HBO series Treme was the "Shotgun" style.  While the Shotgun house has been built in other areas outside New Orleans, it was originally popularized in this city.

The term Shotgun house has an unknown origin, but the common story relates to being able to fire a shotgun through the open front door of a house and having the shot exit through the back door since all the doors line up.  Because the amount of land available in New Orleans was limited, most lots were usually a 30 foot width.  This limitation of space for constructing larger residences precipitated the building of the narrow shotgun house. Following the end of Reconstruction, New Orleans experienced a growth spurt.  Thousands of shotgun houses were built in the late 1800's.  This style of house continued to be built until the 1920's.

The houses were built in three different types: single, double, and camelback.  A single is a by itself stand alone residence.  It has windows and doors at the front and back.  Some examples did have windows on the side.  The double shotgun is a two unit home that shares a common wall down the middle.  This was the example of house Kim and Scott Roberts lived in before the flood from Hurricane Katrina.  The last is is the camelback.  The camelback has a small bedroom built on as a second floor to get more room out of the small dwelling.  This "hump" on top gives the camelback its name.

Though the houses were fairly basic in design, there was room for a bit of flair from ornamentation.  The roof vents and brackets that held up the roof over the front porch were usually quite ornate.  The protruding roof over the front door created a covered porch.  This in turn made an outdoor room for hot summer days and nights that better enabled visiting with neighbors.  Kim and Scott's neighborhood exemplified this tradition of hanging out and visiting with neighbors on the front porch.

Although many of the shotgun houses were destroyed in the flood, there are many being salvaged. One example is shown on the This Old House wed site.,,20152647,00.html   

Behind the Scenes of Treme

I remember hearing about Treme when it first came out, but the two episodes we watched this week were my first introduction to the show. I wanted to find out more about the production behind the show, so I found a New York Times article that was published a few weeks before the show premiered on April 11, 2010. The reporter followed show creators David Simon and Eric Overmeyer around New Orleans, sat in on production, spoke with the HBO executives who first greenlighted the show, and paints an overall picture of all the forces that went in to the making of Treme. Overall, the producers wanted to emphasize the important role music played in New Orleans and used several real musicians in the show in smaller roles (Elvis Costello, Dr. John). When they pitched the show to HBO, they sent along an accompanying CD to evoke the feel of the show, intrinsically linking the music with the storytelling.

Simon developed Treme after his five year run on The Wire, a show he often described as attack against “the America that got left behind,” but he insists that Treme is not merely The Wire 2.0, and instead aims to focus more on indivual characters living life. He wanted to do a show in the New Orleans in the 90’s, but felt stumped coming up with a narrative that would sell and work well for television. They had no idea how to reduce New Orleans to a couple of pithy statements in a pitch meeting, and ended up shelving the idea until Hurricane Katrina hit. As the article shows, the showrunners are meticulous about details and accuracy, often using locals and experts on set to insure the script rings true. We talked in class how a viewer watching would see the man dressed in the full on Indian Chief costume and have no idea what was happening, which the article touches on. The reporter gives a brief description of the history, but her description doesn’t even begin to describe the nuances explored in George Lispitz’s “Mardi Gras Indians.”

“In contemporary New Orleans life, Mardi Gras Indians appear a few times a year, most notably at Mardi Gras in an elaborate feathered suit that, typically, they have spent the year designing and sewing, different every year, although no one seems to know exactly why. Some say that when the French controlled the slave trade and yellow fever and famine struck their settlements, the slaves fled inland and were given refuge by Native Americans. In that story, as a function of their gratitude, the slaves paid homage through song, dance and dress, the native and the West African traditions conjoining, a marriage that would help give birth to the music of New Orleans.”

The NY Times had an accompanying video feature of the 2 showrunners dissecting a scene from Treme that's worth checking out (only 2 minutes):

Who's To Blame?

            The controversy surrounding the government’s relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina is more complicated than meets the eye.  I feel that we must take into account many different perspectives before assessing the situation.  Obviously, the immediate response to Katrina’s destruction was a failure; thousands were stranded, injured, or dying and much of the city was immersed under water.  The city simply wasn’t prepared for such an extreme disaster, and even with the warning of the hurricane, local, state, and national government did little to prevent much of the destruction. 

            Many have blamed President George Bush for this failure.  For example, ex-chairman of the Democratic National Committee said that "Katrina showed [Bush] is incompetent.”  However, it’s important to look at this issue not from party lines, but from a broader perspective.  I’m not saying that Bush didn’t fail in his response to the disaster, but I am saying that this issue is deeper than Democrats versus Republicans.  A democratic president wouldn’t have necessarily done a better job.   
            The bigger issue here is the role of government in solving national crises.  According to White House officials, “the poor Katrina response must be shared by the federal, state, and local governments, especially in dealing with the hurricane-related problems in New Orleans.”  As we read in class, the flood control and levee system was doomed to fail, and yet no one did anything about it.  The inept infrastructure makes this issue especially interesting because it is difficult to put blame on a certain person or branch of government.  Just as Obama inherited the economic crises, Bush inherited Katrina.  It would have been impossible to predict that such a hurricane would occur, and it’s just a guess of mine if someone in Congress or the president himself had proposed spending federal funds to fix the levee system pre-Katrina, there would have been much backlash.  Thus, much of the blame must also be put on the local New Orleans government for not putting pressure on the State of Louisiana to invest in fixing the system.  Not every issue can be solved on a national level - that’s why the USA operates in a federal system where states and the national government share power.   

            Blaming differing groups in power, however, isn’t going to solve anything. Instead we should learn from Katrina and focus on how we can pressure our local, state, and national government to work towards preventing disasters like this in the future.

- Abby Michaelsen 

Family | Food | Fun | Cajun Grille

A subject that fascinated me from this unit was the repurposing of tradition and culture in the Lipsitz’s article about Mardi-Gras Indians.

I was working last summer at a summer school in my hometown of Phoenix, I was given a lunch ticket every day at a food truck called “Jamburritos.” “Jamburritos” are a very friendly crew who gleefully pronounce and explain what such and such food with a French name was. They also happen to serve Jamburritos—“a tortilla wrapped around all your New Orleans delicacies, like Andouille sausage, shrip, chichen, rice, peas, Creole, and Etouffee sauce,” that is, “jambalaya wrapped up like a burrito”—and K-Tacos—“mouth watering Cajun beef tacos and Creole chicken tacos-served with black bean and corn salsa, topped with Creole slaw and diced tomatoes.” This quote from Lipsitz, I thought, speaks to this phenomenon: “The same feelings that motivate people to fashion autonomous signs and symbols within folkloric traditions impel them to put the stamp of their own experience on the ideas and images circulated within commercial culture.” The Creole cooks were stamping their own cooking traditions on the dishes that circulate the most within the commercial culture of Phoenix.
The owners of “Jamburritos” first went to New Orleans in 1988 to learn “the essence of Cajun-Creole cooking,” then in 1997 they came to the Valley of the Sun, where they were influenced by cuisine in Phoenix, which had already been influenced by Mexican cuisine.  As Lipsitz suggests, the mixture of two cuisines definitely destroys the sense of origins and authenticity.  Especially in this case, I think, because the elements that were taken from Cajun cuisine and the burrito and taco from Mexican cuisine were already simplified caricatures of the full scope of their respective kitchens. From living in Phoenix, I know that the burrito we eat developed in its own way, so that it is much bigger and has more fillings than its Mexican cousin. Sort of like Fortune Cookies, the role burritos play in our concept of Mexican cuisine is not comparable to its real relevancy in Mexico. This brings me to the Ruiz reading we did about the “Citizen Restaurant”, and how the compartmentalization of food from different cultures in America can have the negative effect of disguising the authenticity of culture, or give American citizens a mistaken sense of understanding about another culture.

I think what Lipsitz struggles with is giving a positive light to the caricatureization of cultures. He suggests, thus, that they are “viable conduit[s] for oppositional narratives.” In a way, I think that the willing energy that Jamburritos committed to mixing with local cuisine empowers the identification of Phoenix with Mexican cuisine. Rather than being something that we just eat at Phoenix, burritos became, to me, something that was ours, that belongs to us, something to be prideful of, even if, like the Mardi Gras Indians, it wasn’t something that verily belonged to us. Additionally, even if Jamburritos was giving me a narrow and somewhat fictional conception of Cajun food, it sparked my interest in their whole culture. I want to learn more about Cajun life, whereas before I just thought of them as wacky people with twangy music that live in Louisiana and are more than a little weird. Now I see their savory, spicy levity.

The Diaspora Effect in Dallas

As someone who had just entered the seventh grade when Hurricane Katrina occurred, I have definitely learned a lot more about the real magnitude of the situation through our readings and discussions in class. The discussion about the diaspora in particular made me realize that this disaster, which I had never really looked into before, had so many ripple-like effects that I actually witnessed firsthand.

I am from Dallas, TX and attended a public school in the Plano Independent School District. As I was reading about the massive displacement of people from New Orleans to the nearby states, I had a sudden vivid memory of a particular day in early September. I had just stepped onto the school bus when I realized that there were about twice as many people sitting on the bus as usual, and I did not recognize any of them. The same thing kept happening during the rest of the day; more and more new kids were showing up, shyly introducing themselves in all of my classes. My teachers explained that they were joining us from New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina had just hit. I remember there were murmurs of sympathy throughout the room but no one, myself included, really comprehended how devastated the city was by the floodwaters. However, looking at the number alone, it becomes clear how widespread the effects were. About 372,000 students were displaced from Louisiana and of that number, 12% (46,000) ended up enrolling in schools across Texas. Dallas-area school districts enrolled around 4,292 students, and 682 of those students attended Plano ISD schools like the one I went to. Congressman Sam Johnson, representing Dallas and surrounding counties, stated that: “The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has shown us what Americans are made of. We want to help those who can’t help themselves. There are countless Hurricane Hero stories. Our schools are no different. It’s time we say thank you for all they are doing to help folks rebuild their lives,” said Johnson.”( Source)

To educate my naïve 12-year-old self about the efforts that schools in my district were performing to raise money and awareness for Katrina, I dug through the old news archives of the Plano ISD website. I was immediately impressed by all of the organizations that were working to raise money and supplies for the victims from the elementary school all the way up to the senior high school level. (Source) I even remembered dutifully lugging a box full of water bottles and school supplies to class one day to donate to the cause; a mini-competition developed among the homeroom classes as to who could gather the most Katrina donations by the end of the month. While efforts like this may have seemed small at the time, recognizing the ability of school districts such as mine to lend a helping hand show both an awareness of the situation and willingness to help the victims return to a normal life.

Post-Katrina Abuse of Power

Before this unit, I'd heard about the numerous failures of FEMA and the local government to respond adequately to the devastation wrought by Katrina, but I had always thought of this as a series of escalating innocent-enough mistakes with terrible consequences. Perhaps unbelievably, it wasn't until I saw Trouble the Water and heard Scott Roberts' testimony of being threatened when he and his family approached the Army base (and the officials' subsequent denial of the veracity of his claim) that I began to realize that some of the injustices committed against the people of New Orleans following the hurricane may have been intentional and/or malicious.
^ This article seems particularly relevant in the wake of the highly publicized Trayvon Martin case, in which a young, unarmed African American male was shot and killed because he was deemed "threatening". Obviously, the differences between the cases abound - Martin's killer was a civilian, for one thing, and white, while the officers culpable here were a mixed-race group - but the knee-jerk impulse to shoot potential or suspected black offenders on-sight is one that seems to pervade among authorities (or those that think of themselves as such) in our country.
At any rate, this article serves to solidify my new understanding of the state of affairs in New Orleans immediately following the storm. I used to ascribe to the old "citizenry run rampant" narrative, but after witnessing in Trouble the Water and A.D. a largely positive camaraderie among the affected, as well as how many of the so-called "thugs" responsible for raids and other widely publicized legal transgressions actually did a better job of caring for people than did the authorities (as is the case in A.D.'s Denise storyline), I have a different view of who may have been to blame for contributing to the disaster in certain situations; as this article states, "it has become apparent that some of the bloodshed and chaos was brought about by members of the long-troubled police department". While I don't know much about the NOPD, the "long-troubled" descriptor may specify why, on the Treme Wikipedia page, Terry Colson is listed as "an honest cop" (I sort of figured all cops were presumed honest). ( )
The cover-up element of this case is particularly disturbing, and makes me wonder about the dynamite rumor brought up in A.D. and refuted by Treme's Creighton Bernette. I'm pretty sure that one's been debunked in the years since, but perhaps there have been other Katrina-related governmental cover-ups that haven't even been brought to light yet.


The film Tchoupitoulas premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas earlier this month. The documentary, from the Ross Brothers, depicts a night in New Orleans' French Quarter seen through the eyes of three young brothers.

This video is from the documentary's Kickstarter campaign and oddly does not have a lot of information on the film itself. Rather, the directors and producers focus on why they need money: to pay music royalties. The subjects of Tchoupitoulas only appear in the first 50 seconds of the video. The following four minutes consist of the directors trying to charm you out of your money. As far as marketing campaigns go, it's not a completely ineffective one; they have just under $9000 dollars to fundraise before they meet their goal.

I was drawn to this movie mostly because of its title. The Wild Tchoupitoulas is the name of one of the Mardi Gras Indian tribes and I initially thought that would be the focus of the documentary. Imagine my surprise, then, when I find out that it's about three boys wandering around the (forbidden) French Quarter. There was an odd relationship between my expectation and reality. The Mardi Gras Indians seem to be a rejection of the French Quarter's rendition of Mardi Gras. Then, to take a name closely tied to the Indians and apply it to a film about the French Quarter is somewhat jarring.

I was hoping that the video would address some of my questions, but it was pretty thoroughly unhelpful in that department. Instead, it rehashed the idea of music being integral to New Orleans culture. While I certainly don't disagree with this stance, I wish there was a more unique message to this film.

Gumbo, a history. ( music!)

So I struggled quite a bit to find a topic to discuss for this post…. (ahem ahem - you should listen to this while you read- ZYDECO MUSIC - listen to meeee!  zydeco was another really awesome option I was thinking about writing on) 
ANYWAYS there are actually so many awesomely unique and interesting things going on in Louisiana and New Orleans specifically. Like many places New Orleans is home to a diverse array of cultural lineages. Unlike many places in the U.S. however, the inception of Louisiana was a process of shaping and being shaped by an interesting compilation of motley forces. As we saw in our readings it passed through ‘ownership’, from the French to the Spanish to the French to the U.S., and Haitians, American Indians and both free and enslaved Africans intermingled and infused their own cultures with European ones.  French-Spanish influenced Creole and Acadian-influenced Cajun cultures flourished and fused as they developed within. One interesting way to examine the motley influences of New Orleans and Louisiana is through cuisine. I hope everyone reading likes gumbo!!
There’s a ridiculously huge discrepancy over whether Gumbo is Cajun or Creole, for safety purposes lets just say Gumbo is a Louisiana originated dish and a VERY INTERESTING one at that. With a good recipe and an imaginative mind you can actually see the history of Louisiana right there in the pot.  

As a matter of fact that’s just what this site did, if you go and click around you’ll see just how incredibly diverse each ingredient is.

             Most people seem to agree that the word Gumbo derives its origin from the vegetable kimgombo (okra) brought over by West African slaves. Most also agree that if you want a more 'traditional' Gumbo you should serve it over rice and make sure to stick to the “holy trinity” of Louisiana cuisine (and thus both Creole and Cajun cuisine) using equal parts bell pepper, celery, and onion…also interchangeable with garlic parsley or shallots. But really none of these are rules they’re more guidelines... Whether you use Andouille sausage brought by the Germans, the hot peppers brought back after the Mexican-American war, the French-peasant roux mixture, sassafras introduced by American Indians or crawfish that are abundant in the costal waters of the Mexican Gulf, you still end up with Gumbo. In this way this dish is a lot like Louisiana, not comprised of strict rules or origins just guidelines! In other words you can make it the experience you want because there are so many experiences to choose from. In my opinion the best Gumbo recipes use a little bit of everything!! (If I’m being 100% honest I’d keep spiciness to a minimum because I’m kind of a wimp in that area.)

             Throughout time and space mealtimes serve an important function; food is not only a physical form of sustenance but also a social one. To put this a little differently, we gather around food to nourish our bodies and our souls! It seems safe to say that this remains true for New Orleans where pretty much everyone agrees that they love the food. Gumbo gives us a particularly nice vantage point to examine the social side of Louisiana food, and New Orleans itself. From its inception no one group clearly claimed cultural authority within Louisiana. Like the people of Louisiana the ingredients of Gumbo are diverse and ever changing.  With this diversity in mind, Gumbo (Louisiana cuisine in general) reminds me a lot of the origins of Jazz, the origins of New Orleans readings, and of the picture we’ve been looking at in class perceiving race in a multi-faceted way. When we look at Jazz or Gumbo we must erase differences to some degree in order to fully understand and appreciate the multiple and interdependent elements comprised within.  The ‘recipes’ of cultures in Louisiana are full examples where seemingly disparate traditions/ingredients come together and create something completely new and wonderful, like Gumbo or the Mardi Gras Indians! Today inhabitants continue to change and create Gumbo recipes that include new diverse ingredients, this reflects the essence of New Orleans, where the people shape the culture of New Orleans as much as they are shaped by it. 

---another possibile topic was death and cemeteries in New Orleans, you all know the history of flooding and such...ya that really makes burying people problematic because the coffins actually just float up. awk. anyways if you haven't checked that out or are still looking for something to write on it's really an interesting subject (+ the folklore that comes surrounding this unique process)!  

Schools in New Orleans

I became interested in what happened to the public school system in New Orleans post KaTrina after our discussion of Treme. I was expecting to find that the public schools in New Orleans struggled greatly after the hurricane, however, the articles I found actually pointed to drastic improvements in the public schools after the hurricane. I found an article on Huffington Post that was particularly interesting (see text below). The article argued that the city used the hurricane as an opportunity to, “to build -- not rebuild, but build -- a new school system.”

I would like to point to two parts of the article that I found particularly important. First, the article points out that the new schools are largely publicly funded, but privately run. This not only allows for the school to receive money, but also decide how to use it most effectively. I think it is important to think about this in regards to how federal money was handled in the rebuilding of New Orleans. Would poorer parts of New Orleans have rebuilt more successfully and more quickly if they had been given not only more resources, but also more freedom to do what they would like with it? Pre-KaTrina, 64 percent of the public schools were deemed “academically unacceptable” and they were adhering to the federal system. However, once the schools were given more freedom the statistic dropped to 42 percent of the public schools being deemed “academically unsuccessful.” With more freedom and money, could the city have been rebuilt faster and more practically?

Second, I would like to touch on the idea of nature’s affect on the situation. The article explains that, “kids can now go to any school in the city that they choose, whereas before, you had to go to school based on your neighborhood. It's a real free market that isn't being done elsewhere." The flooding physically blurred the lines between neighborhoods and forced people from different towns to interact. Children who were living the poorest parts of town were forced to go to the schools with the least federal funding. However, after the storm, they were able to attend schools in different neighborhoods that received more funding. In this way, the flood physically forced a change in the system.

This was a wonderful article. I pasted the text below, and I would highly recommend reading it if you are at all interested in education.


Before Hurricane Katrina, the public school system in New Orleans was notoriously corrupt and under-performing. The state deemed a staggering 64 percent of the city's schools to be "academically unacceptable" in 2005, and even earlier this year the pre-Katrina school board president, Ellenese Brooks-Simms, was sentenced to prison for accepting bribes in return for her support of an algebra software program.
Now, five years after Katrina devastated the city, the previously failing public schools in New Orleans are in the midst of some radical improvements, making Orleans Parish a model for struggling school districts around the nation. In November 2005, the state instituted an experimental Recovery School District, by which the Louisiana legislature took 107 under-performing Orleans Parish public schools under its control and turned them into charter schools. Now, over 75 percent of New Orleans students are in charter schools -- the highest percentage in nation.
Paul Vallas, the outgoing superintendent of the Recovery School District, told Newsweek the city "used Katrina as an opportunity to build -- not rebuild, but build -- a new school system," which he described as "overwhelmingly publicly funded, predominantly privately run."
As a result, the quality of public schools in New Orleans has improved significantly. The new hybrid model, whereby charter schools outnumber traditional public schools two to one, has resulted in a new-found emphasis on innovation. Schools have seen gains on standardized testing scores across the board, the average graduation rate for seniors has gone up from 79 percent in 2005 to 90 percent today, and the percentage of schools deemed "academically unacceptable" has dropped from 64 to 42 percent.
Shannon Jones, executive director of the Cowen Institute for Public Education Issues at Tulane, said that although New Orleans public schools still have a long way to go, she thinks the experimental new system is a drastic improvement.
"A significant amount of changes have been made since the storm," she told HuffPost. "Community engagement and student achievement is up, parental involvement is on the rise, and the new schools are completely open-admission. Kids can now go to any school in the city that they choose, whereas before, you had to go to school based on your neighborhood. It's a real free market that isn't being done elsewhere."
While some have speculated that the improvement in student performance in New Olreans reflects a demographic shift since Katrina, a recent Cowen Institute report suggests that the years after Katrina have seen little change overall in the ethnicity and socioeconomic status of public school students. The vast majority of students -- over 90 percent -- are still African American, compared to 61 percent of the whole city's population, and a slightly higher percentage of students are now eligible for free or reduced lunch based on financial need.
One demographic shift that may have had an effect on the schools is the influx of new teachers. Before Katrina, about 40 percent of public school teachers in New Orleans were veteran teachers, with 20 or more years of experience. But in 2005, the Orleans Parish School Board fired nearly all of its teachers, and many charter schools decided to hire newer teachers with alternative certifications through programs like Teach for America and TeachNOLA.
With a slew of new, optimistic teachers, longer schooldays, better technologies and a state-wide commitment to the improvement of public schools, Jones says the only major downside to the new system is sustainability.
"We're spending more money per child than we actually receive from the state," she said. "We had a large influx of federal money to get schools back open, but now that funding cliff is starting to take effect. How do you sustain these reform efforts after the funds dry up and you just have regular per people state and local money? Do you continue to have a Pre-K? A low student teacher ratio? Extra things they may have offered before, they may not be able to do those anymore."
Fortunately, FEMA announced Wednesday that it will award the Orleans Parish School Board $1.8 billion to help refurbish buildings damaged during Katrina and build state of the art educational facilities for the public school system.
Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) had a lukewarm response to the announcement, in light of the five-year lag time.
"While we would have liked to have received the money sooner, it was worth the wait," she said.

The Floodgates are Open

In class we talked about how it is unrealistic to think that people living along major waterways like the Mississippi should still think about being nomadic people, moving with the water. I agree that society has moved past this point and people are tied to areas where they've spent most of their lives. However, in areas where natural disasters are frequent and extremely destructive, such as New Orleans, I can't help thinking how much less heartbreak and struggle those people would have if they relocated to somewhere where they would not have to worry about nature all the time (like the Chicago suburbs!). The New York Times recently had an article about how flooding is only expected to get worse in areas where people live near sea level, specifically Florida, Louisiana, California, New York, and New Jersey. They say that flooding used to be a rare occurrence, but could now start happening every few years. There are 3.7 million Americans that live in these danger zones.

Climate Central, a New Jersey organization, has come up with this really cool interactive feature where you can put in your zip code and then find out what the flooding projection looks like for that place. I clicked on New Orleans and it came up saying that 72.5% of the population, 69.2% of the houses, and 74% of the acreage are below 1 ft above sea level. Then it says that there is "Over 1 in 6 chance sea level rise + storm surge + tide will overtop +1ft by 2020." This year seemed a good long way in the distance when I first read it, but in actuality, that's only 8 years from now! This means that a huge amount of New Orleans' population will be displaced again, and rebuilding will be a never-ending battle. This is more than an issue of people and their homes; this is a lesson in caring for the environment. Climate change is only going to make things worse for everyone, and people in these places are prime examples of mother nature's wrath at the way we have treated her.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Post Katrina Questions and Spirit Magazine

I found myself struggling to think of anything other than Katrina when looking for a topic for this blog post. It feels like it happened so long ago and just yesterday all at the same time in my memory, and based on some of the research I have been doing, that sense seems to be the same for the city as well. I found a recent article ( that discusses, however briefly, what is being done today to help deal with the aftermath of Katrina. What jumped out at me most in the article was just how much initial work to tear down the destroyed buildings is still being done. The article was heavily laden with statistics, and while the empirical evidence can be overwhelming at time, there were a few that caught my attention; particularly that 2010 Census revealed that 25% of New Orleans residential addresses were vacant. TWENTY-FIVE PERCENT. The statistic is revealing not only of the extent of the damage but of how much still needs to be done.

            I am having Core flashbacks with this topic. When I started Core almost three years ago, they told us that if the program was successful we would leave with more questions than we came in with. I have clearly learned something because I am undoubtedly leaving the Katrina discussions with more questions than answers.  Why do we rebuild in areas hardest hit before better fortifying the levees? Why would we not? Why are we still tearing buildings down seven years later? Shouldn’t this have been completed within the first couple years? And to get to the question that I have not been able to let go of since starting these discussions: Do we place more value on the social or material rebuilding of the city? I am not sure I have a finite answer to that question, but I think it is one worth exploring.

**Side Note: While on a flight home this afternoon, I decided to entertain myself with the titillating reading of Southwest Airline’s magazine Spirit. In the middle of the magazine was 20 pages devoted to New Orleans. As I read through the information provided about the cities touristy sites, I found a page that mentioned Superdome. It was the only page of the 20 that mentioned Katrina and the line read: "After Katrina, no one thought the Superdome would be rebuilt, but we spent $336 million to not only bring the building back, it make it better than before". While I understand the importance of addressing the tourism industry post-Katrina to boost the economy, I cannot help but wonder how far that $336 million would go to addressing the still-in-shambles neighborhoods affected by the flood.