My love for New Orleans can be traced back to a trip I took when I was a young teenager. One summer, my family journeyed down from Arkansas to visit my uncle living right outside of the city. After a few days of crawfish broils, reminiscing and humidity, our luggage-loaded car pulled away from my uncle’s house to cross the 23.8-mile Lake Pontchartrain Causeway into NOLA.
We only spent a day or two there, but it was more than enough for me to fall in love with they rhythm of the city. New Orleans had an spark of magic to it – from the French Quater, with street dancers and jazz musicians on every corner, to the beignets from Café du Monde, to the beautiful street art. So naturally when Katrina devastated a few years later, I felt a call to go back.
The spring break after the hurricane tore through the 9th Ward levee and into the city, I squeezed into a van with other members from my church to make the same trek down to a very different city. I could go on for the remainder of this blog (and then some) about what it was like to see that level of devastation, but that’s not important. The important part is the work we did – we gutted and renovated two houses that week. Some of you pessimists (or hey, maybe even realists) might feel the need to point out that two houses in the midst of millions doesn’t make much of a difference. To you I say, what can we do but fix one house at a time? We helped to better the lives of two families that week. What can we do but save one family at a time?
I read a really thought-provoking blog post from Good.is this week that made me ask a similar question in regard to education reform. If I think about all of the needs in public education in Missouri (much less New Orleans) for too long, I get a little queasy. But for fun, let’s just think about Missouri, for a moment. The school districts in my own backyard are largely underfunded, understaffed and teaching kids who are largely under-motivated. How do we go about fixing that? In his blog, Dr. Andre Perry suggests we must first start with community reform, which will lead to education reform. And what can we do but try to better one community at a time?
A significant step in education reform, Perry says, is to analyze progress based on how the people, the community is doing, and not simply what the achievement scores are saying. If achievement data – be it ACTs, NAEP assessment scores, etc. – is disconnected from real social mobility, how can we actually help the people in the scores?
“In my work in education, I’ve been faced with some undeniable truths: We can make people smarter, and not necessarily make communities more livable. We can make people smarter, and not necessarily make communities more equitable. We can make people smarter, and not compel them to learn together. Smartness has its place, but we must remember, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’ The needs of our children are far greater than math and literacy achievement.”
I should mention that Perry is the associate director for Educational Initiatives for Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education, which assesses the success of post-Katrina education reforms. Though New Orleans is one of the nation’s poster children (even before Katrina) for a deep need of public education reform and improvement, Perry is cautiously optimistic that significant change can occur – one ward, one school, one person at a time. He cites an example of a NOLA native who has broken the cycle of his family’s poverty and just received approval for a mortgage to help his daughter and him pay for their future home.
“Let’s not confuse the meaning of that mortgage as simply a down payment on a house. That mortgage is evidence of his commitment to New Orleans. That mortgage is evidence that a community decided they were going to save a son. Most importantly, that mortgage is evidence that true transformation is possible through every day people.”
My love for New Orleans can be traced back to sitting on the porch of our temporary home as dusk settled over the city. After a long, often smelly day of work, there was nothing as wonderful as trading my work boots for my Chacos and my warm water bottle for a cold glass of lemonade. Except, perhaps, the truly most wonderful part was when the children living in the houses surrounding us would gather around our porch in the hopes of scoring a glass of lemonade or a game of hopscotch. I couldn’t tell you their names, but I do remember their faces. I do remember their joy and energy and hope. I remember how I wanted to capture that innocent hope somehow, bottle it up so they could always have it, no matter how heavy their worlds got. It’s that hope for a better future that transforms communities. It’s that hope that’s rebuilding New Orleans. And it’s that hope that is working to rebuild education, one person at a time.