The one-two punch that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita leveled on the Gulf Coast last month tragically upended numerous lives and left many communities in a state of chaos unlike anything in recent memory. But as the healing and rebuilding effort continues, a unique opportunity has risen from the floodwaters — the chance to rebuild an entire school system from scratch.
Although many school districts and colleges suffered damage as a result of the hurricanes, by far the hardest hit was Orleans Parish school district, which lost the use of most of its facilities — forcing students to disperse across the nation in search of new academic homes.
Even before Katrina, however, the New Orleans school system had its share of problems. The scandal-ridden district's finances have been placed under the control of a private firm to help clean up years of mismanagement. Most of its facilities were in various states of disrepair, and more than half of its schools have been deemed “academically unacceptable” by the state of Louisiana. Katrina's wrath just happened to be the ultimate blow.
Now the district, as well as the entire city, finds itself in a position to start anew, with a clean slate to recreate a school district that could be the envy of not only other urban systems, but of institutions nationwide. The test will be if New Orleans can put decades of cronyism and mismanagement behind it, and embrace new ideas, concepts and best practices to spark the community's rebirth.
Schools hold an unparalleled place in America's communities — and the new facilities that rise from the floodwaters can, and must, become the anchor of the new New Orleans. A strong, progressive, innovative school system will be a vital ingredient in bringing people back to the city.
As planners, educators, community members, and state and local leaders begin the rebuilding process, let's hope that visionary thinking results in a world-class education system that will be a model for generations to come.
Number of public-school buildings in Orleans Parish damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Number of students in Orleans Parish forced to find new schools in Louisiana, Texas and elsewhere.
Number of Jefferson Parish (La.) school buildings damaged by Hurricane Katrina, about half of the district's facilities.
Number of Hurricane Katrina evacuees attending schools in Texas — the most of any state.
Number of students Hurricane Katrina displaced from schools in Louisiana and Mississippi. In Louisiana, more than 247,000 students were forced from classrooms, shutting down 489 schools. In Mississippi, more than 125,000 students and 226 schools were affected. More than 25 states have taken in displaced students.