Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Two Years Later

Much of today in New Orleans of course has to do with Katrina's two year anniversary. Reporters and politicians are everywhere. The republicans blame our democratic governor for our troubles. The democrats blame the republican administration. My students and I today talked quite a bit about our sad and dire situation. In class we read as a group an Open Letter to President Bush written by City Councilmember Shelley Midura. It does a very good job of explaining how we've been largely neglected by the federal government, and how many people who live elsewhere are profiting from our tragedy. I'm glad she wrote it and I hope it gets some much needed publicity to counter the oft-quoted and errant $116 billion in aid claim. Bush is of course speaking at a charter school, as he always does. The message continues to be hammered: privatize schools on the business model. I'm sure Laura Bush's foundation will once again donate money to charter and private schools' libraries. I'm hoping that year three will be easier than the first two years. Things are starting off good. We're supposed to get our settlement check from Allstate tomorrow, and then on Friday, the shoring company is supposed to start straightening and lifting our house.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Katrina's Blessings

Like everyone in New Orleans, the second anniversary of the Federal Flood has got me reminiscing and taking stock. Of course I'm angry with the failure of government on all levels, and disappointed in the country's apathy, and so tired and frustrated as my neighbors and I strive to rebuild a historic city with a very uncertain future. Brian Schwaner's article for the AP, in which he calls the slow death of New Orleans "a national disgrace," captures my sentiment quite well.

I just finished reading Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time, an excellent book about people who survived the Dust Bowl and the Depression. It continuously reminded me that even though my life in post-Katrina New Orleans is difficult, just about anyone in history would happily change places with me. Moreover, most people in the third world today would probably move to New Orleans if given the chance. So I've been thinking quite a bit about the good things that have happened in my life due to the failure of the levees two years ago. That might seem insensitive to the thousands of people who lost their life in the Federal Flood. But this post is simply meant to be a reflection on a few good things that happened to me because of this tragedy.

The best thing that happened because of Katrina was that we got to spend four months with our family in Nebraska. This was especially nice as my father passed away last February. One Saturday my father and I were even able to attend a Nebraska football game, something we did together regularly when I was growing up. I know our time at that game and being able to visit throughout the four month period meant a lot to my dad. My children were able to spend quite a bit of quality time with their grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles.

After Katrina I also felt that my life was appreciated. After swimming in the flood waters, and escaping from the Causeway Concentration Camp, I posted "One of the Millions of Hurricane Katrina Stories."" I received hundreds of emails and phone calls after that, some from friends I hadn't heard from in more than 20 years. That was nice.

Since Katrina I have been more involved with the world. Much of the time I formerly spent researching the ancient world is now spent trying to improve the modern one. We're engaged in trying to rebuild one of the world's greatest cities. I know my neighbors very well. Before Katrina I didn't know many of their names. That changed in a hurry when you are helping them throw out refrigerators with rotting food, or teaching them how to get meals from Red Cross trucks. We get so excited when we see people moving back into our neighborhood, especially if they have kids.

We plan on being in our flooded house in one year. It's taken a very long time due mostly to problems with insurance. In the end our house will be much better than it was before Katrina, and Therese and I were able to design the remodeling so that it reflects our personalities. We think it will be the house in which we die, that is, if New Orleans doesn't flood again. Therese and I are willing to fight hard to rebuild this city once, but that if we lose our house to a flood again, we'll have to set up our lives elsewhere. But we're optimistic, and practical, as we are raising our house so that it rests above Katrina's high water mark. I would be angry if the politicians and press didn't come down to our city to cover the second anniversary, but I will sure be glad when they all leave. What we're striving for is a return to a sense of normalcy. It's probably still at least 8 years away.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Education's Black & White in New Orleans

Comedian Chris Rock jokingly observed "And every town's got two malls: they got the white mall, and the mall white people used to go to." There are many schools like this in New Orleans. I believe that every school in my Mid-City neighborhood used to be white-only, until desegregation in the 1960s. During the 1970s and 1980s, I've been told, there was a pretty even balance of races in the schools. It seems to me that the ideal would be to have the public schools' demographics match those in the neighborhood, being that diversity of race and socio-economics is one of the most attractive parts of both New Orleans and Mid-City. But now the public schools in my neighborhood have less than 3% Caucasian students I would estimate. There are far more Caucasian students at the private schools in my neighborhood. Basically the more tuition costs, the higher percentage of Caucasian students you'd be likely to find. How did this happen? And the question that is more disturbing to me personally, why won't I send my children to my neighborhood's public school?

Last night Therese and I went to a wonderful party near the Fairgrounds. It was hosted by a teacher who was probably the first friend we made when we moved to New Orleans, as we put our daughter in the all French program at Audubon Montessori and this lady tutored Kalypso to bring her French up to speed. Like Therese, this lady has taught at both Audubon and Lusher, both of which are now charter schools. So I spent the night listening to dedicated teachers about public education in New Orleans. Everyone I spoke to voiced their frustration about the current model, where charters are hyped as the answer to everything. The teachers described how at a school like Lusher Charter, where they have a principal with vision and a unified board that supports her, the system can work for the students. But at other schools the teachers described situations in which the principal lacked leadership or vision, or much more common, the charter was governed by a board who knew nothing about the school. The board might consist of a neighborhood attorney, a business woman, and a tax specialist who didn't spend much time at the school, and they made poor decisions. These schools are not doing well in New Orleans at the moment. But the veteran teachers also described the gradual process which led to the current racial makeup of the schools. There was a general perception that Caucasian parents were less likely to put up with sub-standard schools, though many admitted that socio-economic background probably played a larger role than race on this issue. That is to say, the more money one had, the more likely they would not tolerate a bad school, and African Americans were more likely to suffer from poverty in New Orleans. Many cited lackadaisical principals. It seems that even one year of bad leadership could doom a great school. Others talked about a misconceived fear held by white parents that their children would be shot at public schools. There was also the sinking ship syndrome, in which if one or two parents pulled their kids out of the neighborhood school and got them into Lusher, then many others would follow for fear that the school declining, thus creating the situation they feared. One veteran teacher desribed how a great high school like McMain Magnet tried to keep its racial diversity by holding to two standards: African American students needed to have a GPA of about 3.4 to get in, but whites only needed around a 2.8. This of course didn't go over well, and it's goal of keeping white students failed, as now McMain has less than 2% Caucasian students, he said.

I continue to believe that the best strategy to improve public education in New Orleans will be to get control of the school board when the elections are held in November of 2008. Currently the Recovery School District is growing larger and more powerful by the week, and they now can't all fit into their large office complex on Poland Ave. This is supposed to be a temporary governing body, not elected but appointed. Actually "hired" is the better term in the current education-is-a-business model. And if we're not careful, all of the schools in New Orleans will be governed by for-profit education companies with no elected officials to hold accountable. So we talked about strategy and vision for a new school board. Everyone felt it would be helpful if the candidates actually went to a public school, as many on the current board did not. It seems the school board in many ways has become a society club where wealthy patrons bestow their bounty on the peasants, much like the elite who ride on Rex and now and then generously throw the big beads. That of course isn't true for all the members of the school board. But back to the "black & white" topic of this post: the new school board, in order to be effective, will need to represent the racial makeup of the New Orleans students which it serves. An all white school board could not be effective, nor could an all African American. The same debate about racial balance is taking place with City Council, as soon for the first time in 30 years, there is a strong chance that both at-large seats will be occupied by Caucasians. So last night these educators gave me many names from the African American community of people I should talk to about coming up with a shared vision for a new school board, and ways to recruit African American candidates. But what if the most qualified candidates are all African-American, or all white, or 50% Hispanic? Isn't the attempt to create a new school board that is racially mixed in many ways analagous to McMain's two-tiered admissions policy? I need to think through all of this.

Friday, August 24, 2007

K-Ville Online

I just watched K-VIlle, even though it isn't set to premiere until September 17th. It's online. The pilot is 45 minutes long, though 35 minutes are for car chases. Our house shows up quite a bit. It's the pink one next to the main character's house. I'm not quite sure if our house is Kaja's or if it belonged to the Keller's who moved to Jackson. Kalypso has a cameo washing a wall at the 40:44 mark. K-Ville was better than I expected, and hope they make some more episodes.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Retreating from the Rising Tide

This Saturday the second Rising Tide conference will take place. It's a forum where geeky bloggers get together and talk about how they have and can improve New Orleans and the world. Yet, I can't make it, as I'll be in Slidell all day. The Theology Department at Xavier is having a "retreat," where geeky theologians get together and talk about how they have and can improve Xavier, New Orleans, and the world. Kalypso and I went last year to Rising Tide, and I thought it was pretty interesting. You should definitely check it out if you are able. But you can't come to our Theology Department meeting unfortunately.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Privatizing Education & Medicine

I've been thinking quite a bit about blogging on the parallels between the efforts to privatize both public medicine at LSU and our public education system in New Orleans. I don't need to now. Ralph Adamo wrote this excellent article in The American Prospect about the chaos that exists from the current privatization efforts in our city. With the privatization of education, companies such as Alvarez & Marsal, Sodexho, and JRL Enterprises are making quick fortunes on the backs of our students, and there is little accountability.

Adamo's conclusions are right on the mark in my opinion:
The state has to do several things in order to legitimize its actions. The schools have to be returned to the community in a manner that re-establishes accountability, not run by consultants for the short term and the quick profit. If that means a return to being run by publicly elected officials, that is the price we pay for living in a democracy. Curriculum and services such as security and hot meals should derive from the local population and economy, not be imported via giant education and service corporations. The right of teachers and other school workers to organize and to bargain collectively cannot be denied indefinitely, nor those who attempt to organize such basic rights punished for their crimes. The market drives only to one location: profit. That is a legitimate destination in business. But education, like medicine, ought not operate under the rules and expectations of business.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Engaging Students

This morning I participated on a panel discussion for new faculty entitled "How to Engage Xavier Students." It was very helpful for me, as I desperately need to get my teach on as Editor B put it. It's sort of an attitude adjustment that happens at summer's end, and it's time for me to get back in to the frame of mind necessary to be an effective teacher. I absolutely love universities in the summer when there are no students, I'm sad to say. And I love not having to grade papers and explain to students why their hero Oprah is going to hell. But it's that time of year again, and I need to be reminded why what I do as an educator is important. It helped me to hear some of my talented colleagues talk about what successes and failures they've had in the classroom. Xavier is a pretty special place. This is my seventh year there, but the first for me with tenure and an Associate Professor rank. Xavier and I have had our share of problems and differences over the years. I was especially upset after they fired many of my tenured colleagues after Katrina. But all in all I'm proud to be part of Xavier.

There is something simple that I can do to better engage students. I need to learn their names. I typically have about 120 students a semester, and since Katrina, I have not forced myself to learn them as I did before. I start "engaging" students, at least in theory, next Thursday. But everyone's watching to see what Dean will do.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A NOLA Blogger for City Council

I think that many of the New Orleans bloggers would make a fine representative on the city council. You'll see their wisdom and wit on display at the Rising Tide 2 Conference. But having pondered this for a few days now, and being a narcissistic genius, I think that Karen "Gadfly" Gadbois from Squandered Heritage would make the best candidate. She's the only one I know of who has been stippled by the Wall Street Journal.

There, I blogged it, now make it happen.

Have You Seen Our Cow?

Special Agent James Bernazzani, FBI's New Orleans Field Office, said the following about political corruption in Louisiana:
It's not unique to Louisiana. It's just brazen down here. Machine politics in the north will skim the cream. Here in Louisiana, they skim the cream, they steal the milk, hijack the bottles and look for the cow. And it is brazen, the amount of activity down here where people think it's their right as soon as they assume office to steal from the people.

Monday, August 13, 2007


I learned late Saturday night that one of the most beloved politicians in New Orleans, Oliver Thomas, was pleading guilty to charges that he accepted bribes five years ago. That has really got me depressed and feeling betrayed. For those in America who would rather not fund the rebuilding of New Orleans because of alleged political corruption, another arrow is in your arsenal. And then there's this, where Katrina relief tax money is going to build luxury Alabama football condos. Things don't look too optimistic right now.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


My family and I attended our neighborhood's Night Out Against Crime block party last evening. We got to meet many of our new neighbors. Our crooked house is sort of famous around these parts (second only to our neighbor's K-Ville house), and everyone was glad to hear our contractors are about ready to start repairing it. There were many middle class families with young children, ourselves included. Moreover, everyone there was Caucasian. I've often heard and read that Katrina was harder on African American families for a variety of reasons. One of the things that attracted my family and I to Mid-City was the mixture of socio-economic classes, and the mixture of races and ethnicities.

Sunday, August 05, 2007


After nearly two months in Israel, a week in Nebraska, and a few days in Florida, our Toyota Highlander is finally parked in front of our house on S. Hennessey. The longer I live in New Orleans, the tougher it gets to leave here, despite its many problems. After being away so long, it seems many things remain unchanged. Only about 1/3 to 1/2 of the residents in my neighborhood are back, and the schools still need a major overhaul. We continue to suffer under the blunders, incompetance, and corruption of many of our public officials. I feel both rejuvinated and worn out at the same time if that is possible. I think we're about two weeks away from beginning to repair our house. Once we start, it will take about 10 months to a year to finish. I can't wait to get our stuff out of storage and finally move back into our house.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Charter School Lobby Touts LEAP Results

Back in 2006 the New York Times ran an article about how students at charter schools scored worse than students in regular public schools. The pro-charter lobby, who wants to privatize public education, needed their own experiment to illustrate how charter schools were superior to public schools. Katrina gave them the opportunity for which they were looking.

Today is the day I predicted back in March of 2007. In this blog and in an opinion piece for the Times-Picayune, I wrote that the pro-charter lobby would use the LEAP scores to claim charter schools are the answer to improve public education. It turns out that charter schools scored better than Recover School District schools in New Orleans. Big freaking deal. Being that many RSD schools had 40 children in a classroom whereas charter schools were able to cap enrollment at about 22 is a major factor. Being that charter schools had certified teachers whereas many RSD schools did not is a major factor. Also notice that the top performing schools, such as Lusher and Audubon, have a selective admissions policy. Another factor was the total incompetance of the RSD governing body. Two of the quotations made me cringe. Brian Riedlinger, the president of Algiers Charter Schools, said that "One of the things we know about successful schools is that they have successful principals." The best principal I have ever met, Keith Bartlett, works at Dibert Elementary, a school where 78% of 4th graders did not score "basic." Leslie Jacobs, the president of the state run BESE school board and who has been pushing for all of New Orleans schools to become charters, claims that students at charter schools feel ownership which empowers them. I went to a great government-run public school and all of the students there felt ownership. What New Orleans needs is a quality school board, something that has been lacking for many years. To compare charter schools to schools run by the RSD is not a fair comparison, and I hope that some journalists dig a bit deeper into this situation.