Don’t ever conflate disaster recovery with education reform

Editor's note:

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.

Katrina (and now maybe Harvey and Irma) attracted educational opportunists who looked past children and families

Storms will inevitably come; the tragedy is that avoidable manmade disasters will follow.

After Hurricane Katrina, many talked about New Orleans schools as a “clean sheet of paper.” People bandied around phrases like “starting from scratch” and “wipe the slate clean” — anything that treated teachers, students and parents as if they were as easily erased as drawings on an Etch A Sketch. It seems that many considered the people who worked in public schools prior to the storm as collateral damage for the grand New Orleans experiment (another worn-out phrase).

If there is one lesson we should learn from past disaster recovery efforts, it is that people can’t be erased. Even in death people have value; history and culture remains. Sometimes the public school a person attended embodies the spirit of a grandmother who convenes family members for holidays and special occasions. Communities protect the names of schools like they would a relative.

Establishing a sense of normalcy — getting a school back on its feet — is like finding a lost loved one. Education reform on the other hand is “disruptive” in nature, not restorative. Even though the school being reformed may have had problems before the disaster, those who attended the school had invested in its improvement. To wipe the slate clean is to deny people the opportunity to capitalize on their investments, as well as recover on their own terms.

As Florida L. Woods, then-principal of Paul L. Dunbar Elementary School, said a month after the storm: “The people who were there should be the ones given the opportunity to rebuild… We know the history, we know the culture of the city, the district, and the people.”

Related: Attacking DACA during a national tragedy is divisive and un-neighborly

The storms will keep on coming, and opportunities to improve schools will always present themselves. But manmade disasters in education require a different response.

Sure, rebuilding school buildings and improving systems are worthy goals after any disaster. But Hurricane Katrina blew a window of opportunity wide open for New Orleans reformers to jam through a mostly predetermined agenda of disempowering the New Orleans Public School Board. In the weeks after the storm, the Louisiana legislature changed its previous definition of an academically failing school to be able to take control of the vast majority of schools in the city. As a consequence, New Orleans experienced rapid educational upheaval while people attempted to recover from trauma caused by the storm. The reform agenda led to state takeover, the expansion of charter schools, an introduction to school choice via the removal of geographic attendance zones, as well as a radical racial shift in teachers. An infusion of federal and philanthropic cash supported these efforts — not all of which were focused on establishing a sense of normalcy. Now, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey (and now Irma), someone else will see an opportunity to reform dozens of severely damaged schools in the name of disaster recovery.

The people directly affected by the storm should be the architects of their own recovery. In other words, reform shouldn’t be done to the community; it should be undertaken by the community. In this regard, recovering cities should take the time they need to make sure exclusion from the recovery process doesn’t prolong the damage caused by the storm.

Officials from the Houston Independent School District (HISD) have postponed the already deferred September 11 start date for all of its 215,000 students as the entire region scrambles to assess the damage from Hurricane Harvey. Damage to 115 schools, including 22 deemed extensively damaged by HISD, forced district leaders to place approximately 10,000 students in schools not originally assigned to them.

Houston and other cities can learn a lot from the restructuring of New Orleans’ school system. For instance, local and state entities worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to do a collective assessment of the damage and negotiated a $1.8 billion lump sum grant, rather than doing a school-by-school assessment, thereby ensuring that every student could have a new or refurbished school.

Related: Open letter to teachers who feel trapped in racist schools

But erecting new buildings takes years (more than five, in the case of New Orleans). In the meantime, while students study in schools not originally assigned to them, their mental health takes priority. Already traumatized by the storm, students will have difficulty adjusting to new school environments thrust upon them. There’s less to worry about in regards to academic performance. After expected dips in academic performance due to interruptions and understandable distractions in the aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans students caught up or may have even exceeded expectations in their new schools. But this isn’t enough of a reason to cause havoc in kids’ lives. Academics are an important, but by no means the only, consideration in a post-disaster environment.

Students in Houston will need psychological support to help manage post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health disorders, such as depression. The prevalence of serious mental illness doubled in New Orleans residents, and nearly half of the respondents exhibited probable PTSD in the wake of Katrina, according to several researchers who published their findings in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. My colleague Jon Valant at the Brookings Institution writes that children are resilient, especially academically, but he cites research showing that their physical and mental health needs must also be addressed. Rationalizing radical change in the midst of recovery based on the potential of increased test scores is ill timed at best — at worst, it’s paternalistic and painfully insensitive to the needs of the child.

Not to mention the stress on the adults who work in schools. Of the more than 7,000 employees who were terminated from New Orleans schools in the months after Katrina by the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), approximately 4,300 were teachers, 71 percent of whom were black, and 78 percent of whom were women. Not only did this negatively impact the black middle class of the entire city, it emasculated the black community as a whole, which still feels the sting of that decision today.

Those affected by Hurricane Harvey, Irma and future storms should certainly look back to post-Katrina recovery efforts to help their cities and schools recover faster and stronger. The storms will keep on coming, and opportunities to improve schools will always present themselves. But manmade disasters in education require a different response.

We may need education reform, but disguising reform as recovery is like tossing a book on how to swim to a person who’s drowning.