Kelvin Shawn Sealey,
Adjunct Instructor at Teachers College and co-director of the Design
Lab for Learning Organizations at the Graduate School of
Architecture, Planning and Preservation
What is your main memory of a year ago, when you first heard the news of the Katrina disaster?
I learned through the newspaper, not the TV -- so, strangely, I had literary rather than graphic images in my head. Upon learning that the entire city had to be deserted, and that the New Orleans levee system had malfunctioned, I wondered, as I'm sure many did, if the city could ever repopulate itself and return to normal. From an educational perspective, I thought about all those children who were not going to school, or who lost friends or relatives, and the trauma they would now have to endure as they and their families began rebuilding their lives.
Based on the trip you made with some Teachers College students earlier this year, what was your reading on the state of education in the wake of the disaster?
The educational system that New Orleans had prior to Katrina, as the world now knows, was not one for which this country nor the state of Louisiana should feel any pride whatsoever. To see firsthand, as we did, the destroyed school buildings, inundated, upended, vacated, was both frightening and, strangely, somewhat of a relief. At least now, we thought, there might be the chance to create a system that works.
I realize that as an outsider making these comments, I can be interpreted as saying too little too late, as I did not, prior to Katrina, know as much as I do now about education in that city. But I do think it important to look forward to the possibility for a better system of education there, where children are served in the way they ought to be served, with the best public education this nation can provide.
My students and I were determined to take what we knew about New Orleans and its people, and combine that knowledge with what we'd learned by studying education over time and in different places, to isolate responses we believed could be helpful to those in a position to rebuild the system. A new book containing the reports they created is due out shortly by Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation Press.
Where are we one year later -- have we made any progress on the educational front? If you could advise New Orleans policy-makers, what steps would you recommend being taken to improve the situation in the year ahead?
The fact that the rebuilding process has not proceeded at the rate we would like is extremely upsetting, particularly from the point of view of education. Too many children have simply lost a year of their learning lives, never to be replaced, and that is quite sad.
As the newspapers have been telling us for a few weeks now, while New Orleans has been making some progress on rebuilding its housing stock and rehabilitating its institutional and governmental infrastructure, only slow progress has been made on the educational front, with the new patchwork of charter schools the city now has. (Editor's note: About 20 new charter schools have been started since the storm, educating about 1,500 students.)
I do not believe that this is because Louisiana educational officials do not want to educate children in that state. Indeed, few states or nations have had to confront so total a physical disaster as Louisiana now confronts -- they are having to write their own instruction manual. And since charter schools are empowered to make many of their own rules, subject to certain statewide restrictions, there exists a certain amount of confusion on the part of families as to exactly how they are supposed to navigate the new educational landscape.
While I am hopeful that it will all work out in the end, I cannot help but think of the thousands of children from families who are not able to cushion the shock of operating within this new system, or of rebounding from months without school or regular lessons, or of moving from place to place in an effort to solidify a new life. There will be casualties, I'm afraid, and they will be young children who would, under normal circumstances, be learning and playing each day in public school. These are the children I cannot get out of my mind, and I fear for them. Thus, my advice to educational policy-makers and other educators in the state would be to remember the lives of those least able to successfully navigate bureaucracy, the poor and undereducated. How can they be reached and supported in the most humane way possible?
Back to One Year Since Katrina
AT ISSUE is a series of features in The Record and on the web, intended to gather viewpoints from faculty and staff on current news topics.