Challenging the Master’s Plan for Lower 9th

The media opined that New Orleans was back when the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2010. A few months later, news organizations featured special programs about what things were like "Five Years after Hurricane Katrina." While struggles remain, the media told us, the events of August 2005 allowed the building of a better city, including one with successful public schools. Adding to the blitz was NBC's Education Nation Series where white leaders, such as Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas, and Tulane University President Scott Cowen continued the storytelling, describing the city's schools as a shining example of education innovation.


Like many works of fiction, such fantasizing about revitalized public schools in New Orleans inspires the imagination. But the reality is many poor and working-class black communities don't even have public schools. They've never been rebuilt.


The School Facilities Master Plan (SFMP) for Orleans Parish, which the state-run Recovery School District (RSD) issued in August 2008, specifies which schools will remain open, be closed, or receive funding for reconstruction. Revealing the close relationship between racism, education, and urban geography, it has strategically neglected to fund the reconstruction of public schools in historically black neighborhoods downtown.


Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who represents downtown neighborhoods on the City Council, affirms: "The reality check is that the schools below Canal Street were crossed off the map." For example, three of the five schools that existed in the Lower 9th Ward prior to 2005 have either been demolished or are slated for demolition and a fourth has been closed indefinitely. Meanwhile, RSD has received millions from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for damage to these schools—$47,019,836 million to be precise. This money wasn't allocated to rebuild schools in the Lower 9th Ward, but was instead put in a general fund to support school construction in largely white neighborhoods uptown—all of this despite the fact that the vast majority of students in the city's public schools are African American and live downtown.


Despite historic government failure to invest in adequate public infrastructure throughout this part of the city, the 9th Ward as a whole had one of the highest rates of black working-class homeownership in the nation before 2005. For white leaders (and a segment of middle-class black allies), the breaking of the levee along the Industrial Canal, which resulted in 20 feet of water surging into the Lower 9th Ward, represented an apparent opportunity to "cleanse" the city of these particular homeowners.


Residents of the Lower 9th Ward, however, have challenged the plan. Martin Luther King Elementary School, which predated Katrina by a decade and is the sole public school in the neighborhood, stands now because of the determination of its principal, veteran teachers, and community members who fought to rebuild it. One such teacher said: "I guess a lot of people thought if you keep us down so long we'll surrender. It doesn't work like that here. This is all we have. This is home. We're not going nowhere."


Battle to Rebuild MLK Elementary




School trophies and civil rights history near the entrance of the abandoned MLK Elementary School—photo from KatrinaTrip2006 at

New Orleans resident Yvonne Wise addresses community volunteers who came to help clean out MLK Elementary when the school district refused to act—photo from

Architectural plans a for high school envisioned by Lower 9 School Development Group—photo by Kristen L. Buras

RSD showed little intention of supporting the return of any of the five schools originally in the Lower 9th Ward—including Louis Armstrong, Thomas Edison, Joseph Hardin, and Martin Luther King Elementary Schools, as well as Alfred Lawless Senior High School. A veteran teacher recollects: "We told the RSD that our school was coming back. They said, 'Oh yeah, well, you all come back in five or ten years.' We said, 'Oh, no. We're coming back in 2006.'"


Principal Gaines and a number of teachers affiliated with King Elementary proceeded with writing a charter school proposal—the only means they saw for possibly reopening the school in a newly reformed, charter school-driven policy environment. Ultimately, King was the only charter submitted solely by a grassroots group that the state approved; other charters were granted to schools collaborating with management organizations. Building on its pre-existing history, King Elementary aimed to continue its legacy as an open access, community-run school.


Despite the immense work required to get the charter, approval was only the beginning. King Elementary still needed a building for the 2006-2007 school year, while the original site in the Lower 9th Ward was being renovated. This, too, proved to be a battle. RSD offered the dilapidated Charles Colton Middle School, which it promised to renovate as a temporary home for King Elementary students. Problems with asbestos, termites, and other hazards, however, were not remedied and deadlines for building repairs were repeatedly missed. Members of the King community demanded access to a safe, alternative school building—an uptown site in much better condition—but RSD said it had other plans for that building.


By September 6, King Elementary personnel decided to hold school on the front steps of Colton to let the world know that teachers were ready to teach. In consultation with leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), they decided to march to RSD offices about two miles away. Robin Jarvis, RSD superintendent at the time, wasn't there, so the students took a seat and the teachers continued to teach. Jarvis finally arrived and agreed to a closed-door meeting with five or six key members. As a result of this mobilization, a well-maintained building uptown became available and that's where students were taught for the remainder of 2006-2007.


On August 13, 2007, the King school returned to its original location in the Lower 9th Ward, where renovations had occurred the previous year. On that momentous day, Principal Gaines declared before an exhilarated community: "Dr. King said, 'They dared to dream.' And after the disaster that devastated this area and our school, we dared to dream. We are glad to be home and indeed this is a homecoming."


Funding for A High School?


At present, King Elementary is beyond capacity with 800 students and a waiting list of over 500. Although granted permission to operate a high school beginning in 2008-2009, no additional funding for facilities was provided. As a result King's 9th and 10th grade students occupy the last remaining space on campus, with 11th and 12th grades to be added in 2010-2011 and 2011-2012. Capacity remains a pressing but unresolved issue due to systemic failure of RSD to invest in school development for the Lower 9th.


In August 2008, RSD released the School Facilities Master Plan. The plan was presented as the product of community input solicited during the previous months. In reality, many communities had little voice in determining which schools would remain open, be closed, or receive funding for renovation and construction.


The master plan indefinitely closed or "landbanked" approximately 60 schools, with buildings subject to sale for alternative public and, most alarmingly, private use. Yet such selective shuttering of schools—most of these schools are in working-class and middle-class communities of color on the downtown and eastern side of the city—is only one troubling aspect of the master plan. The plan also specifies six phases for school rebuilding, but only Phase 1 was funded.


While the draft master plan indicated that a new high school would be built in the Lower 9th Ward, it was the only school in Phase 1 that had no specifically designated site. This, of course, prompted concerns about RSD's commitment. What's more, an "addition" to King that would enable the accommodation of some 500 additional elementary students was delegated to Phase 5.


Amendments to the master plan were issued in November 2008. At this juncture, a high school for the Lower 9th Ward was no longer designated for Phase 1, but instead a high school in the Upper 9th Ward was planned. Although both neighborhoods are largely black and working class, they're on opposite sides of the Industrial Canal and have distinct histories. Phase 2 now includes a Lower 9th Ward high school for approximately 275 students, but it was planned as an "addition" to King for a meager $5 million. "So now it's a fight between [the Upper and Lower 9th Ward] because that's where the [RSD] wants it to go," Mr. Preston, a community activist, worried.


Despite RSD claims that the master plan used demographic information to create neighborhood "recovery profiles," which were then presumably used to determine where schools should be restored, a demographic profile prepared at the behest of L9SDG in 2008 revealed a strikingly different picture: within a two-minute drive of King, there are 493 school-aged children—meaning children ranging from age 0 to 19. Within a five-minute drive of King, there are 4,752 school-aged children.


L9SDG continues to collect petitions from families for a proposed high school in the neighborhood. It has also written to Congress requesting a federal investigation of the use of public monies by RSD, urging: "We have endeavored to work in tandem with local and state school officials, but it has proven to be to our community's detriment. After five years of trying to rebuild schools and other essential infrastructure in our neighborhood, we feel that we have exhausted our options. We can no longer trust our state and local school officials."


Preston asked, "Who made a decision that we didn't want a school back in this area? To take my money and place it in some arbitrary fund and say we're going to do whatever we want to do is criminal."


As of July 2010, FEMA acknowledged an obligation and disbursed the monies to RSD for damages to the Lower 9th Ward schools.


L9SDG does not believe the Lower 9th Ward is the only community that's suffered from either a lack of representation in educational decision making or a lack of allocated resources for rebuilding neighborhood public schools. Attempting to speak out, veteran teachers and students have documented other examples of educational injustice in the book Pedagogy, Policy, and the Privatized City: Stories of Dispossession and Defiance from New Orleans.


Meanwhile, L9SDG has crafted architectural plans for a high school where Lawless Senior High once stood in the Lower 9th Ward. The proposed school would accommodate 800 students, consisting of classrooms, a library-media center, technology wing, art facilities, band and choir room, auditorium, gymnasium, and football and baseball fields. The anticipated cost is $45 million. The school curriculum would revolve around environmental sustainability and prepare students to contribute to the community through the health sciences, technology, and the arts. In this regard, the school would build on the legacy of King, for example, extending the work it has done through its Wetland Warriors Program. More specifically, students would focus on the critical investigation and resolution of pressing community problems such as:


·     race- and class-based health disparities


·     the relationship between communal health and the destruction of the environment, including the loss of wetlands due to the petrochemical industry


·     the role of the musical, visual, and performing arts—including New Orleans indigenous cultural traditions—in sustaining and advancing the overall health of the community


·     students would be exposed to a college preparatory curriculum, while the school would also respect an array of vocations


During summer 2010, L9SDG sponsored a billboard demanding RSD funding for neighborhood schools. It read, "Lower 9th Ward Stakeholders Ask Where's the Money?" Prompted by their ongoing activism, current RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas reportedly "promised" to seek funding, but said the school couldn't be completed until 2014-2015. Despite the community's request that the school accommodate at least 800 students, RSD envisioned only 500. Whether or not such promises will come to fruition remains to be seen.


In late August 2010, FEMA announced it would provide a $1.8 billion grant to RSD. This has only intensified grassroots concerns over the racial politics of the district's decision-making. A member of the school community responded: "We're not going to let this force of impoverishment, of racism…determine whether or not we can return; whether we can function; whether we can educate our children, our community. If they can take a stand after that total devastation and loss, then I certainly can join them, and I can take my stand in support of trying to break the back [of injustice]."


Along these lines, L9SDG welcomes an alliance with community groups who are committed to the restoration of public schools in all areas of New Orleans as well as the solidarity of similarly oppressed communities, whether in Chicago, New York City, and elsewhere. Educational inequity must be collectively challenged. Unlike the Super Bowl, the education of African American children is not a game.


Kristen Buras, born and raised in New Orleans, is assistant professor of urban educational policy at Emory University and co-author of Pedagogy, Policy, and the Privatized City: Stories of Dispossession and Defiance from New Orleans. She is also co-founder and director of the Urban South Grassroots Research Collective for Public Education.