New Orleans — Harold Clay sat on the cafeteria floor, fighting tears. A classmate had stolen the ice cream off his red lunch tray and then pushed him down when he tried to get it back. But, as his uncles and older cousins had taught him, boys don’t cry. So instead, “I start taking the food off the tray, took the tray in my right hand, walked over, tapped him on the shoulder, and cracked him on the head with that tray,” Clay says. “I was one of those bad kids. ‘Put him out, put him out’ — that was the answer.”
Clay was kicked out of school — not the first time he’d been sent home for bad behavior — for this fight. Nobody took the time to understand why he had reacted so forcefully. Though his family received food stamps and aid through the Women, Infants, and Children supplemental-nutrition program, he still didn’t eat some nights, so that ice cream his classmate had swiped had real value. He lived on Dubreuil, the run-down street on the outermost edge of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, and “across from me wasn’t flowers,” he says. “It was burnt-up cars, trash, and rats the size of cats.” He attended bad schools with leaky tin roofs and no heat in the winter. He had an absent father. He was sometimes hungry, he was mad, and he lashed out.
Clay almost fell through the cracks. But at the end of his sophomore year, an assistant principal named Philmon Edwards saw potential in him and decided to be the father figure Clay lacked. “Without that man at that time,” he says, choking up, “I could have become a statistic.”
Instead, Clay eventually followed in his mentor’s footsteps. Today, he’s the assistant principal of Edna Karr High School, a charter that’s recognized nationally for excellence in education. An outspoken advocate for school choice, Clay relies on his own experience to fight for the future of his students. He and educators like him are contributing to a post-Katrina education revolution in New Orleans.
They’ve got their work cut out for them. Katrina was shocking not only for the destruction it wrought but also for the longstanding social disaster it exposed. In New Orleans pre-Katrina, nearly one in four residents fell below the poverty level. Twenty-nine percent of households were headed by single parents, and over 15 percent of New Orleans teens reported that they had lost their virginity before turning 13. For the past two decades, at least 158 people have been murdered every year in New Orleans. Louisiana today has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and around one in 14 black men in the Big Easy is serving time.
New Orleans’s failing schools have been both a cause and an effect of these social ills. In 2004, around 40 percent of the city’s residents were functionally illiterate. In 2006, about 40 percent of the adult residents of the Lower Ninth Ward had never graduated from high school. Before Katrina, 90 percent of public schools in New Orleans were performing below the state average. A whopping 74 percent of eighth-graders lacked reading proficiency. On the 2004 high-school exit exam, only 4 percent of students exhibited basic proficiency in English and only 6 percent showed basic math capability. The school district, corrupt and dominated by union influence, was heavily indebted and barely staving off bankruptcy. In the three years before the hurricane, the FBI indicted 29 school employees for fraud and corruption.
Change came fast. Katrina hit New Orleans in late August 2005, damaging all but 16 of the public-school buildings and displacing tens of thousands of students. Within two months, the Louisiana legislature had voted to take over New Orleans’s failing school district, establishing the Recovery School District and effectively firing 7,500 teachers and school workers. In place of most of these public schools, charter schools were established.
Edna Karr High School reopened in December 2005, changing as radically as the rest of the city in those days. Before, it had been a blue-ribbon magnet school, with 40 percent of its student body in the “gifted” category. These students performed well above the norm, and every one of them graduated. After Katrina, the school dropped its selective admission standards, allowing children from anywhere in New Orleans to attend.
“I had a job before Katrina,” says longtime principal John Hiser. “Since Katrina, I’ve had a mission.”
Today, most freshmen enter the high school with fifth-grade math and sixth-grade English skills. Ninety-five percent of the students are black, and 87 percent receive free or reduced-fee lunch. “We take these kids in,” Hiser says. “We don’t tell them they’re stupid. We tell them they’ve got potential.”
Educational obstacles are one thing; emotional ones are another. “Life’s vicissitudes don’t take a day off,” Clay says, rattling through the depressing litany of challenges his students face. Some have a father in prison. Others never knew their father, and “I have a group of kids who feel like, ‘How do you want me to believe in a higher power when the physical man hasn’t shown up?’” More than a dozen students have attempted suicide during Clay’s tenure at Karr. Others have post-traumatic stress from Katrina, which intensifies whenever there’s a storm warning. There are kids whose teeth are rotting in their mouths because they’ve never been to the dentist.
The charter model has given Karr’s administrators flexibility to address these issues creatively, establishing what they call a “wrap-around service environment.”