Sixteen Years after Katrina, New Orleans’ Parents Are Still Demanding a Voice

Picture of Ashana Bigard

Ashana Bigard

Picture of Ashana Bigard

Sometimes I feel like a broken record when it comes to the schools in New Orleans. Sixteen years after Hurricane Katrina almost destroyed my hometown, and the city’s charter school experiment started, I’m still out here making the same demands. We need schools that meet the needs of and care for the children of this city. We need professionally trained teachers who look like the children they’re teaching. Our children deserve art, music and critical multicultural pedagogy that prepares kids for the world they’re stepping into. And we deserve counselors to help kids address the trauma they’ve lived through. And we deserve schools that don’t criminalize our children for being poor.

New Orleans’ is held up as a model by education reform advocates, but I refer to what we have here as ‘pretend choice.’ Our all charter system was sold to parents and the community as one that would give us choices and options, but at times it seems like we have fewer options than we had before Katrina. 

Take the refusal to provide parents with a virtual learning option during this school year. For months, parents have been signing petitions, holding press conferences and showing up at the school board to demand a virtual option. And we’ve gotten nowhere.The official reason is that our students experienced learning loss during the pandemic. In fact, the Superintendent of New Orleans Public Schools claims that the city will lose “a generation of students” if virtual learning continues. I see it differently. To me this looks like the same pattern we’ve seen since Katrina as education officials ignore, not just the demands of the community, but the realities that we live with.

Children in New Orleans have some of the highest rates of asthma and allergies in the country, meaning that they have a higher risk of getting, spreading, and being impacted by COVID. This is also a city filled with front-line workers. They’re the grocery store workers and janitors, garbage men and window cleaners who keep New Orleans’ tourist economy going. They’re also parents, many of them living in multi-generational homes—the only way they can afford to live in a city with skyrocketing rents. 

And because our all charter school system requires moving kids all over the city on school buses, you have kids being exposed to and exposing their families to COVID. What about safety precautions on the buses? As is so often the case with our decentralized system, no one is in charge or accountable; neither city hall nor the school district has oversight of school bus safety. In fact, when a local news station did an investigation, they found that only 16% of the more than 700 buses that transport our kids are even licensed.

The current policy is that parents or guardians can request a virtual option if they submit an official form that’s been completed by a medical professional. But the form is only in English, which leaves out our large community of undocumented students. Then there’s the problem that families without health insurance may not have a medical professional to go to. Even if families are able to navigate this process, it’s still up to the individual charter school to decide whether or not to honor the request. One parent at our press conference told the story of trying to get a virtual option for her children because their grandmother lives with them and is going through chemo for pancreatic cancer. The request was turned down because the grandmother isn’t a primary caregiver.

After Hurricane Ida shut down the schools in September, I started pushing for the sorts of services that I knew our traumatized kids would need when they returned: emotional support, music and art therapy—the same things we needed so badly after Katrina. I want our schools to make a sincere effort to understand what our children have just been through. Did they have to stay in a dark smelly house for days? Are they terrified that, in a hurricane city, it’s only a matter of time before this happens again? Don’t go back to just pretending everything is OK. 

I’ve never stopped advocating for the children of this city and I never will. I can’t. I have two kids in this system. Yet it’s painful that after all of this time my basic demand—that this city and its schools recognize our needs and humanity—is still unheard. How hard is it for us to care for each other? Hear the parents and the children of this city. That’s all I’m asking. 

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