Back in 2005, I worked on staff at Teach For America - Greater New Orleans supporting dozens of our teachers in public schools across the city. On August 30th, the day after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I wrote an email to my corps members that concluded with the following:
“Even though things now seem dire for the city and its people, what we have is actually a tremendous opportunity to have an even more profound and long-lasting impact as we work to help rebuild the community in the months to come…As long as we continue to support each other and reach out to each other, as you have been doing all along, our finest hour is yet to come.”
To be honest, when I wrote those words I was simply trying to raise my corps members’ spirits (as well as my own) in the face of increasingly grim news coming out of the Big Easy. Now, ten years later, I realize it was a prophetic statement of sorts, because our finest hour was, indeed, yet to come.
In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, our corps members and alumni fanned out across the Gulf South to respond to the disaster. I landed in Houston along with more than 30 corps members and alums to establish New Orleans West College Prep, a K-8 charter school launched in partnership with KIPP that served over 350 low-income students evacuated from New Orleans. Dozens of other corps members went to staff FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers across Louisiana, as well as schools in Jefferson and St. John the Baptist parishes that saw huge influxes of students displaced by the storm.
In the intervening decade, TFA corps members and alumni have played – and continue to play – leading roles in both rebuilding and improving the city’s schools. Today, there are over 950 alumni in Greater New Orleans alone, a number that includes approximately 400 teachers, 110 school administrators, and 34 principals (who together lead nearly 40% of the city’s open-enrollment public schools). Education leaders such as State Superintendent John White, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Kira Orange Jones, and Orleans Parish School Board member Sarah Usdin all got their start with Teach For America. Moreover, our alumni are behind many of the organizations supporting the city’s public education reforms, such as New Schools For New Orleans, Leading Educators, Kickboard, and the Youth Empowerment Project.
Thanks to the collective efforts of Teach For America alumni and thousands of educators and community members, the children of New Orleans are receiving a better education today than they ever have before. Test scores and high school graduation rates have risen dramatically since 2005. For the first time, students with special needs and African-American young men in New Orleans are now graduating at a higher rate than their peers across Louisiana. As Doug Harris, the author of a landmark study on the impact of New Orleans’ school reforms, stated:
“For New Orleans, the news on average student outcomes is quite positive by just about any measure…We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.”
As someone who taught in New Orleans’ dismal pre-Katrina public schools, it’s been gratifying to witness the transformation of the city’s education system. However, in spite of these successes (or more accurately, because of them), education reform opponents have increasingly turned their attacks toward Teach For America, the organization that has produced many of the individuals who are improving outcomes for low-income children of color in this city. After all, it’s easier to attack Teach For America than show how preserving the status quo has led to increased opportunities for these children – in short, because it hasn’t.
Critics like Diane Ravitch and her friend Kristen Buras, who she regularly features on her blog, have made the baseless claim that policymakers conspired to fire the city’s veteran teachers after Katrina and replace them with Teach For America corps members. Others simply engage in wholesale character assassination, portraying TFA corps members and alums as little more than culturally insensitive, white outsiders who are unable to connect with students or their families, in spite of Teach For America’s emphasis on the importance of teacher-family and teacher-community relationships. Sadly, the state’s two main teachers unions, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and Louisiana Association of Educators, have also joined the smear campaign by adopting the anti-TFA rhetoric.
For the hundreds of TFA alumni who call New Orleans home and work to expand the life opportunities of our city’s children, the response of Teach For America to these attacks has been disappointing. As a result, we alums in New Orleans have recently taken it upon ourselves to come together to begin to change the prevailing narrative about Teach For America and its role in the city. And that’s why so many of us are excited that Corps Knowledge is being launched to fight back against critics, counter their misinformation, and bring attention to the life-changing work TFA is doing in New Orleans and across the country.
We rose to the challenges we faced after Hurricane Katrina and Teach For America has gone on to play a leading role in the rebirth of New Orleans. We see the positive impact we’ve had on our city and its children every day - and we should certainly never apologize for it.
This is a guest post by Peter Cook, former manager of teacher leadership development for Teach For America—New Orleans.