This week marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. For non-residents of Louisiana, the news of the Hurricane was a dark cloud over their lives for a few days, which then moved on as the initial disaster passed out of the news. For others, the effects of the disaster remain present.
But what was a terrible situation for the residents of New Orleans is now being recognized as a blessing for its education system. According to Douglas Harris, a researcher for Education Next, before Katrina “Orleans Parish public schools ranked 67th out of 68 Louisiana districts in math and reading test scores. The graduation rate was 56 percent, at least 10 percentage points below the state average.”
Katrina gave New Orleans a clean slate to start over and try to improve their schools. Instead of going with the traditional district model again, the city decided to increase the number of charter schools, which are free from many of the usual district constraints. Before Katrina, only 3% of New Orleans’ student population attended a charter school. In 2007, 56% attended a charter school with that number swelling to 71% in 2010. By December of 2014, 90% of New Orleans students attended charters.
Switching New Orleans from a traditional public to a charter-dominated district apparently has enabled its students to make great academic gains, nearly catching up to the state average in achievement.
The above chart compares the achievement scores for New Orleans students before and after Katrina with the scores of students in other districts who were also hit by the Hurricane. In 2012, New Orleans students surpassed the achievement of the comparison group. Although the New Orleans district has not quite reached the state average (measured by zero on the chart), the steady gains of the past several years suggest that such a feat could be accomplished in the near future.
For an up close and personal look at how Katrina and the subsequent new school system influenced the lives of students, check out the video below. In the words of one student, “Honestly, without Hurricane Katrina, I don’t think I would be the same person because the hardships actually helped mold me into the young lady that I am now.”