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Answering the call…

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The nation will never forget watching the levees break, the fear and pain on the faces of the people trapped, the destruction, countless lives lost too soon. Ten years ago to the date, a storm, an act of God, broke down almost every system and structure that was supposed to keep the great people of New Orleans safe.

There is no question that those systems and structures were severely flawed and broken before the storm. But one in particular – the traditional public schools – literally had tens of thousands of students falling through the cracks. Before the storm, every effort to bring substantive reform to education was fought and defeated by special interests. At the time, CER was intricately involved with the dozen or so folks locally trying to bring about substantive change.

When news of Hurricane Katrina hit, we were all glued to our televisions in horror, outraged that Americans were suffering because of it. There’s a lot of speculation as to the reasons why – flawed government, brutally failed efforts to evacuate – the list goes on.

On August 29, 2005 I made a phone call. What about the hundreds of families of the dozen or so charter schools we personally knew and worked with – were they safe? Dr. James (Jim) Geiser, the former director of Louisiana Charter School Association, now Senior Program Consultant at University of Georgia, answered the call!

Jim and several charter leaders and families made it to Baton Rouge. If my memory serves me right, a charter operator in Louisiana’s state capital gave them refuge.

I’ll never forget Jim’s words, “It’s all gone… You can’t even imagine the destruction. We’re desperately trying to find students and their families to make sure they are safe.”

I could hear the pain in his voice while he was multitasking to figure out accommodations for those seeking a place to lay their heads that night.

It was the next statement out of Jim’s pained heart that very few know about, but set in motion the transformation and reformation of schooling in the Big Easy that so many celebrate today [paraphrased]:

“School has started, we have to do something. These children can’t wait, and we need to bring them a sense of stability… They’ll lose years of learning, our city can’t survive without our future… can CER help us get trailers, educators down here, or online?… Can the business community help?… I KNOW the charters can do this quickly but they’ll need cover/new laws… What about all the kids spread out across the country now?… What can we do to make sure they are getting a great education?”

Answering that call wasn’t easy, it took a village. Charter schools in California, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Florida, and countless of other states were offering any open seats they had to evacuated students. A Los Angeles school had ten spots open in 3 different grades, while in Florida, there were 1,500 seats available across 23 schools.  Mike Feinberg, co-founder of KIPP, was fought with resistance to open a school in New Orleans before the storm. Post-storm, they opened KIPP New Orleans West College Prep in Houston for all the displaced families.

Two amazing and unsung heros, Tom and Carolyn Crosby, got to work right away. Despite extreme obstacles – not because of Katrina but because of the laws in place -their school, the International School of Louisiana, was the first to open on October 31, just 63 days after the storm, and four weeks before any traditional public school.

At CER we answered thousands of calls from families displaced from the storm, and found them opportunities to not let their children’s thirst for knowledge and learning be stunted as the adults and systems tried to figure it out. CER also became relentless in leveraging its network of reformers and leaders to not only bring some sense of stability back to New Orleans families, but rethink, reshape and reform business as usual.

CER recognized its policy acumen could help, so we put pressure on the U.S. Department of Education, state governments and municipalities to send relief. Thousands of pages of emails and information in our archives document efforts to allow the McKinny-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to apply to all displaced children wherever they ended up, and weigh in substantially to create the Recovery School District. The resistance, even among would-be friends was astounding.

The confabs of organizations operating today supporting school choice, opening or funding schools, would never have been possible without the dedicated, yet controversial, work of people like Jim Geiser and The Crosby’s supported by CER to get policy in place.

St Joan of Arc LA gradTen years later, we remain a quiet, but persistent advisor. That is intentional. People locally, need to drive REAL change and they have. There are still limitations to Louisiana’s choice programs that this die-hard reformer would like to see codified in law.

Ten years later I can rest a bit easier knowing 100 percent that parent choice and dedicated leaders transformed New Orleans from the ground up. But that still doesn’t mean I’ll sleep well. High school graduation rates have jumped by ten percent, and college entry rates by 14, but there’s still so much work to do and so much to defend. There’s been a lot of investment of time, money, and policy work in New Orleans since the storm to give parents a voice and a choice. There have also been a lot of attempts to break it down.

Families want the freedom to choose, and they surely don’t need a hurricane to make it happen. It’s time we learn from New Orleans and answer their call all across our great country.

Kara Kerwin
President

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