Billie Dolce’s memories of her final day as a teacher at Colton Middle School haunt her.
With Hurricane Katrina headed toward New Orleans, Dolce pleaded with her classroom aide, Gertrude Hackett, to flee the city and seek refuge with out-of-town relatives.
“Ms. Hackett, if they say evacuate, evacuate. Don’t stay here by yourself,” Dolce recalls telling her. “She said, ‘I won’t, Ms. Dolce, I won’t.’ ”
Hackett never made it out.
First responders found the 70-year-old submerged in water at the wheel of her car, her luggage packed in the trunk.
It was the first funeral Dolce attended after the storm.
But it wouldn’t be the last.
She saw former colleagues, parents, and students buried, casualties of the catastrophic storm and levee breaches that flooded the city.
“People’s hearts were broken,” Dolce says. “All this time later, some people still can’t stand when it rains hard and the wind blows.”
A decade later, the pain and symbolism are as profound for Dolce as they were in the storm’s fresh wake.
“Death sticks out to me,” the former special education teacher says. “Death from the storm, death of a school system, death of my career.”
Just five months after floodwaters engulfed her home in New Orleans East, Dolce, living in Dallas, got walloped again. She was fired. After more than 30 years of teaching, she, along with almost every one of the 7,000 employees of the New Orleans public schools, was dismissed.
Dolce does not forget. She does not forgive, either, not least of all because she has never received an apology. Resentment remains, she says, because she lost her job under the pretense that she failed her students.
“I resent the nation being told we weren’t good enough. You’re going to tell me I was a bad teacher, that we were not here to educate children?” Dolce says, the frustration in her voice rising. “Oh, hell no. You’re not going to say that to me and you’re not going to say that to the majority of the teachers. [That’s] a lie.”
Dolce taught at the former Colton Middle in the city’s Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. A community art center in the storm’s aftermath, the campus now houses a Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, charter school.
For thousands of teachers like Dolce, the decision to lay off educators was a financial blow and a deep insult to one of the pillars of the city’s black middle class. The mass firings—dealt in large measure to African-American women—continue to infuse the debate over the future of public education in New Orleans with a particular bitterness.
When she was let go from the school system, Dolce, now 63, took a reduced set of retirement benefits and was able to get health-insurance coverage through her husband’s employer. But she has not found peace with what happened. Were it not for being fired, she’d still be teaching. Others didn’t fare as well.
End of the Line?
Last spring, a long and winding legal battle over the teachers’ lost jobs reached its likely end. After several years of wins and losses in the judicial system, the U.S. Supreme Court declined an appeal on behalf of the fired New Orleans teachers.
The appeal stemmed from a class action brought on behalf of the fired educators by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.
Some separate lawsuits involving the dismissed teachers’ rights brought by the United Teachers of New Orleans were settled, but the class action continued on. It met some success in lower state courts where judges ruled that there had been due process violations and a failure to follow a state law that requires terminated teachers be placed on a two-year recall list.
“It was a moral victory,” says Katrena Ndang, who taught in New Orleans for 17 years. “I remember telling people that they better enjoy it while they could.”
Those wins carried enormous symbolic weight, even if it was unlikely to pay off monetarily .
“It wasn’t about that darn suit and trying to get any money,” Dolce says. “We just wanted an apology.”
Indeed, the victory was short-lived. Last fall, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled against the teachers and dismissed their case. The court held that local education officials had not broken the law when they did not give the teachers priority consideration for rehiring. The court also reasoned that the chance that any other teachers would actually be rehired appeared remote.
In their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the dismissed teachers argued that the local Orleans Parish school board—the elected body that governed all schools in the district before the storm—and various state defendants “violated well-settled constitutional law regarding … due process rights of tenured public school employees.”
The teachers “here had a reasonable expectation of resuming their pre-Katrina employment positions upon their return to New Orleans,” the appeal said.
The Supreme Court handed down its denial on May 18.
Not all the city’s teachers ended up on the outside looking in.
Hundreds did land jobs at the small number of high-performing schools that the local school board still controlled. And some charter schools in the city made hiring veterans a high priority.
‘Rhetoric of School Failure’
Proponents of the city’s new system of charter schools, which operate without the constraints of adhering to a union contract, point to steadily rising test scores and a narrowing achievement gap as evidence they’ve changed the teaching and learning culture.
But some scholars and education activists see a much darker side to the city’s radical reshaping of public schooling, especially for New Orleans’ majority-black community.
When Hurricane Katrina hit, the city had 4,600 teachers—nearly 60 percent of them black women. Overall, 71 percent of the city’s teaching corps at the time was black, according to data from Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance. But those numbers have plummeted since the storm. Now, 45 percent of the city’s 1,300 public school teachers are white, and about 49 percent are black, per the ERA.
Black children, however, represent almost 90 percent of the city’s public school system enrollment, with white students mostly clustered at a handful of high-performing schools.
That upheaval to the educator workforce marks the most significant loss of black teaching talent since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling, says Adrienne Dixson, a former New Orleans teacher on sabbatical from the University of Illinois where she is an associate professor of education policy, organization, and leadership. In the wake of the Brown decision, the mass firings of black teachers decimated the black teaching force, helping to set the stage for decades of poor performance by black students, says Dixson, who is currently working for Teach For America as the vice president for culturally relevant pedagogy.
That seminal court decision led to mass dismissals and displacement of black school administrators and teachers across the country as local districts moved to integrate students and schools. Many black communities also lost control of the schools that had served their children.
Echoes of that same scenario have reverberated in New Orleans, Dixson argues.
“The same kind of rhetoric prevailed … the rhetoric of deficiency … the rhetoric of school failure,” Dixson says. “You would have to believe that black women failed black children.”
At a Loss
In New Orleans, a decade later, schools remain segregated. And with most children attending schools that are not in their neighborhoods, they are no longer the community pillars they once were. In that sense, the city’s black residents had one of their most important social institutions stripped away.
But the post-Katrina changes to New Orleans schools have helped black students, says Leslie Jacobs, a former member of the Orleans Parish school board and the Louisiana state school board, and one of the most outspoken advocates for radical change to the city’s schools.
She cites improvements in state test results and student ACT scores and graduation rates as proof.
“Are things better? If you’re measuring by the student outcomes in the classroom, the gains are irrefutable. It’s not even comparable,” says Jacobs, the founder of Educate Now!, a nonprofit dedicated to continuing the broad, post-Katrina reforms.
“It is very appropriate for teachers to say, ‘I was treated unfairly.’ They were,” Jacobs says. “It is a very different statement to say, ‘Ten years later, things are no better.’ ”
Jacobs and her organization have worked to help replenish the city’s teaching and principal corps since Hurricane Katrina.
Those most intimately involved in making the decision to fire teachers 10 years ago say it largely boiled down to money. They knew the human costs would be gut-wrenching.
But with an expired teachers’ union contract and the school district’s own financial struggles at the time, the Orleans Parish school board had no means to stop the state takeover of most of the city’s schools or the massive loss of jobs, former board member Lourdes Moran says.
“We lost some very good teachers,” Moran says, “but no one was guaranteed anything.”
Dixson, though, says the language used to explain the terminations dehumanized the educators.
“They termed it a loss of human capital,” Dixson says. “You had people who dedicated their lives to teaching.”
But the status quo in New Orleans came with its own human cost: some of the lowest-performing public schools in the United States.
Dolce understood the district’s need to downsize. Between October 2004, a year before the storm, there were nearly 66,000 students in the system. By October 2006, a year after the storm, the district’s headcount had not even recovered to 30,000. A decade later, the number of public school students in New Orleans hasn’t returned to prestorm levels.
Still, Dolce points out, just as with students, not every teacher would have returned. In her view, there should have been a more deliberative process for hiring back teachers based on seniority and other factors.
Other perceived injustices also were heaped on teachers after the storm.
Former teachers who sought to get jobs in the now state-run schools would have to take a test, even as the system was scrambling to hire enough qualified teachers. Dolce and Ndang were among the thousands who refused.
“I thought it was degrading,” Ndang says.
A Cold Welcome Back
In the days before the storm struck, Ndang, a social studies teacher at Alfred Lawless High School, endured good-natured ribbing from colleagues: She shared the same first name with the impending hurricane, if not the same spelling.
Several friends posted a sign near the school entryway that read: “Katrena’s Coming.” They made light of what they assumed would be just another passing storm. Within days, they would all realize it was no laughing matter.
“I said, ‘Don’t play with me. I’m going to come in and blow y’all houses down,’ ” Ndang recalls.
“I will never say that again.”
Much like Dolce, Ndang found out she’d been fired while watching television news after relocating to Dallas, where her daughter lived. She had been spending her days volunteering in her grandchildren’s classrooms, awaiting word on when she could get back to her students at Lawless and her home in New Orlean’s Gentilly neighborhood.
The way New Orleans treated its teachers was an anomaly. Most educators in the parishes surrounding the city were able to return to their jobs after the storm, says Willie Zanders Sr., the lead attorney for the workers in the class action.
Ndang returned after the storm, working briefly as a tutor and part-time teacher at McMain High School, one of the few schools still run by the Orleans Parish school board. But she decided to retire early, taking reduced benefits rather than reapplying for a job with the state-run Recovery School District
“Nobody was clamoring to give me a job,” she says. “Everywhere else in the city, they brought their people back, no matter where you worked. For me, it was like the school system telling me I didn’t matter. They wanted anybody but the teachers who were there before.”
Race and Class Are ‘Everything’
Hundreds of recent college graduates stream into New Orleans each fall to teach in the city’s public schools. In the early 1990s, Dixson was among them, part of one of the early Teach For America cohorts.
Before the storm, most of the city’s teachers were not only black, they were also born and raised in New Orleans or the surrounding parishes. They often lived in the neighborhoods where they taught, Dixson says. Now, in a school system where most students are black, the influx of new, mostly white, middle-class teachers has brought complaints of racism and cultural insensitivity.
“In New Orleans, race and class are a factor in everything,” says Howard Fuller, a supporter of charter schools and other school choice reforms and the director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
“The issue going forward is going to be: ‘Where are we going to find those teachers?’ ”
“In too many places in this country, the strategy for ed. reform is shutting down black schools, firing black teachers, and I just don’t see that as the strategy for going forward, ” he says.
Teach For America, which has become one of the city’s largest suppliers of educators over the past decade, is working to attract more minority candidates to the classroom. Still, among the city’s former educators, resentment runs deep for the organization, which primarily recruits recent college graduates to teach in low-performing schools.
Dixson doesn’t recall encountering hostility during her days as a TFA instructor in the early 1990s, when she and two TFA colleagues taught at the former Charles E. Gayarre School in the city’s St. Roch neighborhood.
“After Katrina, they weren’t integrated into schools, they were the entire faculty of schools,” Dixson says of TFA teachers. “I don’t know if the anger should be directed at them, but I understand.”
Time in the profession has also plummeted in the post-Katrina years. Before the storm, 37 percent of the city’s public school teachers had 20 or more years in the classroom. That’s now 15 percent, according to the Education Research Alliance.
“Veteran teachers felt like they couldn’t get a fair shake,” Dixson says. “It’s unfortunate.”
As Ndang sees it now, teachers like her took the fall for the spectacular failures of the old New Orleans’ school board, notorious for corruption and legal troubles that had marred the school system’s reputation well before the storm.
Now, as Ndang works as a community organizer and serves as the education chairwoman of the city’s NAACP chapter, she’s trying to reverse some of the change that Katrina forced on her city. Her views on the storm—that shares her name and upended her life—have also changed. “It was strong,” Ndang said. “I’m strong.”
Every August, Dolce pulls out keepsakes from her 31 years at Colton Middle. The weathered class roster she’s held onto, along with student phone lists and photos, serve as bitter reminders of what once was.
“I jumped rope with my class, I visited children’s homes in the projects and didn’t fear. I went to their birthday parties, I went to their funerals, I went to their weddings,” Dolce says.
When she visited Colton eight months after the hurricane, she found herself wandering through a space that was almost unrecognizable. The heat was stifling. The stench of spoiled food was overpowering. And spray-painted graffiti sullied the hallways.
The school had escaped the worst from the storm, but it still bore little resemblance to the place she knew.
Vandals had pried open a vault in the principal’s office, smashed a vending machine in the teachers’ lounge, and transformed her classroom into a dumping ground.
To avoid stepping in animal feces, she laid a trail of ditto paper on the ground as she made her way around the room.
But her favorite sweater, the one she wore on rare chilly New Orleans days, still hung from the back of her chair.
She broke down in tears.
“I said, ‘What am I going to do?’ ” Dolce recalls. “My friend told me, ‘Billie, just walk away. Just walk away.’ ”
She pressed on, salvaging mementos for herself and friends.
As she left the building with three boxes, Dolce turned around, taking one last look. “Well, Colton you’ve been good to me. I’m going to miss you.”