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Rocky Start for Schoolchildren

By Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Clearing rocks in the school yard

"I don't think they expected kids from this community to go to high school," said Oscar Brown, a graduate of Carver High School. When the City of New Orleans produced its "master plan" to raise the hurricane-razed city into the 21st century, it entirely ignored the Ninth Ward – the largest of the City's 17 wards – precluding the devastated community from receiving any federal rebuilding funds. When the school district prepared its "master plan," it omitted rebuilding the one high school in the Ninth Ward – leaving 3,000 high school students languishing. "But they do that all the time," said Brown matter-of-factly.

The community fought back and now the high school will be rebuilt – eventually. But today, three and a half years after the levees broke, children are still being taught in temporary trailers.

New Orleans was broken long before the levees collapsed. Seventy percent of adults in Orleans Parrish did not read at a high school level, according to Patrice Abiodun, executive director of the Lindy Boggs National Center for Literacy, complicating people's ability to fill out the forms for government relief. Louisiana had been "taking public schools under control even before the storm," creating recovery schools Abiodun called "dumping grounds" for children with the greatest needs.

Children play in unsafe yard

Our delegation visited one of those "recovery schools": Carver Elementary School, where we cleared rocks from the bleak schoolyard. Cheryl Warren, the new principal for the 580 kindergarteners through eighth graders, clasped her hands together and praised the Lord in thanks for our rock-clearing. One teacher was out on leave after tearing a ligament in her knee when she fell on the rocky landscape. Another teacher was out after being hit in the head by a student-hurled rock. "The little kids fall on the rocks and hurt their knees and elbows," the principal lamented.

How much longer would the students be in this stark and unsafe setting? "They haven't broken ground for this [new] school at all," Warren shrugs her shoulders.

Pre-Katrina, there were nearly 7400 public housing units in the Ninth Ward, including the country's second largest development. "Over 75% of African Americans were poor," said Abiodun of the literacy center. "It was concentrated poverty."

TP students (Anna Lee, Steve Mason and Debra Neal) clear rocks from schoolyard

Concentrated poverty that would have been perpetuated into another generation had the community not organized and fought back. Today, community leaders rejoice at the heightened civic engagement. But it's a slow process made slower still by local government graft, a community whose members still can't emotionally or economically afford to return and a country that has moved on to other crises. Those who have returned to the Ninth Ward spend their days rocking both the institutional and actual boulders.

Kelly Hayes-Raitt is a Santa Monica (CA)-based author writing a book about refugees. Her recent travels have taken her to Syria, the Philippines, Lebanon and Iraq. She blogs at