New Orleans Teachers and Students Wrestle With Racial Tension

Students protest the absence of African-American teachers, many of whom were fired after Hurricane Katrina.

Students at a fundraiser for Liberation Academy in New Orleans March 14, 2014. Some of the students who led protests over the district’s Collegiate Academy charter schools withdrew from those schools and enrolled in Liberation Academy, founded by parents and local activists.

Jordan Flaherty

Every year hundreds of young, idealistic recent college graduates flood into New Orleans to teach at the city’s public schools. But in a school system where the vast majority of students are African American, the mostly white influx of new teachers has brought complaints of racism and cultural insensitivity, and helped birth a new student-led protest movement.

African Americans are about 60 percent of New Orleans’ population (down from 67 percent before Hurricane Katrina) but make up 88 percent of the city’s public school system. White students are clustered at a handful of high-performing schools, and other ethnicities make up only small portions of the system, so most schools are almost entirely African American. Before Hurricane Katrina, most teachers were black women, mostly from New Orleans and often from the neighborhoods of the schools in which they worked.

But in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the entire staff of the school system—about 7,000 teachers and other employees—was laid off, their contract was ignored and their union was powerless to help. Katrena Ndang, who worked for 17 years as a teacher in New Orleans, found out she’d been fired while watching the news after being evacuated. “Even though we had given them forwarding addresses, they never sent us notice,” she says.

This January the Louisiana Court of Appeal affirmed an earlier ruling that found the teachers were wrongly terminated. But the school system, now almost entirely charter, looks very different from the one from which the teachers were dismissed. And one of the major changes was the entry of thousands of new teachers, many drawn from elite colleges and universities.

For nearly a decade, New Orleans has been one of Teach for America’s main sites. The organization sends about 400 teachers to the district per year, while 32 of TFA’s alumni are school leaders in New Orleans, and many others are designing curricula and shaping city and state policy. Before 2011, only 5 percent of these new teachers were African American. That number has gone up to 15 percent, with 31 percent of teachers overall now of color, according to local TFA spokesman Chris Bertelli.

Like many veteran teachers, Ndang was unable to find a job in the new system. The pre-Katrina system was plagued with problems, and many new charter principals saw veteran teachers as part of the problem. “Many of the new school leaders came in with the attitude that they were coming in to change the culture,” she says. “So whatever was there before, including the old teachers, you don’t want it to be there.”

Many of the new school leaders came in with the attitude that they were coming in to change the culture.

As the teachers are pushed out, many of their former students complain that they have lost good teachers and role models. A wave of student-led protests began in October 2012, when students at one high school marched in protest over the firing of veteran teachers. Jonshell Johnson, 16, helped organize the protests through a group called United Students of New Orleans. “Most teachers that were being fired, we had built strong relationships with. They knew our parents,” she says. “We asked them what’s wrong, and they said they were being pushed out. We said, ‘If they’re hurting you, they’re hurting us.’”

Jonshell remembers one particular veteran teacher as being “really interactive and passionate.” But this teacher was replaced with a 24-year-old white teacher whom students found difficult to relate to. “Students couldn’t understand her vernacular,” says Johnson. “She talked like she was still in college.”