New Research Sheds Light On Fates Of Thousands Of New Orleans Teachers Fired After Hurricane Katrina

Jun 18, 2015

After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, all 7,500 employees of the New Orleans school system were fired. That led to an unprecedented diaspora of schoolteachers. New research suggests that only a small fraction of them continue to teach in the city’s schools today.

As the 10th anniversary of Katrina approaches, we talked with two veteran educators: One who decided to stay, the other to go.

When Katrina hit, Nolan Grady had taught math for more than 30 years.

In 1973, when he was fresh out of college, the central office sent Grady to O. Perry Walker High School. Once there, he encountered a sea of white faces. At the time, schools were required to desegregate both students and staffs. Walker’s principal already had a black teacher. And one was all that he wanted.

“He said, ‘I’m going to call central office and tell them I don’t need you,’” Grady recalled.  

But when the lone black teacher left, Grady was summoned back.

“He needed a black teacher. And so I came back over here and I’ve been at Walker ever since.”Over the years, white students and teachers fled the public schools, and Walker became a very different place. Public schools became a major employer of the city’s growing black middle class. They came to enroll almost entirely black students.

But Katrina changed things. Grady evacuated with his mother to Dallas. Just a couple months after the storm, he heard a few schools would soon re-open. There might be a position for him. So he and his mother packed up the car and headed back home.

“Housing was real tight,” he said. “You could hardly find an apartment or a house to rent.”

Or, it turned out, a job. Shortly after Grady returned that fall, Walker was turned into a charter school. If he hoped to resume teaching, Grady would have to reapply. “So it was just like, ‘This is Nolan Grady, boom. Nobody knows anything about him at all. He hasn’t been teaching. And he has no job and we want to know why he wants to work for us.’”

But Grady got along well with Walker’s new principal. She told him the city’s long-struggling schools needed to do better.

“She said, ‘Grady, I’m asking you, will you come along on this journey with me and help me do what we should have done for our kids prior to Katrina?’”  

Grady, now in his 60s, said yes.

“I like the idea that we have our own autonomy as an individual school,” he said.

At Walker, which after a merger is now Landry-Walker, most of the students are still non-white and low-income. They describe Grady as tough, dedicated, and very funny.

“That man is smart,” says student Damion Pickett. “He knows what he’s doing. He knows how to teach. He does it right. He’s the best.” Pickett says Grady’s decades of experience and deep knowledge of New Orleans help him connect with students.

“I’m a product of the public schools,” said Grady. “I understand the neighborhoods where they come from.  

Grady likes the autonomy of charter schools. But he worries not enough of their new teachers share common roots with the kids. It’s that connection that keeps him coming to work every day.

“I feel like I still have a few good years left in me and the journey is not complete,” he said. “I believe we’re half way. But we still have a long ways to go.

Grady teaches at a school with dozens of veteran, black educators. At many New Orleans schools, they are a much smaller group.

Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance has been studying teacher demographics. They’ve found that of the 4,600 teachers who taught in the public schools before Katrina, just 20 percent remain. Grady, in other words, is one of a dwindling number of grey haired teachers in the city’s schools. Some have died. Others never returned to New Orleans. And some struggled to get rehired in the city’s new education landscape.

“We’ve seen fresh blood in the classroom with new faces,” says Luis Miron, who directs the Institute for Quality and Equity in Education at Loyola University. He adds: “There’s been significant unintended negative consequences on black educators, especially veteran teachers.”

Basically, it’s harder for them to get a job. As for the impact on students, it’s difficult to quantify. Students may benefit from the new energy and ideas, but they’ve lost teachers who look like them, and come from a similar background. Many of those who opened new charter schools after Katrina were white, young, and not from New Orleans. The percentage of black teachers dropped from about 71 percent in 2005 to just under 50 percent last year, according to Tulane’s new data. Some of these shifts appear to be leveling off. Teach For America, for instance, is trying to recruit more non-white teachers.

When it comes to experience, over the same time period, the percentage of teachers with more than 20 years in the classroom fell from 37 percent to 15 percent.

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When Katrina struck, Cherice Harrison-Nelson had been teaching for close to 25 years. Exiled in Houston, and then a New Orleans suburb, she didn’t think too much about the mass firing.

“I didn’t really think it was the end,” she said. “I was so busy trying to survive.”

Harrison-Nelson is not just an educator; she’s a cultural leader. She is a Mardi Gras Indian big queen and the daughter of now deceased Donald Harrison, a legendary big chief. The Mardi Gras Indians spend months sewing elaborate beaded suits -- an homage to Native Americans, who assisted blacks during slavery. Before Katrina, Harrison-Nelson used the Indians in lessons for gifted students at Oretha Castle Elementary, among other roles.

“They created their own songs, chants,” she said. “They learned all about sewing, what had to happen in a suit.”

Harrison-Nelson tried to teach in New Orleans after Katrina. She lasted briefly at what she calls a poorly run middle school. But she tore a rotator cuff when a child pulled a chair out from under her. She never went back. First there was Katrina. Then the mass firing. The chaos of reopening schools. The injury. Then, four years ago, she found out she had cancer. It was simply too much.

“I am a cancer survivor and I have to have to have a life.”

Over the years, charter schools have flourished, including some where most teachers are under the age of 35. Harrison-Nelson grew concerned teachers weren’t given enough creative freedom. And she also felt that teachers over a certain age simply weren’t welcome.

“Over 50, probably over 40,” she said.

So Harrison-Nelson retired just before the age of 50. She now lives on $1,400 a month.

She still works with children, but mostly as a volunteer. In January, she helped organize a children’s MLK Day event at the city’s McKenna Museum of African American Art. After singing a staid rendition of happy birthday to the civil rights leader, she and her son encouraged the kids to try it the Mardi Gras Indian way. The children received crowns, books, and goodie bags. And they learned songs from the civil rights movement.

Harrison-Nelson expected to teach much longer. But she has no regrets about her new path.  

For veteran teachers, the new charter schools have been a mixed bag: Some have found hope, others only frustration. Meanwhile, every year, New Orleans schools gain a fresh crop of energetic young teachers. And they lose a little more of the wisdom that comes from decades of experience.

Mallory Falk provided reporting assistance and technical production for this piece. This story was done in collaboration with The Teacher Project, an education reporting initiative at Columbia Journalism School.