Was It Worth It?


August 24, 2015

Guest blog post by Peter Cook


New Orleans, LA--Aerial views of damage caused from Hurricane Katrina the day after the hurricane hit August 30, 2005. Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA
New Orleans, LA–Aerial views of damage caused from Hurricane Katrina the day after the hurricane hit August 30, 2005.
Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA


I must admit, I can’t help but feel a bit embarrassed whenever someone asks me about my Hurricane Katrina story.

No, I tell them, I didn’t find myself trapped in the city as the floodwaters rose. And no, I didn’t spend 18 hours in the evacuation traffic that extended in all directions from the Big Easy.

As fate would have it, I was on vacation during that week leading up to the storm. I was scheduled to fly back to New Orleans on the morning of Monday, August 29th, 2005.

I guess it goes without saying that I never got on that flight – in fact, I didn’t make it back home until well into October. Instead, I spent a solid three days glued to the television during that first week of the disaster, but it wasn’t until later that I realized the reason why: I was searching for my students. Every time the 24-hour news cameras panned across the crowds at the Superdome, the Convention Center, the Astrodome, and Red Cross shelters across the South, I was looking for the faces of the students I had come to know and care about.

When I first moved to New Orleans three years before, I quickly realized that the laissez les bons temps rouler image the city projects to the world masked some very troubling realities: a moribund economy, a brain drain, a sky-high murder rate, rampant crime, and an almost obscene socio-economic divide between the affluent and the poor. But rather than come to grips with the city’s myriad problems, New Orleanians instead opted to do what we’ve always done best – ignored our troubles and celebrated life.

However, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, we were confronted with images of our fellow New Orleanians – our neighbors, friends, co-workers, students, our people – all but abandoned. We could no longer look the other way. While we loudly and rightly asserted that the Corps of Engineers and FEMA were to blame for their plight, deep down we also knew that those left behind in our inundated city were there because they were poor. They were part of a large underclass in New Orleans that was, to a significant extent, created and sustained by a dismal public education system that we had failed to muster the attention, resources, and moral courage to fix.

It was this reckoning that led many of us in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to promise: Never again. We would rebuild our great city, but not a school system that had marginalized these children and their families for so long.

In the intervening ten years, we’ve taken a path that doesn’t dovetail with the prerogatives of education reform opponents. The latest refrain in their ever-changing critique of New Orleans’ school reforms is: Was it worth it?

In transforming our public school system, we made tough decisions. We closed schools that underperformed. We decided not to reopen others. We chose to stick to our principles of accountability and equity rather than attempt to make everyone happy. We didn’t bring about the utopian vision of the city that critics set as the standard with which to judge our success.

Have our efforts been perfect? No. Have we made mistakes? Absolutely. Have we performed miracles? Not at all. But no one for one minute should maintain that our work was motivated by anything other than a desire to empower those young people that our society would sometimes rather turn a blind eye towards.

Most importantly, a decade after Katrina, tens of thousands of children are receiving a better education and have vastly improved life opportunities because of our collective work. As the author of a recent study on the impact of New Orleans’ school reforms noted:

For New Orleans, the news on average student outcomes is quite positive by just about any measure…We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.

Katrina HS Grads

Students from John McDonogh Senior High School’s first graduating class since Hurricane Katrina. | AP Photo


But here’s the lesson to take from New Orleans: it shouldn’t have a taken a national disaster for us to act. Prior to 2005, a slow-motion catastrophe had been playing out before our very eyes. Year after year, New Orleans public schools shortchanged our city’s children, leaving their talents unnurtured and their potential unrealized.

We’ve changed that narrative. So when reform critics ask, “Was it worth it?” The answer is clear: Yes, our children are worth it – and I hope it’s a lesson that New Orleans won’t soon forget.


Peter Cook is a former public school teacher and administrator. He now works as a consultant and writer and serves on the advisory board of DFER-Louisiana. He lives in New Orleans.