Prior to the Federal Flood, New Orleans was the most violent city in the poorest state in the civilized world. Today, with only half of our population back and a large portion of the African-American population as yet displaced or not returning, the crime and poverty stats are not exact, but Louisiana is the poorest in health and New Orleans the highest in unemployment and most impoverished, with a “crime strategy second to none in this city.” (In my opinion, it also has the largest poltergeist population – ask me later about the bottle of recently-purchased amchur that’s missing from my pantry.)
From the absurdly morbid to the morbidly absurd …
The future of New Orleans – its children and their education – is no laughing matter, however. With a combination of poor leadership (don’t even get me started on the Gang of Four), underpaid and underequipped teachers, absent parents, political contracts and citizen apathy, we failed the children of the New Orleans Public Schools up until August 29th of last year. Left Behind, the much-touted documentary which tells this tale, premiered at the Landmark Theatre in Canal Place last night (with possibly the longest line for popcorn in the history of that building). The movie lived up to my expectations so much that I hope it airs on PBS and HBO. Vincent Morelli, Jason Berry and their team of moviemakers and three John McDonough High School students – Mario, Jonathan and Joshua – give us one hour of research, interviews, timelines and on-site footage of what we always knew but still shocks us into submission: A large majority of the New Orleans Public Schools were a travesty of education, and the products of that system were a powder keg waiting to explode given the right circumstances. That time and opportunity arrived in the days of the Flood, when the world saw New Orleans break down.
Left Behind must be watched in its entirety to see where the moviemakers go with it. While indicting a broken schools sytem, Morelli and Berry construct a thesis that a poor education results in violence and instability, if the motive, means and opportunity are present. As always, I encourage you to draw your own inferences from the facts and opinions presented. That said, the following movie fragments stuck with me and are pointed out for discussion.
- Before the storm, 97% of NOLA public school students were African-American. Of this group, 70% came from single-parent homes; each parent worked two or three jobs in the name of family survival. Additionally, these schools suffered a dropout rate of 70% and, according to a McDonough student, 80-85% of students had guns.
- Karen Carter’s and other state legislators’ removal of support for Anthony Amato early last year may have stemmed from his recommendation of out-of-state Deloitte & Touche auditors. These state politicians punished Amato as a nod to their corporate constituents, i.e. in-state auditing firms who weren’t offered the contract, out of fear of political retribution.
- Did anyone finally audit the school system and detail the use of the $566 million budget? With $7000 spent on each student, why did few teachers and students possess the requisite educational materials such as books, stationery, computing and utilities? Bueller? Bueller?!
- While not touched upon in the movie, one cannot help noticing repeated school and neighborhood violence among teenagers as related to a revolving-door criminal justice system that does not adequately punish offenders.
- Motive = income disparity; Means = guns; Opportunity = Katrina/Flood
- Towards the end of the documentary, the interviewed Noam Chomsky makes a statement that “we should care whether the kid across the street gets an education” because it is the nice and altruistic thing to do. No, no, no, no, no! That kid’s schooling matters to me because I want to live in a better city in a better nation in a better world, with a better quality of human interaction and business. If Mario, Jonathan and Joshua come up in their lives, my life and surroundings are that much safer, happier and fulfilling. To say that their schooling is the selfless thing to do divorces you from them, when it should be all about enlightened self-interest, when the reality is the tangled and unbreakable web of our lives. Like it or not, we are all in this together.
So, why showcase something we already know? Because the time has come and gone to do something about the pathetic state of our public schools, and the motive, means and opportunity still exist for another sad episode of chaos and frenzy as we saw in the days following Hurricane Katrina. Also, as one John McDonough High School student in the audience proclaimed after the screening last night, “Y’all have the balls to tell the truth!” This “simple act of publishing” the data and despair in the form of a cohesive documentary may just force us not to continue on a path of academic self-destruction.
It’s so easy to sound the clarion call of “Come Back Home!” from the comfort of our middle-class and employed lifestyles, with our kids in the best parochial and public schools around the city. What do our poorest children have as we sail into a city on the remake? With housing and jobs harder to find, how can parents, themselves struggling products of the NOPS, find the time and effort required to keep their children in school and render them successful? When Nagin and other city leaders beseech everyone to return home, what do they offer the youth on whom the future of this city rests? Is a world-class education a large part of the Road Home, Unified New Orleans Plan and Rebuilding efforts? While great teachers still work hard each day in the new New Orleans, I’d be a bald-faced liar if I asked the displaced poor and lower middle class to usher their children back to this.
A compelling and competitive education, concerned parents, conscientious and well-equipped teachers, comfortable schools filled with cheer, supplies and questioning minds, a career and a peer group of the similarly-educated and self-made. Is that too much to offer the children of America? All they want is for us to give a damn.