Left Behind

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.

*Begin spoilers*

– 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.

*End spoilers*

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.

13 Comments so far

  1. kg2v (unregistered) on December 7th, 2006 @ 10:30 am

    What is interesting is the cycle that forms, which you did not mention (don’t know if it’s in the movie.

    Poor education leads to crime, which, believe it or not, leads to poor education even for those NOT involved in crime

    I have NOT studied the school budgets down there, but at least here in NYC, back in the 80s and 90s, there was a very interesting trend. The schools in the worst area actually DID get significantly MORE money than those in the better areas, but LESS of that money got ‘to the classroom’. Money had to be spent for security guards, metal detectors, replacing stolen supplies, counceling students, lunch programs, etc etc – aka security and socal support, where in the areas with less crime, they shrugged, and said “what do we need metal detectors for?” In addition, the older, more experienced teachers in the bad areas left for better areas, while the teachers in the GOOD areas stick around

    How do you break the cycle? Particularly when you are already putting more money into the poor schools?

    It’s the classics – keep giving the schools more cash, but work on the social ills – get crime down (stop it early – tipping point theory), make people realize that single parenthood is NOT good Hate to say it – the old pre 1960s social moores RE single parenthood existed for a reason. Yeah, you can get away with it IF the parent has enough disposable resources to use, but frankly, folks who are lower middle class and down usually DON’T

  2. Editor B (unregistered) on December 7th, 2006 @ 12:00 pm

    I must have been at the same screening you attended, Maitri.

    One random thought: If Deloitte & Touche were anathema because they were out-of-state, how did we end up with Alvarez & Marsal (sp?) from New York, now in charge of NOPS finances? Also, word on the street is the recent round of charters were only given to schools working with out-of-state organizations.

    I’ve got more to say about the movie but I’m still mulling…

  3. Ray (unregistered) on December 7th, 2006 @ 2:17 pm

    Editor B: I believe that Alvarez and Marshal were hired by state officials post-Katrina, not by anyone working at the local level.

    (That said, the movie doesn’t boost its credibility by claiming that NOLA is the most violent city in the industrialized world. And the state of Louisiana has more incarcerated citizens than any state in the union, the US has mroe incarcerated citizens than any country on Earth, “therefore” New Orleans has the highest incarceration rate of any city in the world? Where did the filmmakers learn deductive logic? “Monty Python and the Holy Grail?”)

  4. Maitri (unregistered) on December 7th, 2006 @ 3:26 pm


    A&M was brought in by the state just before Katrina.

    The movie doesn’t claim that “NOLA is the most violent city in the industrialized world,” as you said. It claims that “New Orleans was the most violent city in the poorest state” in the civilized world.

    Of course, how this movie (or anyone) defines civilized and industrialized is up for debate.

  5. Ray (unregistered) on December 7th, 2006 @ 4:02 pm

    Was, is, whatever. Coming in at No. 1 in 2004 for violent crime (including not only murder, but rape, armed robbery, etc.) was St. Louis. Before that, in 2004, No. 1 was Camden NJ. The statement in the movie is made with no backing.

    Now, the problem with ranking cities is that some have more expansive boundaries than others. Memphis proper, for instance, takes in some 650,000 people, larger than NOLA pre-Katrina. But it’s metro population was and probably still is smaller. At the same time, states define crimes differently–e.g., what is self-defense in one state might not be another, levels of assault are different, etc.

  6. Ray (unregistered) on December 7th, 2006 @ 4:06 pm

    Camden NJ has the highest crime rate among US cities in 2004, St. Louis in 2005.

  7. Ray (unregistered) on December 7th, 2006 @ 4:09 pm

    Violent crime rate, that is.

    And NOLA didn’t make the Top 10 by FBI stats in 2003 or dozens of other years.

  8. Jason Berry (unregistered) on December 7th, 2006 @ 6:25 pm

    Maitri, you’re correct. A & M was brought in by the state. It was pretty funny to watch one of the first board meetings when they showed up. Bill Roberti “don’t play”. After being harrassed by board members for about 10 minutes, he walked up and indirectly told them to fuck off….he made it clear he wasn’t going to get involved with the board politics and power struggles. This was what was needed for a long time…to put some arbitrary source in charge of the budget so they could actually get a handle on it.

    Ray…I’m going to provide some stats for you shortly on violent crime. Ones we based the statement on.

  9. Editor B (unregistered) on December 8th, 2006 @ 3:02 pm

    Regarding violent crime stats, it’s worth noting that NOLA is often excluded from surveys that only look at municipalities of 500K+. In other words, sometimes we don’t show up on bad lists because we are relatively small. (And smaller now than ever, but our per capita violence has gotta be near the top of the scale.)

  10. Ray (unregistered) on December 8th, 2006 @ 3:41 pm

    Editor B: Those weren’t the lists I was talking about. Note that St. Louis was smaller than New Orleans pre-Katrina. What seems to be more true is that crime was isolated to particular parts of NOLA more than other cities, and the reported murder rate was higher than it was for other types of violent crime. This shouldn’t be so controversial.

  11. Jason Berry (unregistered) on December 9th, 2006 @ 9:33 pm

    Editor B,

    You’re right about that, and that was taken into consideration when we made our claims. Also, there was a lot of “mis-reporting” of the city’s crime statistics since Pennington came in. The classification of “homicide” became rather ambiguous, which provided immediate results in homicide numbers.


    I am still getting some info. together for you on our source statistics. Although we are considering altering “The most violent city” comment, to “One” of the most. You’re comments are greatly appreciated, and the film is up for debate and future edits. We made the film with absolutely no funding, so we’re doing our best and want to make the statistical information bullet proof, as we think the story carries itself.

    One note….Sao Paulo is not considered “the industrialized” world. It is essentially North America, Western Europe, Japan and South Korea. No city in America has a higher incarceration rate per capita, and there’s definitely not another city in any of the previously mentioned countries which come close. One could make an argument that China fit’s under the “industrialized” bracket, but they don’t keep incarceration statistics in China.

    So overall, we’re waffling on the “most violent city” comment, but we’re pretty confident about the incarceration comment.

    more to come…

  12. Ray (unregistered) on December 9th, 2006 @ 11:01 pm

    Jason: My issue with the incarceration rates is the state prison vs. local jail/prison one. The incarceration rate pre-K was higher with the latter due to the Orleans Parish Prison population, not due to being the biggest city in the state with the highest correctional institution incarceration rate in the country. (The largest state pen is in Angola, for the record.) Or are we talking about both sorts of prisoners? Have you sorted all this out?

    To find out the state institution incarceration rate for cities you’d have to break down every state prison’s population by municipality. And then do the same with every country mentioned. Then you’d add the local jail/prison populations for all these same cities. Then you’re talking about countries that don’t necessarily share our concepts of local govt. and their boundary lines.

    Again, I don’t think this is too controversial. I really appreciated your film, generally, and share your concern with the state of things here.

  13. Jason Berry (unregistered) on December 11th, 2006 @ 12:12 am

    I’m checking with Vince on exactly how he acquired that statistic. I’m gonna get back to you on it.

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