As I walked through New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, I saw residents standing on street corners stretching several blocks, anticipating just one glimpse of a very popular president en route to the Andrew P. Sanchez Community Center.
Presidential visits are always a big deal, but this president commands an 91 percent approval rating among black folks. Inside the community center, people expressed a genuine excitement I rarely see.
Former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial and other local officials praised the president for prioritizing restoration of New Orleans and the Gulf region.
Current mayor Mitch Landrieu put the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in context. He said America took on a “sweet burden” by welcoming displaced New Orleanians in 32 states. Those communities fed, clothed and housed displaced families and put kids in schools.
In New Orleans, the hardest hit area was the Lower 9th Ward which was 17-feet under water. Landrieu said the $25 million Sanchez Community Center, the $35 million high school being built down the street and the high-performing, homegrown Martin Luther King charter school are all signs of rebirth in an area where all hope was lost in 2005.
The mayor referenced President Obama as a strong partner in the reconstruction of New Orleans. He quoted the president telling his team, “You help those people, so goes NOLA, so goes America.”
Each time a speaker mentioned how dedicated President Obama has been to New Orleans, there was strong applause.
A President Inspired by New Orleans
When President Obama took the stage he talked about the “extraordinary resilience” of New Orleans and the hope this city has inspired.
“You are an example of what is possible when in the face of tragedy and in the face of hardship, good people come together to lend a hand and brick by brick, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, we build a better future.”
He also acknowledged shortcomings and admitted there was a “failure of government to look out for its own people” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The devastation, he said, revealed how poor people and people of color have been plagued by structural inequality for decades.
I was particularly touched by his story about a woman who fled to a shelter in Houston post-Katrina. She told him—then Senator Obama—that “[we] had nothing before the hurricane and now we have less than nothing.”
A City Moving Forward
The president encouraged the crowd to see New Orleans as a city that “is slowly, unmistakably moving forward.”
“The progress is remarkable,” he said.
While he was a senator, Obama was committed to the rebuilding of New Orleans and yesterday he reminded us that he’s “kept those promises.”
Among his commitments were to rebuild schools, hospitals, roads and infrastructure. Although much of New Orleans is still decaying, billions in government aid have been invested in building new structures and opportunities.
Most notably, efforts to rebuild public schools have gotten the most attention. School reform has been one of the biggest pillars of the Obama presidency, and no city epitomizes his education strategies—charter schools, choice, accountability and decentralization—more than New Orleans.
“Before the storm the New Orleans public schools were largely broken, leaving generations of low-income kids without an education,” he said.
“Today, thanks to parents, educators, school leaders, and nonprofits we’re seeing real gains in achievement with new schools, and more resources to retain and develop and support great teachers and principals.”
The president received applause for touting school data that reflects improvement in New Orleans schools. He noted increases in graduation rates which rose from 55 percent before the storm to now 73 percent. College enrollment shot up from 20 percent to 59 percent.
I was struck by how these words coming from almost anyone else would generate at least some heckling. School reform here is as controversial as it is anywhere else in the world. Yet this crowd stood with the president in acknowledging the improvement of public education in a reform city.
“We still have a long way to go, but that is real progress,” the president said.
The crowd agreed.