During my career I have had the opportunity to work with many exceptional students, but one in particular stands out in my mind.
Within our school walls, Terrance excelled academically and athletically, but he also struggled emotionally and socially because his life was in turmoil. His family was homeless, living in hotels or shelters every night. His mother lost her job, which led to their lights being turned off, and then eviction.
When Terrance started living in shelters and hotels, his attendance, grades and motivation to succeed dropped significantly. Despite his intelligence and efforts by his teachers and school to help him and his family, Terrance’s mental health was harmed due to the effects of poverty.
Terrance overcame these challenges and finished high school, but his life was tragically cut short when he was murdered on the streets of New Orleans six months after graduation.
Not Everyone Is Enjoying NOLA
Though I love New Orleans, the prosperity that some residents possess is not enjoyed equally by everyone. In fact, even as our economy rebounds, our youth poverty rate is actually increasing. A 2015 study by the Greater New Orleans Data Center found that 39 percent of New Orleans youth live in poverty, compared to 32 percent in 2007. Our youth poverty rate is 17 percentage points higher than the U.S. average. Nationwide, 15.5 million children live in poverty with nearly 70 percent of those children being children of color. These numbers are as sobering as they are unacceptable. We will never achieve greatness until we address poverty.
Recent data that our local Urban League presented has me very concerned and frustrated about the high poverty rates for African-American students in New Orleans. The Urban League’s recent report, The State of Black New Orleans, shows just how many obstacles African-American youth in this city face.
The statistics are bleak: The unemployment rate for African Americans is 52 percent. The median household income for African Americans in 2013 was only $25,000, compared to $60,000 for Caucasians. To make matters worse, we have the highest per capita incarceration rate of any major city, and 99 percent of all juveniles arrested in New Orleans are African-American.
Poverty is easier to ignore than to talk about.
For us educators, it can be tempting to assume that our advancement of schools will be the sole catalyst to make poverty recede. Our students and families need more than just a quality education. We need communities, churches, local businesses, politicians and universities to provide internships, summer mentoring programs, and career and technical opportunities to improve poverty rates. We need to increase the Louisiana minimum wage above the federal minimum wage as well as extend the Equal Pay Act.
Over the past ten years, New Orleans has shown that it is a resilient community, one that both revels in its history and culture and embraces the future.
I’m a realist. I know we have to raise academic standards for children, but they also need much more. Our students live most of their lives outside of school doors. While we strive to control every facet of the school day for them, we can’t do so once they leave.
Derwin Sisnett, CEO of Gestalt Community Schools in Memphis, Tennessee, recently delivered a TEDx talk that encapsulates how we, as educators and community leaders, need to start rethinking the relationship between poverty and public education. Sisnett urges his fellow educators to adopt a humbler approach towards their work. He asserts:
Education will not solve for poverty. ‘Education only’ is not the panacea. Education is one part to a larger, comprehensive solution.
Sisnett believes that community matters just as much as the school. For students to thrive inside the school building, the poverty outside it has to be addressed. It’s why his schools are adopting a more holistic approach to community involvement. Since inception, Gestalt Community Schools have developed a strong belief that partnerships with the community are paramount to school and community success. Partnering with Power Center Community Development Center, Gestalt hosts numerous community events and is converting a previously blighted apartment complex into a community development that will include schools, a performing arts center, a wellness center, housing and retail, providing access and services to Gestalt’s students and parents.
Simply stated, Gestalt believes in developing students and communities together.
Prosperity For All
It’s irrational to think that public education can singlehandedly fix our judicial system or institute economic equity. In the long term, I am convinced that the strides we are making inside classrooms across the city will help to lower these depressing numbers. In the short term, however, situations like Terrance’s are heartbreaking and occur much too frequently. Schools alone will not make New Orleans, or any urban city, a city of prosperity for everyone, but schools and communities who are working collaboratively for our students and prosperity for all just might.
Since 2005, students in New Orleans have made phenomenal academic gains. Our high school graduation rates have increased to 75 percent; half of high schools scored an A or B on the state’s report card, with the exception of two small alternative schools. The percentage of African-American students scoring at least 18 on the ACT has grown by 40 percent since 2012.
Now, more than ever is the time we must capitalize on these positive outcomes and steer ourselves into decreasing the generational poverty that many of our city’s children are born into. Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, once said, “Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.”
Together, we can build on our successes to help our families and communities improve New Orleans and create prosperity for all.