New Orleans is Still Rebuilding. The People Who Live There Should Get a Say

There’s a rare opportunity in New Orleans to show local and national arenas that constant community engagement matters, as the city’s new public schools superintendent revisits the facilities master plan for education.

This plan hasn’t been revised in four years, a breach of a previous administration’s promise to look at it biennially. Now, Supt. Henderson Lewis has a chance to return to a community engagement model created in 2008. Orleans Parish’s districts abandoned this plan once they received funding to execute it. That was a big mistake. In the master plan, Orleans Parish and the Recovery School District created a process to do everything from designing and building schools, to relocating students, to leveraging local and regional community assets such as libraries and museums.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, school leaders sat in cafeterias and libraries in neighborhood schools throughout the city to collect input from local residents. This community involvement not only worked but also provided a silver lining in the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina. A yearlong planning process, which started in August 2007 and ended in August 2008, resulted in a facilities plan that served as the basis for the $1.8 billion FEMA settlement, which funded the more than 20 new or refurbished schools we have today. How we maintain communication will determine these buildings’ proper use and whether they remain relevant.

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Many charters followed up with the original master planning process to include community in their programming. Community members’ fingerprints are all over Morris Jeff and First Line at Wheatley’s academic programs. In addition, First Line and KIPP Central City are working with New Orleans Recreation Department to jointly use green space. While there’s certainly room for improvement, schools owe a great deal of gratitude to the early community work that districts put in through the master planning process.

The country’s infrastructure woes are forcing districts to reengage with the community. For instance, Richmond’s School Board Facilities Task Force spent over a year assessing the needs of its district with community members. Parents of Uniontown are appealing to the neighbors of Lake Local Schools to fund new construction and renovations of crumbling facilities. Communities around Springfield, Illinois meet in earnest to figure out what to do school buildings discarded due to dramatic population declines.

But too often, community planning and involvement toward a new construction stop once the school is erected. The moment of finality comes at the ribbon cutting ceremony, where hope-filled community members arch back to admire the fruits of their vision. Through their wide smiles, the architects and construction company slyly angle district leaders for the next project. Children are gathered for the final photo, which is really a symbolic wave of goodbye.

Related: The lost children of Katrina

Once the final photo opportunity is taken in the school’s shiny entranceway, the community engagement once portrayed as indispensible is cut off as easily as the bright red ribbon.

But four years have passed without a visit to the plan. A lot can happen in four years. Neighborhood demographics change; a new superintendent doesn’t like the tenant or the school’s curriculum the facility was built around. The needs of students change, and the technology once thought as cutting edge is now horribly antiquated. In New Orleans in particular, charters are taken away from providers, or their enrollments can’t support school costs. Before you know it, leaders are back asking for the community to make substantive amendments to the facilities plan.

Four years without revision essentially means that neighbors and school providers haven’t substantively influenced the buildings they face every day. This makes Lewis’s job all the more difficult. District leaders will have to funnel accumulated wants from school leaders and community members. Herein lies the opportunity. Multiple stakeholders converge around a school’s physical plant. Leadership should welcome the opportunity to bring cohesion among folks with very different needs.

Great school designs nurture lasting relationships with neighbors. So we’re never really finished building a school. Great built facilities include people and their sociopolitical contexts in the brick and mortar. Likewise, discontinued communication and community planning around a facility signals the structure really wasn’t built to last. Four years, really?

But it’s never too late to re-erect and solidify a community engagement process as part of the foundation of a school building.

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New Orleans certainly needs a new process. As a new superintendent, Lewis can get real regarding the funding gap to finish remaining projects as well as garner input into how we can close that gap. Many of the school providers have programs that simply don’t fit the schools they inhabit. Most won’t admit it, but many schools are too small to demand the buildings they’ve requested. Not only do taxpayers need to see if the old plan meets current realities, schools need to continuously communicate with them to engender buy-in from taxpayers who will be faced with funding long-term fiscal commitments including maintenance.

In addition, concerned citizens in the highly decentralized New Orleans landscape have found it difficult to express system wide concerns or to appeal school-level decisions that seemingly can’t go beyond an individual charter school board. I should know, I was a charter school leader and I served on the facilities master plan oversight committee in 2013. New Orleans needs new formal structures for community engagement.

Let’s hope Lewis and others move beyond perfunctory calls for community involvement. We’ve already experienced what happens when community engagement and commitment wanes.

Buildings are easy to construct and difficult to maintain. We have to prevent schools that are built for 600 students from only having 300 students in them. As Lewis revisits the facilities master plan, it would be wise to re-innovate a community engagement process as permanent as the physical structures themselves.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).