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Day 465: 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.  [UPDATE: The American Zombie confirms my suspicion.]

– 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.

9 comments… add one
  • Laureen December 6, 2006, 6:39 PM

    Hooray Maitri, thanks for going in my place, can’t wait to see it. I hope it gets to television.

    I too was asking the same questions about the Alvarez contract in spring as talk of the schools reopening began to gain steam. I wondered, did they just walk away? Good analysis.

    Also, I know that the kids featured in this documentary are some of the same kids Jim Louis has been writing about for years there on the 2600 block of Dumaine St. Which can be read in the archives. Vince Morelli has been a friend of M. for years. http://www.digitalmediatree.com/nola/

  • Frank Popel December 7, 2006, 9:50 AM

    What can you do to help Carter out? The corrupt racists are attacking here to keep Bill Jefferson in power!

  • Maitri December 7, 2006, 10:42 AM

    What can I do to help Carter out? Let’s see: I will vote for her on Saturday. As for corrupt racism, it’s all a matter of degree here (or anywhere in the world for that matter) and I am left with the inescapable task of voting for the lesser of two evils.

  • jeffrey December 7, 2006, 2:43 PM

    Just because Carter had questionable motives for booting Amato doesn’t mean that he didn’t deserve to be booted. There were problems with him as well. But that just brings us back to the dismal state of things around here.

  • Dambala December 7, 2006, 5:50 PM

    Tell me what the problems with Amato were, Jeffrey.

    Amato’s main criticism was that he couldn’t get the budget under control. He was never criticized for his efforts in education, and was actually making progress. The moment he tried to do that, by hiring a non-Louisiana, arbitrary firm….Karen and Ann Duplesis called for his head. They specifically mentioned the accounting contract when they called for his termination. They wanted Bruno and Tervalon to get the accounting contract, as that would ensure that specific contracts would stay in place.

    I can assure you, Carter’s primary motivation to boot Amato was based on keeping Deloitte and Touche from actually auditing the school system budget.

    I hope you get to see the documentary.

  • jeffrey December 9, 2006, 11:57 AM

    Funny.. I always saw his tenure as yet another sad part of the trend in public management toward autocratic administrators with less responisiblity to oversight by elected officials.. and ultimately the public.. and more freedom to sell public services to contractors.

    I’m suspicious of people who make their living selling themselves as saviors or “turnaround specialists” Amato was very much of this strain.

  • jeffrey December 9, 2006, 11:58 AM

    I don’t doubt that Carter’s motives were rotten. Still doesn’t absolve him of being a douche.

  • Dambala December 9, 2006, 10:13 PM

    I respectfully disagree with you there. I don’t think he sold himself that way. I think the community elevated him to messiah status, and Act 193 propelled that status. Amato was making some very significant progress in actualy education reform….had he been given a good 4 to 5 years, I think the results could have been the beginning of a turnaround.

    I hope you get a chance to see the movie, it may spell some things out as to his fall from grace.

    I think it may be showing at Tulane very soon, let me know if you wanna go, I can get you on the guest list.


  • jeffrey December 10, 2006, 5:04 AM

    I really would like to see it. I was hoping it would be available for sale locally at some point.

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