Through my work and that of my colleagues at Stand for Children, I have had the great privilege of getting to know hardworking parents all across the country with inspiring stories. Reflecting on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and how it profoundly affected the New Orleans’ public school system, I wanted to share with you the story of Roshand Miller, a proud mother of three school-age children born and raised in New Orleans who then watched her city, her community, and her childhood get washed away.
Because stories about Katrina and education in New Orleans are so often told by outsiders, I wanted to provide you with Roshand’s unfiltered first-person perspective on the storm and the changes in the New Orleans schools that followed it. So with that, here is Roshand’s story. – Jonah Edelman
In New Orleans, it’s common to speak of things as they were “before the storm” or “since the storm.”
I remember the days “before the storm” like a vivid dream. A week before it hit, I was in Houston, Texas, living my life. Going to work, dating my new boyfriend (now husband), hanging out with friends, and just living. I knew a storm was brewing, but I wasn’t paying it too much attention. My mom was back in New Orleans getting ready to drive my sister to college in St. Louis, fully expecting to drop her off and return home.
We had no inkling of what was to come.
As the storm kicked up, my family back in New Orleans began to scatter. My grandmother went to one state, my dad and his family went to another. My mom, meanwhile, was rushing between states. I, on the other hand, was glued to the television, watching images of this grey beast churning in the ocean before finally making landfall.
It was there we saw the wind rip through familiar buildings, and it was there we saw the water coming down familiar streets. All we could think about was those family members left behind. We wanted to drive back down, but the news demanded we “don’t come back”.
My aunt, a police officer, and her family stayed in the city because emergency personnel were told not to leave. My other aunt and her family were also still in the city. They, along with my stepfather, fled to my mom’s house. We all thought that was the safest bet because, in case of flooding, it stood feet above the ground and had a second floor.
My mom was on the phone with my stepfather as the water came into the house. There was a calm panic in his voice before the phones went dead. It would be one week before we’d hear from them again. One week of watching the non-stop media coverage, trying to get any hint of information about the status of my family. One week of watching images of my city under water, looking for landmarks close to the house, trying to determine how much water was in my childhood home. One week of my family being trapped on the second floor of my mother’s house, after it was overcome with flood waters.
It would be days before they would get out, only to be trapped again on the interstate leading out of the city. My aunt, the police officer, found them and was able to get them water. She talks of breaking down and crying right there, having to leave her sister, her nieces, and her nephews. We were crying in Houston too, praying that everyone was alright.
Days after the storm and the levees broke, we found out that people were being bused to the Astrodome in Houston. We went there to search for my family. It was there I saw a sea of people crowding every inch of the stadium. I remember the sounds, the smells, the blue cots, and the disparity of a thousand faces. I spoke with one family, a young man and a woman with an infant in tow. The father told us of how he floated his newborn on a mattress, wading through debris and passing dead bodies to escape what was left of New Orleans. It was all just too much for me at that point, but I had to stay strong to help find our missing.
The next few days were an emotional roller coaster as we located family members one by one, and took them back to my home in Houston. At this point, my one-bedroom apartment was now home to 13 people. I joked during those trying times about my tiny place turning into a “refugee camp.” We would eventually find out that my mother’s house, which served as sanctuary during the storm, was damaged, but salvageable. We would be able to return home.
We were blessed, but so many lost so much more.
Ten years later, I’m back in my hometown. I’ve been back for seven years now. I came home for several reasons, but one of those reasons was to be a part of the rebuilding and remaking of my city. My family is back. New Orleans is back. We survived the storm.
I am a different person now, with different concerns and responsibilities. I have been married for almost 10 years. We have 3 beautiful children: ages 7, 6, and 1. We chose to raise our kids in my hometown, but things are different from when I was a kid. Back then, you went to your district school. It was close to home, but, if it was failing and you couldn’t afford private school, you had no choice. That’s all changed.
These days, we have more of a choice, and that’s a good thing. If the school in your area is failing, you have options. Parents now have access to quality schools – much different from the system before the storm. We have what’s called a One Application system for most schools; parents have the ability to rank which school they want their children to attend. Does it work? It depends on who you ask.
I’m blessed. I did my research and ranked my choices. My top choice schools don’t participate in the new system, plus everyone is trying to get their kids in those schools, so they were long shots. The One App process, however, did work in our favor. We were able to enroll our daughter in our first choice school, Akili Academy, a public charter school. Akili is new to our city (post Katrina), and they’re doing good things for their scholars. They recognize that we are a village working together to educate the children.
But not every NOLA parent is so lucky under the new process. Some parents have kids, who are siblings, in different schools. Some have kids in schools far from home and their jobs. Some parents have to struggle to find transportation to schools with no buses. And some kids are still in failing schools. The process is far from perfect.
So how do we make it better? By making all of New Orleans’ schools better. Parents shouldn’t have to fight to get into a handful of “good schools.” Some don’t like the use of that term, “good schools,” but that’s the world we’re living in right now. We are making progress, and as a parent, I own that process. We all have to own it, and by owning it, we have to get involved. Involvement can be different for different people. For some, it’s joining the Parent Teacher Organization or sitting on the board of a charter school. For others, it’s staying in constant contact with their child’s teacher.
Me personally, I chose to work with Stand for Children Louisiana as a parent leader, and it’s benefited me greatly. I try to stay informed, but Stand has educated me about different issues facing our schools, from the transition to higher standards, to One App, to School Board Leadership. I’ve always advocated for my kids, now I have the tools to try and help every child in my community.
Where we go from here? Some work has to be done on a larger scale. The best way to get continued improvement in our new school system is for parents to put continued pressure on charter boards, the school system, the legislature, and whoever else has an iron in the fire. As parents, we have our kids’ best interests at heart. We need to make sure that legislators, school board members, charter board members, principals, and teachers have our kids’ best interests in mind, as well. These are our kids and our schools. Let’s make sure we have a seat at the table so we’re not left just watching, like I had to helplessly just watch Katrina ravage my city.
It has been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. But contrary to those images on the screen, we were not destroyed. We rebuilt, and we are here. We are still rebuilding, and there is still work to do, and we all must do our part. Ten years from now, my kids will be 17, 16, and 11 and still in New Orleans Public Schools, so I have long range goals for the school system. I’d like to see the “A” schools partnering with the “F” schools to show them how it’s done. That way, we aren’t still fighting in 2025 to get into that handful of “good schools.”
When all of our schools and students excel, our city will reap the benefits.