Rising Tides: Building a Better New Orleans for Our Students

Ten years have passed since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and as we commemorate that fateful August day and its aftermath, we should also remember to celebrate one of the most remarkable stories of New Orleans' recovery—its students.

It's the story of how New Orleans students have risen to the challenge post-Katrina. Over the last decade, our high school graduation rates have surpassed state graduation rates, and student proficiency on state exams has nearly doubled.

The persistence of the Crescent City's students should inspire us all to meet the challenges that still lie ahead, including the work that remains to ensure college readiness and completion for every student—not only here in New Orleans, but across the nation.

Today, all high school juniors in the state of Louisiana take the ACT exam, but the test shows only 15 percent of all students—and only 8 percent of African Americans—are ready for college. Nationally, 85 percent of high school students want an education beyond high school, but only 26 percent are college-ready. Among African Americans, only 5 percent are prepared.

These statistics are a warning sign. The bad news is that we're at risk of losing the next generation of leaders and innovators, our global competitive edge, our economy's health and our nation's future.

The good news is that these consequences aren't an inevitable natural disaster, but an entirely avoidable one, and we've already begun taking the right preventive steps with Louisiana's shift to the Common Core State Standards that will match students' education with both their aspirations and the demands of college and industry.

These standards are valuable for every student, but they're particularly important to help close the achievement gaps in majority-minority school districts, where students have long gotten less than they deserve, both in resources and in our expectations of what they can achieve. The transparency that Common Core and its aligned assessments will bring allows us to better target instructional and support resources to help ensure that every student can be prepared for college, work and life.

We know that a successful transition to these new standards will take a collective effort, and Louisiana is managing this transition the right way. Our state recognizes the importance of having the community at the table alongside educators, so that students and families review the new standards and assessments, and can be full partners in our work together to close achievement gaps. Our community partnerships elevate parents' voices and concerns so that together we can plan the best strategy forward, and New Orleans—and Louisiana—can finally shine as an example of how collaboration can improve student outcomes.

The effects of Hurricane Katrina are personal to me. I was born, raised and educated in New Orleans, and as president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, I am committed to making sure we are rebuilding a city that's stronger for all of its families and students.

As a community, we've already come together to rebuild, repair and strengthen our city's homes and infrastructure. Now is the time to expand that effort and secure our students' success by uniting around the goal of higher standards for all students—particularly low income students and students of color.

We know that change doesn't happen overnight; it takes time. And even in the toughest times, we haven't turned our backs on our city—so let's not turn our backs on our students, or on students anywhere in the nation. High standards lead to higher expectations and higher outcomes. Expect nothing less from our students by preparing them accordingly.