When Tulane’s Institute for Public Education Initiatives (now known as the Cowen Institute) was formed to chronicle and analyze the transformation of New Orleans’ post-Katrina public school system a decade ago, we were energized by the community’s unrelenting commitment to positive change. Propelled by crisis, a fierce sense of urgency and purpose was palpable among educators, parents, nonprofit leaders, policymakers, and donors. Fast-forward 10 years, and considerable progress has been made: ACT scores are up, suspension and expulsion rates are down, college acceptance rates are up, and school performance scores are up. Our community has much to be proud of. However, even with all these gains, our public school district is still below average in a state that persistently lands near the bottom in national school system rankings. Clearly, our work is nowhere near done.
Do we still have the collective energy to take the next giant step forward to improve our school system? Fortunately, there are many individuals and organizations across the city whose number one priority is to provide every single child with the education they deserve. But broadly speaking, efforts to continue the upward trajectory often appear to lack the dynamic determination that was so characteristic of the years after Hurricane Katrina, when we should be doubling down on our investment in the city’s youth. Those who think that we are beyond the crisis point in public education and youth development are tragically mistaken. There are plenty of crises unfolding in our community, all of which can be at least partially traced back to a public education system that is not fulfilling its great promise. Poverty, crime and poor health outcomes are still major challenges for New Orleans and crippling many individual lives. In fact, when someone recently told me they believed public education was one of “America’s leading public health crises,” it rang true to me.
One result of the crisis — youth disconnection — is ripe for our undivided attention. We know that 14.5 percent of all 16-to-24-year-olds in New Orleans are disconnected from both school and work. That makes us the city with the third-highest population of such youths in the nation.
If we can’t figure out how to empower these members of our community to live successful, productive, and healthy lives all of us will be worse off for it.
From my perspective, the work of the next decade is about improving not only K-12 educational outcomes, but life outcomes for the youth of New Orleans. As a community, we must continue to focus on all dimensions of youth success. Many organizations in this city are committed to working closely together to realize a vision of a school system that prepares students for life after high school, whether that life will entail going to college, starting a job, or raising a family. Students earning better grades and graduating in higher numbers are important outcomes, but our schools must also connect what’s happening in the classroom to the real world so students can do well in their academic, professional and personal lives.
Currently, not enough youth are prepared for college and career, and we aren’t offering enough to equip them with the soft and life skills that will empower them to prove themselves in the workforce and tackle difficult situations outside of school. Our youth represent the future of New Orleans. Let’s continue to invest in them with urgency and purpose. In my mind, there is no better use of our time and financial resources if we truly care about our city.
Scott Cowen, president emeritus and Distinguished University Chair of Tulane University, also chairs the Cowen Institute Board of Advisors.