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In Praise of My City, and My Students: One New Orleans Educator Marvels Over a Decade of Progress

August 25, 2015

Jamar McKneely
Jamar McKneely

Jamar McKneely is CEO of InspireNOLA, where he currently manages two of the highest performing open-admission schools in New Orleans, focusing his efforts on creating a pipeline for leadership, supervising administrative and instructional personnel, and establishing a clear vision for the organization’s mission and goals.

Jamar McKneely is CEO of InspireNOLA, where he currently manages two of the highest performing open-admission schools in New Orleans, focusing his efforts on creating a pipeline for leadership, supervising administrative and instructional personnel, and establishing a clear vision for the organization’s mission and goals.
Talking Points

My city, rebuilt. My students, thriving. Jamar McKneely mavels over a decade of unprecedented ed progress

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This is one in a series of articles covering the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the rebuilding of New Orleans’ schools. Read all our coverage and essays here.
August 29, 2005 is a date I will remember for the rest of my life. I personally lost a lot, but also discovered a new sense of resilience and determination. Just two days earlier, I was one of 100 Edna Karr High School coaches and students who were huddled together in New Orleans, learning that our first football game of the season would be canceled due to a storm in the Gulf of Mexico. We all assumed we would return to New Orleans in a day or two to play the game, and that a normal school year would follow. But that distant storm turned out to be Hurricane Katrina, and in the days that followed, our city was devastated beyond recognition. August 27, 2005 marked the last day that I would ever see numerous students, parents, and families — and the first day of a very different New Orleans.
I relocated to Baton Rouge for the next 12 months, and during that time, I often thought of the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling in hopes of processing the sense of loss that followed.  After the hurricane I was fired like all other educators in New Orleans due to a lack of students in New Orleans and struggled greatly with the emotional toll that accompanies the uncertainty of not knowing whether my students or coworkers were safe, secure, or even alive.
As we now approach the 10th anniversary of Katrina, I find myself once again pausing to remember all those students, families, and coworkers. In December of 2005, Edna Karr High School reopened to serve the students and families returning to rebuild their homes, communities, and city. It has been a long process, but now, nearly 10 years after the hurricane, I can truly see the academic progress of our city’s youth. Now, more than ever, I salute those students, families, and teachers who, before the storm and especially after the storm, continuously fight for our students — and our city.
Just think of how far we’ve come as educators: Since 2005, New Orleans has cut the percentage of students attending schools labeled “Academically Unacceptable” or “Failing” from 62% to just 7%. We’ve more than tripled the number of students attending schools graded as A, B, or Cs by the state—from 20% to 67%. Within my organization, InspireNOLA Charter Schools, our graduation is now 100% and our schools are now regarded as top academic institutions with high parent demand.
New Orleans students have closed the overall performance gap with their peers statewide from 23 percentage points to just 6 points. For African-American students, the passage rate on state tests is now five points higher in New Orleans than it is statewide. Additionally, 40% of students with disabilities are passing state tests—a huge improvement from the 11% who passed those tests in the years before and immediately after the storm.
While something incredible has been happening in our schools, our students have been told by some critics that those incredible things aren’t possible
These numbers make it clear that the changes made over the past ten years have produced significant growth that is broad, sustained and meaningful. Most notably, the K-12 system in New Orleans is beginning to accomplish one of its most important goals: sending students to college with aspirations to graduate and then return to New Orleans to continue to rebuild their local communities. For the first time in recorded history, the rate of students from New Orleans entering college matches the average for the rest of Louisiana. As those students find success on college campuses and eventually return to New Orleans as active young leaders, they will help overturn decades of low expectations, poverty, and violence in our city.
As I think back on some of the arguments that have surrounded our schools and education reforms over the last decade, I often think once again about Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If.” With its description of how to overcome adversity and obstacles, this poem is a source of light in times of struggle. And in this moment of city-wide reflection and nationwide discussion as we approach August 29, 2015, there is one stanza I return to repeatedly:
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools.
As we hear some of the critics debate our students’ progress, I want them to know that New Orleanians know all about stooping and building their lives with worn-out tools. This is a city that has rebuilt from fire, plagues and floods many times over the last 300 years but has never lost its deep sense of pride, love, and hope. To know New Orleans is to understand that we believe in a rebirth and progress; it goes hand in hand in living so close to the delta.
During these last ten years, the first half of Kipling’s stanza has been put to the test for too many of our students. Because while something incredible has been happening in our schools, our students have been told by some critics that those incredible things aren’t possible: they aren’t actually graduating from high school, aren’t succeeding at higher rates than before, and aren’t enrolling in college programs.
I realize more now than ever that nothing I write will convince some national pundits to stop their bickering over whether or not New Orleans school reforms are working, but, as we approach Katrina’s 10th anniversary, I hope we can all focus on saluting students, teachers, and families for our miraculous rebirth. We have rebuilt our city, neighborhoods and most importantly have brought a renewed sense of purpose to our families and students.
As we approach the anniversary of Katrina, I once again lead our New Orleans students with a chant we use at InspireNOLA charter schools: MOTIVATED, MOTIVATED, down right MOTIVATED! You check us out! You check us out!
A 74 Documentary | Part I: Reopening in the Flood Zone

 

Part II: The Class of 2015

 

Part III: The Next Generation

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