Paul Pastorek

The day before Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on our beautiful, yet vulnerable city, the school buildings in New Orleans were already neglected, dilapidated and non-compliant with electrical and fire codes. I remember the bathrooms in many schools pre-Katrina were awful – completely disrespectful of the students who used them – no doors in toilet stalls, toilets that would not flush, no toilet paper, no soap or towels to dry hands and inadequate facilities for disabled students. The rain, wind, flooding and neglect after the storm, dealt the final blow and condemned most of the school buildings to irreparable ruin. We needed a transformational effort to create schools as inviting spaces where students could learn.

In the first few months after the storm, students returned to New Orleans and its temporarily repaired schools. But the schools still had awful bathrooms. After taking responsibility to lead the Recovery School District’s efforts to build back our schools nearly a year and a half after the storm, we committed to doing right by children and making sure that bathrooms were up to suitable standards of decency. During the summer of 2007, we repaired bathrooms. It may sound minor today, but it was a significant positive signal of the respect for children and what was to come.

No amount of money from FEMA and the Federal government could compensate for the dire consequences Katrina left the city in. Yet, with the irreplaceable intervention and support of Sen. Mary Landrieu, the Recovery School District was able to drive a hard bargain with FEMA and we recovered $1.8 billion to pay for schools to be replaced from the ground up or completely gutted and fundamentally repaired.

We engaged the community to understand the kind of schools that it wanted for its students conducting more than 200 (?) community listening sessions throughout the city. Based on the community’s desire, we undertook to build schools that would support a child’s education and make the community proud.

I left my position in 2011, but the rebuilding campaign remained on a sustainable path. Now, twelve years after turning dirt on the first reconstruction effort, and thanks to the incredible and sustained leadership of many people who worked on the building program, almost all of the schools in New Orleans have been completely rebuilt from the ground up or have had substantial makeovers. Now, almost every child in the city goes to a beautiful, state of the art, code-compliant buildings. The children of New Orleans deserve no less.