‘People are going to live here’ Louisville students represent in the not-so-Big-Easy

Bill Coleman

Bill Coleman

Two Louisville Collegiate high school students, both in the upper school, expressed the same idea in different ways: “It’s almost like Louisville has done more for New Orleans than FEMA.”

Those guys were Remy Sisk and Joe Geoghegan, two of the nearly 60 students in Collegiate’s junior class who spent a recent week working in New Orleans’ now-infamous 9th Ward. They weren’t talking only about their trip to New Orleans earlier this spring, but also about the junior class that went there a year ago, plus the hundreds of individuals from the Louisville area who have gone with volunteer groups.

And they referred to people with deeper connections, like Melissa Chipman, who lived in New Orleans for almost a decade before moving, post-Katrina, to Louisville, where she’s now an 11th grade English teacher at Collegiate. She led the two trips, joined by faculty leaders Marti Calderwood, Tracie Catlett, Wendy Martin, Simon Stern and Chad Wabrek.

Or people like Bill Coleman, a Louisvillian now, or Sarah Newell Usdin, who was born and raised here but now lives in New Orleans.

On the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, around a million residents of New Orleans, myself included, sat riveted to the television knowing the Mississippi Gulf Coast was decimated, and hoping the Crescent City would be spared so we could give our neighbors a hand. As we know, Katrina, and a few weeks later Rita, mostly spared New Orleans. The man-made levees did not. What everyone assumed would protect the city crumbled under the weight of Lake Pontchartrain — not once, but twice within a month. That water destroyed more than 150,000 houses belonging to all races and demographics in the city. All told across the Gulf Coast, more than 850,000 homes were destroyed or inaccessible.

Coleman, the community humanitarian liaison for the Louisville-based restaurant chain Texas Roadhouse, was already working with Jim Pate, executive director of Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans, before Katrina. After the storm, Pate asked Coleman how much time he could give them; their needs were many.

Sarah Newell Usdin

Sarah Newell Usdin

Coleman has since spent countless hours helping Habitat in New Orleans, working in an area called Musician’s Village. It’s the brainchild of musicians Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis, a way to house, in one neighborhood, all of the musicians who lost homes to the floodwaters. As of the 2008 Collegiate visit, construction was nearly completed on 72 homes. By project’s end, the area will also include the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, built for music education, practice and public sessions.

When Collegiate’s 11th grade class traveled to New Orleans, they spent the week nailing shingles, constructing 10 sheds (signing the inner walls with their best wishes to families), cleaning yards and whatever else Coleman asked them to do. He took novice carpenters and taught them to work like pros, with the mantra, “People are going to live here.”

When Chipman moved to Louisville almost two years ago, Collegiate already had a program for students from grades 5-12 called “Interim.” All classes (except seniors, who do individual projects) are required to perform a week of community service; the cost of the trips is included in tuition.

Chipman, with many contacts in New Orleans and already teaching the junior class, was a natural fit to lead the 11th graders on the weeklong trip. They stayed in the Annunciation House Mission, near the middle- to upper-middle class Broadmoore neighborhood that saw three to eight feet of flooding.

This year’s trip was especially meaningful for Chipman, as she was able to pair the Collegiate class with students and faculty from her old school, the Louise S. McGehee School in New Orleans’ Garden District.

After their return, I spoke to a small group of Collegiate students about their experiences, including Ann Wood and Maud Welch, who noted that meeting the McGehee girls made them realize how Katrina affected everyone — “even people just like us.”

juniors from Louisville Collegiate School: Photo by martypearl.com  Nearly 60 juniors from Louisville Collegiate School performed volunteer work in New Orleans as part of their school curriculum.

juniors from Louisville Collegiate School: Photo by martypearl.com Nearly 60 juniors from Louisville Collegiate School performed volunteer work in New Orleans as part of their school curriculum.

Other Louisville students used words like “cynical” and “unaware” to describe their pre-trip attitude. Sara Sanders, who went in ’07, agreed that the notion (or the media portrayal) of a ravaged city is a stark contrast with reality. She recalls with detail the “X” marks on doorways, with numbers written by each to tell rescuers how many people were found, and whether they were alive or dead. On homes all over the city, those markings remain.

The McGehee girls brought home to Collegiate students the flipside of the absurd notion that Katrina only affected poor neighborhoods, and certainly revealed the ignorance of the suggestion that anyone “deserved” what happened.

In a journal entry, Collegiate student Rebecca Allen wrote, “Visiting the McGehee School gave me a sense of what it was like for people with a similar upbringing as me to have to evacuate their homes and leave many possessions for months.” One McGehee student spoke of how her father, a lawyer, remained in the city while the family evacuated. After all phone contact was lost, it was days before they finally knew his condition — they saw him on CNN helping flood victims to safety.

“I’d heard these girls’ stories before when they came back from evacuation,” Chipman said after the convergence of her past and current life, “but hearing these stories again was such a good reminder of just how resilient and brave teenagers can be. Much more so than adults at times. Because they’ve been through so much — some of them had their lives completely redefined for them after the storm — but in the end, they’re still teenage girls. … It’s the teachers who still have haunted looks in their eyes.

Sarah Newell Usdin grew up in Louisville, attended Emmet Field Elementary School and then Louisville Collegiate, class of ’87. She studied Religious Studies at Colgate University and began to understand the tremendous responsibility borne by someone to whom much has been given much — to give much more in return. She now lives in New Orleans, where she is founder and president of New Schools for New Orleans.

“What we most need now,” Sarah told me, “is people. People coming down. Like the Collegiate class working with housing. It brings so much encouragement.”

She met with students from her high school alma mater and, in an emotional moment, reminded them that with a great education and privilege comes “great responsibility.” It’s this idea of responsibility — she credits a civics course at Collegiate as part of her inspiration — that drives her to see this school program work not only in New Orleans, but nationwide.

“We must level the playing field. We have to have an educated populace to preserve democracy.”
Katrina wiped out a public school system that, by many accounts, was the nation’s worst. Before Katrina, the State of Louisiana said it was ready to take control of the New Orleans school system and disband the local school board. Today, there is still no school board in New Orleans, but there are private schools and public charter schools. There’s no room for committees and education talking-heads to debate the pros and cons of charter schools.

“Kids are completely capable of getting the education,” Usdin said. “Adults have not held up their responsibility.”

The overwhelming difference between charter and traditional public schools, she said, is autonomy.
“Our teachers are not shackled by decisions made at high levels. They have the freedom to teach however they wish to reach the students, with accountability.”

Since the program started, seven New Orleans schools pulled out of failing status. But “that’s not enough,” she said. “These kids need to be able to compete with schools like Collegiate. … Schools like Collegiate are independent private schools. Charter schools are essentially independent public schools.”

So far, student test scores have far surpassed pre-Katrina percentages. “And it’s important to stress that this can work in every school system,” Usdin said, “even in Jefferson County.”

Bill Coleman is a proud retired member of Louisville Ironworkers Local 70; now he works not only in New Orleans but across the South. He told the Collegiate group that “it is a mistake to do nothing because you may feel that you can only do a little. … Every person that extends a hand to a stranger in (New Orleans) helps to let them know that we haven’t forgotten them and to hold on a little longer because although it may not be happening in their time, it is happening and we won’t let them suffer too much longer.”

Collegiate student Katie Beth White broke her leg just before her classmates left for New Orleans, and she couldn’t make the trip. She told me she was surprised at the change in her friends after they returned. They’d spent a week with several people with deep roots in Louisville, all making huge differences in New Orleans. And vice versa.

Without question, the experience for the Collegiate students was at a minimum enlightening, and for a few, life-changing. Junior Barbara Gibbs, from the ’08 trip, wrote of her fellow classmates: “As the four of us sat on the roof we’d just created, I looked out over the great expanse of the worksite … I saw innumerable men and women walking around in green shirts, a sign that they were homeowners … We were each doing our separate jobs … I saw the beauty in it all.”

Plans are under way for the 2009 junior class trip to New Orleans.

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