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The Cajun Comeback

Eight years after Katrina, New Orleans is finding new ways to address old problems. Scenes from a turnaround.


Reinvention writ-small: Restaurant as community-service organization.(Adam Kushner)

NEW ORLEANS—As her class winds down on a recent Thursday morning at Sci Academy, a charter high school in New Orleans East, Katie Bubalo distributes a short survey, called an “exit ticket,” to her sophomore English students. She does this at the end of every period to see how much of the lesson the students have absorbed. The second of three questions reads:

What is the main idea of this passage?

1. Oedipus does not believe the seer because he is blind and untrustworthy.

2. Oedipus is in disbelief about his fate and mocks the seer.

3. The seer attempts to deliver bad news but realizes he cannot because Oedipus is the king.

4. Oedipus listens intently to the seer, all the while realizing his disastrous fate.


Papers shuffle forward, and kids pass a pile of well-thumbed copies of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on their way out the door.

Then Bubalo shakes hands with every student who files in for the next period. She distributes another survey—an “entry ticket”—administered at the beginning of a class to see whether students have retained the previous day’s material. Later, she’ll feed the entry and exit data, along with attendance information and other performance measures, into Sci’s software system. The theory is that, over time, patterns emerge to tell teachers who is succeeding, where students fall short, how to remediate them, and what correlations might exist between performance and, say, poverty or the length of a commute. Administrators even track their former students through the first year of college to see how they can better prepare their 9th- and 10th-graders for the challenges to come. Sabermetrics suffuse Sci Academy, and every teacher is Billy Beane.

It’s working. Sci, whose student body is representative of most pre-Katrina public schools here (92 percent of the children receive free or reduced-price lunches, and 94 percent are black), is a star performer in a reinvented school system obsessed with analytics. Standardized test scores are about 25 percent above the local average, and 90 percent of graduates go to college. This isn’t the first school to use data, but New Orleans may be the first city to apply its longitudinal lessons, simultaneously, across town. The passing rate for city students on state tests has almost doubled, to 60 percent.


Sci is one of the many places in New Orleans where officials are trying surprising new things—approaches that, before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, would have been impossible. These tactics aren’t designed merely to repair the damage and restore the city that was but to improve on it. A crisis, New Orleanians seem to have collectively decided, is a terrible thing to waste. From education to tech to film, residents have turned their hometown into a laboratory for civic experimentation. They’re luring Hollywood studios by teaching themselves showbiz tricks, advancing a state tax-credit program launched before Katrina. They’re running new data-driven nonprofits. And they’ve chartered more than 80 percent of the school system. New Orleans has used the recovery effort to confront many of its longtime political, economic, and social pathologies—the problems that perennially perched it atop those worst-in-the-country lists.

Not every experiment can succeed, and residents haven’t yet figured out how to address a host of intractable problems. The poverty rate is nearly twice the national average; many Katrina refugees are still unable to return home (the population is just over 80 percent of its pre-storm level); and an epidemic of violent crime has terrorized the city. The murder rate, higher here than anywhere else in the country, is 10 times the national average. And even many of the successful reforms are plagued by complications: a potentially unsustainable tax scheme; a great community organization that may not be scalable; a labor force that isn’t as well equipped for “mindshare” work as those in rival cities; an underexperienced and overworked teaching corps. Resources are still vanishingly scarce, and Katrina still looms large in the municipal psyche.

But, suddenly, this city is animated by a can-do spirit unfamiliar from my childhood here. That attitude is helping to reverse the brain drain that for so long deprived New Orleans of homegrown talent. Spirited young do-gooders are flocking to town, opening service organizations and start-ups. Unemployment is only 5.9 percent, compared with 7.8 percent for the nation. The municipal government is hoping to capitalize on, and reinforce, the rising trend by developing a $2 billion state-of-the-art medical research center downtown and attracting top-flight scientists to run labs in two new research hospitals. The city wants the “knowledge economy,” as Mayor Mitch Landrieu puts it, to take hold. Meanwhile, “hospitality”—the $9 billion industry that has always been the economic anchor—is almost back to pre-Katrina heights.


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