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The Cajun Comeback

+(Adam Kushner)

The Cajun Comeback

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

By Adam B. 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.

At the same time, entrepreneurship—particularly in the tech sector—has taken off. Within three years, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, the start-up rate was double its antediluvian level. A local production-and-payroll tax credit has helped grow tech jobs by nearly one-fifth since 2005, six times the national rate. Forbes ranked this the No. 1 city for IT job growth. One organization has launched a blinged-out South-by-Southwest-style conference for entrepreneurs. And the city persuaded GE Capital and Gameloft to open large offices in town. It all has the feel of Silicon Valley in the mid-’90s.

New Orleans was literally underwater eight years ago. The response since then isn’t exactly a model for other cities, because the start-from-scratch conditions (thankfully) are not replicable. But the comeback does have one overall theme: a willingness to try different things. In a town obsessed with tradition, that was the first miracle.

READY FOR THE CLOSE-UP

A thrum of activity—sparkly soldering irons, lumbering forklifts—vibrates the Spectrum FX warehouse when I show up to chat with its owner, Matt Kutcher, who moved the special-effects shop here in 2011 after 15 years in Hollywood. The floor is strewn with snowmakers, wind machines, car-roll cages, and other baffling equipment. In the center, Kutcher and a half-dozen other men are threading a fire hose through a rain bar, a latticed boom about 50 feet long that will be used to conjure inclement weather. When it’s finished, they’ll truck the rain bar to the New Orleans East set of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and hang it perpendicularly from the top of a crane. Water rises through the hose and sprays a thunderstorm across a four-block radius.

It’s an appropriate metaphor for what happened to this state’s film industry after lawmakers in Baton Rouge passed a 30 percent film tax credit in 2002: They opened the spigot. Thanks to the provision, studios can redeem nearly a third of what they spend in the state on projects larger than $300,000. They get another 5 percent discount for hiring locals such as Kutcher and his crew. The credit has made Louisiana the third-most-productive state in the film industry, after California and New York. New Orleans alone, where studios spent $661 million last year, has about 1,000 full-time movie workers. “At this point, it has created roughly the same number of jobs as the state seafood industry,” says Will French, who runs a tax-credit brokerage in the city.

Kutcher, 45, started his Los Angeles company in 1996. Over the years, he occasionally won studio contracts to work a New Orleans film (Interview With a Vampire was his first). But because the city didn’t have many experienced local workers, Kutcher had to bring in California welders or carpenters familiar with showbiz tricks—at great cost. After 2002, Kutcher began to notice more and more New Orleanians with sophisticated knowledge. The number of locals working as full-time film crew rose 400 percent between 2006 and 2011. Finally, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter did the trick. Kutcher constructed all the effects he needed for that picture using only Louisianans—and created 18 jobs in the process. “Everybody was a hired local,” he says. That’s when he decided to move. He packed Spectrum FX into seven trailers and 14 shipping containers, rented a warehouse just outside the city, and started over.

In his office, a trailer outside the building, Kutcher begins to explain why it’s so much easier to make a movie here than in Los Angeles. The Apes script sits on his desk. I restrain a sci-fi fanboy’s urge to slip it into my messenger bag while he looks up a data point on his computer. He has seven permanent staffers, he says, and can scale up quickly to as many as 70, all with health insurance, for a big film. “If you’re a resident, it takes you 30 days to qualify for the local union,” he says, contrasting that with 18 months in California. Louisiana is a right-to-work state, which also helps keep salaries comparatively low.

Kutcher’s base rate for a union position is $22 an hour, about half that of Los Angeles, but the paycheck rises quickly for people with certain specialties. “When I first started at Spectrum FX, a lot of my work involved cleaning machinery and sweeping floors,” says Justin Johnson, 27, who grew up in a suburb on the west bank of the Mississippi. “Over time I learned ... various trades, including carpentry, fabrication, plumbing, and electrical work. I knew that learning these trades would translate well to other work within and outside the film industry.”

The sector isn’t just creating jobs; it’s also luring workers from Hollywood, including actors. Laura Cayouette spent 18 years playing opposite the likes of Shirley MacLaine, Bill Paxton, Will Smith, Juliette Lewis, and Miranda Richardson. But she decided it was worth “taking a chance” on New Orleans, as she put it, because “the highest value here is community.” She knew it would mean smaller parts, and it did. But when Django Unchained decided to film here, she landed a role alongside Leonardo DiCaprio as the sister of the film’s villain. “There’s better food, nobody cares what you drive, and it’s cheaper to live,” says Cayouette, of the advantages that come with living in New Orleans. Plus, decentralization in the film business—thanks to laptop computing, postproduction work can be done anywhere, and is increasingly being done in New Orleans—means that big projects needn’t originate in Hollywood. “Beasts of the Southern Wild proved that for the first time in history of the academy, a film can be selected for best picture, best director, best screenplay, best actress with no studio, no money, no distribution to speak of,” she says.

Still, while hires are glad for the boon, good-government groups question whether the tax credit is a smart use of state resources. Baton Rouge has handed out more than $1 billion through the credit since 2002—at a time of deep budget cuts to health care, education, and other areas. Reports by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington and the Louisiana Budget Project say the rewards do not equal the costs. The LBP studied 2010 returns and found that the state treasury collected only $1 for every $7.30 it spent. Taxpayers paid $60,000 for every direct job the film industry created. The credit was never supposed to be permanent, critics say. It was meant to seed an industry that has now matured. So the state can remove the incentive, they argue, and the sector will still thrive.

But local proponents and a state-commissioned impact study say the trickle-down stimulus is hard to measure. Kutcher points out that he has to spend on rental cars, gas, construction materials, food, and other goods while he’s shooting. “It may be true that the state does not get back as much as it pays out,” says Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “But it’s equally true that the beneficiaries are [instead] the local governments and local economies that get all these jobs.”

An updated state report concluded this week that the film tax credits have become more efficient, creating 15,200 direct and indirect jobs and costing 3 percent less than last year. “If we have $661 million spent in our parish [last year], and the state gave $270 million in tax credits, that’s a good investment,” says Scott Hutcheson, who runs the city government’s Film NOLA initiative. “If you took out those millions overnight, you have a risk that’s much greater on a municipal level—including to Baton Rouge in Shreveport [where many films are also made]—than the reward on a state level.”

As it happens, Georgia has an equally generous, albeit newer, tax-credit system, and many people I spoke with see the Peach State as a rival. If Louisiana ceased to be competitive, says French, the tax-credit broker, “studios will go to Georgia.” That’s what happened when Michigan ended its incentives after giving the experiment just a few years. If the credit disappears here, no rain bar could reopen the spigot over Kutcher’s business.

FEEDING A NEED

Creole tradition in this city always demanded ham for dinner on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. Then on Monday, wash day, matrons dropped the leftover ham bones into a pot with kidney beans, spices, and the holy trinity (onion, pepper, celery), letting it simmer all day while they did the laundry. Spooned over rice, the dish eventually became a staple in New Orleans, where most restaurants still serve it on Mondays. It’s also an accepted local metaphor for the notion that much can be done with little. To cook red beans and rice is to be life-rich and cash-poor.

Which makes it an appropriate choice for my lunch on a recent Monday at Café Reconcile down the street from Lee Circle. This casual diner is the public face of a nonprofit where, according to the menu, “we equip disconnected youth (ages 16-22) with the life skills, job training, and work experience necessary to enact positive changes in their lives.” The group finds at-risk young people and teaches them how to be restaurant workers. Some are homeless, and many have criminal records. Suddenly, a kid whose future looked immutably like his past—another simulacrum for life here before Katrina—has become a member of the hospitality industry, the largest sector in town. Opportunity has opened up.

Reconcile pays students $800 to undertake a rigorous program. It begins with three weeks of training in life skills, including being on time, trusting authority, and code-switching (learning how to speak differently to different kinds of people). A staff social worker spends time with the students least prepared for service work. Then comes five weeks of working in the café; students rotate between the floor and the kitchen. They graduate after four final weeks working an externship, generally with one of the nonprofit’s partners—say, a hotel kitchen downtown, a catering company, or a hospital café.

Hopefully, that turns into a full-time position. “We have some students who are living out of a car, living on the street, bathing at Walmart with a child,” says CEO Glen Armantrout, who spent most of his career as an executive at Acme Oyster House, a century-old French Quarter restaurant chain, and took over at Reconcile in June. “Then they get a job, they get an apartment, they start paying rent—that’s how we help them.”

I watched Terrica Elvis, a 19-year-old Ninth Ward native, work her first day in the café. She had all the confidence of a longtime server, smiling often and generously at both the diners and her coworkers. She’s not the hardest-luck case, but her family hasn’t had it easy. They’ve been unable to repair their Katrina-damaged home, so she, her parents, her two older sisters (each have two jobs), and her niece share a small house in New Orleans East. “Some of my brothers turned in the wrong direction,” Elvis says, speaking about drugs and crime. “That was all I knew. It’s a big change for me to be given the opportunity to be somebody.”

 

Reconcile, which opened its doors in 2000, says it has placed 90 percent of its graduates. In the past two years, the average starting salary was $9.25 an hour. The organization did not have an especially rigorous data-tracking system, and Hurricane Katrina wiped out whatever bookkeeping existed. Then Reconcile began to reimagine its curriculum and scale up. In 2008, it had 58 students; this year, the number will be 160. In 2011, the most recent year with good data (the café closed for six months of renovations last year), 62 percent graduated, and, of those, 82 percent still had jobs a year later. “They do great work,” says Cmdr. Robert Bardy of the 6th Police Precinct, in which Reconcile is based, who was eating there when I visited. “And they have the best red jambalaya in the city.”

Coaching doesn’t end when students leave the program. Reconcile recently hired a job-retention specialist to track graduates for a year after placement in the workforce (just like Sci), studying their wage increases and promotions. “Our goal is not simply to help our youth find a job, but to help them build a career that will result in a legitimate pathway out of poverty for themselves and their families,” says Dave Emond, the development director. To that end, Reconcile is adding postgraduate courses on financial literacy. It trains managers across town on how to employ its graduates—that is, how to handle them with care and help integrate them slowly into the workforce. It persuaded a local dermatologist to offer a 90 percent discount on tattoo removal.

The program even works with legal-service providers to expunge the records of felony convicts if their past proves to be an insurmountable hurdle to employment. “Ultimately, we have found that these types of barriers, rather than any skill or attitude deficit, are the primary deterrents both to successful completion of our program and to long-term workplace immersion,” Emond says. Bardy, too, helps by making sure Reconcile students going to work overnight aren’t held for violating the city’s under-18 curfew.

Reconcile is an unusual poverty-fighting nonprofit. It gets 50 percent of its revenue from the restaurant—hopefully more in the coming years, Armantrout says—and the rest from grants and donations. (The end of earmarks in Congress meant the demise of a $300,000 annual bequest that Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., had helped to secure.) Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, for instance, kicked in $600,000 for the just-unveiled nearly $6 million expansion and renovation. “But it’s expensive to cover uniforms, transportation, educational supplies, and two meals per day—about $5,000 per student.”

Still, Armantrout says, the rewards are easy to see. At the beginning of the program, “we ask what [the young people] want to do with their lives, and get a blank stare,” he says. “But after 12 weeks, it’s, ‘I want to own my own restaurant,’ ‘I want to own my own beauty shop,’ ‘I wanna own my own home, my own car,’ ‘I wanna have a family one day.’ Now they have goals and aspirations.”

EDUCATION REMEDIATION

At a time when sexy reinventions are unfolding across town, the school system represents the most meaningful and most insufficiently heralded change.

After Katrina, the city of New Orleans laid off every public-school teacher and started from scratch. It turned over most of the system to the state-run Recovery School District, which began issuing charter licenses that allow schools to operate in whatever way they see fit, as long as they meet certain standards. The RSD is strict about credentialing only ambitious, college-prep schools—and even stricter about closing them after three years if they fall below expectations. Eight years after the hurricane, more than 80 percent of the city’s students attend a charter school. And the early results are amazing.

Before Katrina, the passing rate on state tests was 35 percent; now, it’s 60 percent. The graduation rate has climbed from 55 percent to more than 75 percent, surpassing the national average. Before the storm, three-fifths of students attended a failing school; now, fewer than one-fifth do, even as standards got tougher. And parents are 40 percent more likely to send their kids to a school other than the one closest to their home, according to a forthcoming study by Douglas N. Harris, an education economist at Tulane University, and several of his colleagues. (Most charter schools, like Sci, are open-enrollment; there are no more district schools.)

At this rate, within five years, New Orleans will become the first major U.S. city to exceed its state’s average scores. Schools have risen from a state of crisis to a state of mediocrity, which counts for a miracle here. “New Orleans has undergone the largest and quickest improvement in the history of public education in America,” says Michael Stone, chief external-relations officer at New Schools for New Orleans, a school-innovation nonprofit.

 

At the same time, a revolution on the fly is unlikely to achieve perfect results. While the school system has finally begun to address the most crucial social pathology in New Orleans—the educational barriers to income mobility—the overhaul created a raft of lesser problems that reformers have not entirely figured out how to solve.

For starters, hard-luck cases pose an open-enrollment dilemma. Federal law requires publicly funded schools to educate students with special needs, but in 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center found systematic mistreatment in RSD schools. In New Orleans, children with disabilities were enrolling at about two-thirds the rate of those statewide and graduating at only one-third the rate. Like students with criminal records or those emerging from incarceration, disabled kids were sometimes admitted and then (nearly 30 percent of the time) suspended for the year, since schools didn’t have the resources to cope with them.

“When you have a high-stakes accountability system like this one, there’s an incentive to keep low-performing students out,” says Tulane’s Harris. The pre-Katrina Orleans Parish School Board might have been a flawed and even corrupt organization, but it was also a single coordinating authority that offered a kind of safety net so students didn’t slip out of the system. Southern Poverty Law launched a discrimination suit in 2010 that is still pending as schools have begun to improve.

Teachers offer another paradox. Their quality has improved in the aggregate. But they’re not an experienced group, and they’re often not part of the community they teach. In the early years after Katrina, says John Ayers, director of Tulane’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, between one-third and one-half of teachers were from Teach for America, an excellent program of mostly wealthy, white, elite-college graduates in their 20s. But 88 percent of New Orleans public-school students are black, and 85 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Kids did not have a surfeit of role models from their own community. Teach for America instructors are now about one-fourth of the city’s teacher corps, but they still outnumber veteran local educators of the kind laid off after the storm. (A corollary problem is that white middle- and upper-class students almost uniformly stick to the private- or magnet-school system.)

Meanwhile, the highest-performing teachers are, predictably, the ones working 60-to-90-hour weeks. “People burn out and leave to start a family or a real career,” says Sarah Carr, the author of Hope Against Hope, an outstanding new book about the post-Katrina school system. The burnout rate makes teacher development very difficult. An early-morning faculty meeting at Sci was peopled almost entirely by twentysomethings; just 30 percent of the staff are people of color. “We are always trying to recruit veteran educators,” says Morgan Ripski Carter, president of the charter organization that owns Sci. “If they’re [in New Orleans], they’re not available” because they’re already in such high demand.

Charter-reform advocates also question a model that favors prep schools. The Recovery School District grants charter licenses only to administrators who promise to ready students for college; there is not a single vocational or technical high school in a city of 370,000. This swamp town has a dire shortage of air-conditioning technicians, a job that pays well, and no pipeline to create more. It will need future stevedores, lab techs, and film crew. But what parents (or city) want to decide their children aren’t fit for college? “You’ve got kids who everyone said couldn’t learn before,” says Mayor Landrieu, who has no authority over the city’s schools but is rightly proud of their progress. “Well, they’re learning now. And each of them knows they’re going to graduate from college.” About half actually do matriculate.

Perhaps the biggest hitch in the new system is school closures. On one hand, the RSD’s “no excuses” philosophy shuts down schools that constantly underperform on state tests, rather than allowing them to undereducate students in perpetuity, as the old system did. But even zealous charter advocates point out that testing is not the only way to demonstrate quality. A superior high school might turn semiliterate ninth-graders into graduates who read at a 10th-grade level. Unfortunately, that is still considered failure, because tests value absolute performance over degrees of improvement.

“We think good schools—which brought students far along but not up to requisite test level—have been closed,” says Ayers, who cautions that Tulane researchers such as Harris are still crunching the data. Studies in other cities, Ayers says, have shown that “there are lots of schools that have high value-added scores but middling test scores.”

And when those schools close, students and their families may drift through the system, often to other underperforming sites. “I’ve met families whose kids have hit six or seven schools [as each one closed] since Katrina and ended up at schools of about the same performance,” Carr says. “Officials should see if there’s a significantly better school to send kids to [before they close a charter], or else it’s pointless to send them away.”

Ultimately, what’s happening in New Orleans has never been done before, and the most steadfast defenders argue it’s so much better than the antediluvian system. “You hear reformers say, ‘You don’t want to go back,’ ” Ayers says. “But we’re starting to now say, ‘We need more sophisticated discussion about what is this thing going to look like.’ ” As Carr puts it, schools must be compared to what they should be, not to what they were before Katrina.

At the Sci faculty meeting, teachers are gleeful about the 35 college acceptances that have flowed in during the past few days; that morning, one student was admitted to Barnard College. This, New Orleanians are beginning to hope, is a vision of the future. If so, these changes across town are only the first tentative steps. Sabermetrics got Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s into the playoffs—but it still hasn’t won the team a championship.