Alexina Medley: We Knew If We Could Open The School Our Neighborhood Would Come Back
As told to Kimberly Jacobs
Before Hurricane Katrina, I was principal at Thurgood Marshall Middle School, which is down the street from Warren Easton Charter High School, where I’m currently an educator. The kids were in school for two weeks before Katrina hit. We all went home because we knew a storm was coming. Just like we’ve done before, we’d be gone for three days, pack up three days’ worth of clothes, leave and come back. You would get your school back up and running, and the kids would return. We’ve done this before, so everyone was in that mindset of “we’ll be right back.”
We thought we’d be back by Tuesday. On Sunday, there was a mandatory evacuation order because the storm had grown to be extremely big. Right after the storm passed on Monday morning, everyone expected to go home.
Then we heard the levees had broken, and we were under water.
Everyone was glued to the television and radio, trying to figure out how much of the city was flooded. The more you heard about it, the worse it seemed to be. We did an aerial search on Google to see where the school how much water had surrounded the school. Thurgood Marshall Middle School was flooded by about eight feet of water, so we knew we weren’t coming back.
We were all standing in line either for food stamps, Red Cross or any other assistance organizations because we didn’t know how we would access our money. My husband banked at a local Black bank, so they had no other outlet to get money. I had a national bank, so we had to live off the funds in my account until we could access his local account. Those were some of the things that taught all of us, including the Black-owned banks, that we needed to expand nationally.
For three weeks, we didn’t know where to go or what to do. A lot of parents were trying to put their children in school, but I was just trying to find somewhere to go. There were a lot of us that couldn’t get gas, took shelter in attics, or who had to leave their parents behind.
When I first left New Orleans, I went to Lafayette, La., and stayed with one of my teacher’s daughters. We all stayed there because we figured we’d be there three days and party. I ended up there for a week.
Then we went to Houston for three weeks. My husband didn’t know exactly where he would be situated because his government office was completely destroyed. They gave him a choice to either go to Baton Rouge or Shreveport. He chose Baton Rouge. Then came Hurricane Rita in September. Initially, the storm was headed to Houston, and we had to evacuate. So we kept going to stay ahead of the hurricane and ended up in Baton Rouge.
We rented a house and shared it with another couple. My daughter was safe at school in D.C., but she didn’t have anywhere to go when she needed to leave for the holidays. I stayed in Baton Rouge for a month, then I left on Nov. 1 and went back to my hometown of Nassau, Bahamas. My parents had just died, so we had a lot of things that had to be taken care of such as my parents’ estate. My daughter met me there when she was on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Spring breaks.
When we first came back, we would go up on our flat roof to look across New Orleans. The whole city was gone, and you could see how desolate and quiet it was after Katrina. The one thing Katrina taught the whole city is to become more computer literate because that was the only way we could communicate. We were all over the place and a whole bunch of us that were really close would call each other to see how we were going to get back to New Orleans. On Saturday evenings, I would get on the phone with my friends, and we would take pity on each other. So many of us were waiting to get back, but we didn’t have anywhere to go.
I was so numb when I returned from the Bahamas on Feb. 14, 2006. Why are we here? What are we doing? Then all of a sudden, we all just looked at each other and said if we don’t come back, nobody else will. We needed to come back and get the city up and running.
When I came back, my husband and I stayed in a little efficiency room with the bed and the kitchen constantly on top of each other because we couldn’t find anywhere to stay. My husband lost his office, so he and some of his partners decided to sell the building. He also decided to semi-retire. He still works for the government as a physician, but he gave up his private practice. My daughter moved back to New Orleans, but I wish she would’ve stayed out of state.
We knew setting up a charter school would be the way. It was hard to fund a school unless you could get some sort of grant, so everyone started writing grant proposals. We ended up with a lot of grants: a restart grant, start-up grant, technology grant and several others.
We were trying to make life for the students as normal as it could be. In April, we were awarded a charter for Warren Easton Charter High School and a high school opened and gave us a room to recruit in. We didn’t know how we were going to get paid. But everyone was going on faith that we were going to get the building back. We relied on each other.
We knew if we could open, then our neighborhood would come back, and the city would come back. When you have schools, you have kids; we knew that.
In August 2006, we got the charter for our school. Our librarian asked if she could write a grant for the Laura Bush Foundation that would get the library some new books. The mold from the heat had started to move from the first floor to the second floor. It was recommended that we discard all of our books in the library from the second floor. She won the grant from then-President George W. Bush’s advance team, and he came to our school to give a speech on the first year after the hurricane hit.
We received all of the keys on Aug. 28. We didn’t have air conditioning. We didn’t even have a cafeteria. We ate sack lunches and pizza for the whole year. So if you ever meet kids who never want to eat pizza again, then you know those were our kids. When we opened our doors on Sept. 7, 2006, we had 792 kids. And my family finally moved back into our home that month, too.
Kids were admitted on a first-come, first-served basis. Our charter said the doors were open for teachers, staff and students if they wanted to come back. We even had a student who caught a Megabus from Baton Rouge, and she was on the bus at 5 a.m. to get here at 7 a.m. every day so she could graduate. We had families sleeping in cars, living with friends, and we had a lot of kids who were the only ones here because they wanted to finish school. Everybody was trying to hold on to something.
We were able to open before the federal money started coming in, and we paid all of our bills because as a charter school, we had to do all of those things ourselves. If we wanted to succeed, there was very little room for error.
Most of us worked 24/7. We ran after-school programs after a student e-mailed me to say the school needed extracurricular activities to keep the kids busy.
We didn’t have a football team for the first year, but we had a basketball team. There was a small band, an auxiliary team and homecoming our first year back. We did everything that would give the students a sense of normalcy.
The city is still rebuilding, and as far as education, we are continuously rebuilding. At Warren Easton, we want to make sure our children’s needs are met. Our school has grown rapidly in the past decade. We want to keep enrollment under 1,000 and right now we are at 998. We could easily have 2,000 if we wanted, but we don’t have the space. The building is more than 100 years old, so that also limits what we can do.
Katrina taught us to be a little more sympathetic and that we needed to depend on each other. I’ve been an educator for 36 years, and I’ve learned we need to do whatever it takes to move a child. It may take a little longer to reach some students, but you don’t give up on kids. They are our future.
At our school, we have a transition camp that helps middle-schoolers get ready for high school. They went to the Port of New Orleans and the captain of the ship was telling the children how this school has made such a big difference in his daughter. “That school makes you get better,” he said.
That’s one of my proudest moments. I hope that the work we do at Warren Easton continues to steer students in the right direction.