Remarks by President George W. Bush at Warren Easton Charter High School on the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina
Source: Bush Center, 8-28-15
New Orleans, Louisiana
(August 28, 2015) —
Thank you all. As has been mentioned, in 2006 Laura and I came here to Warren Easton Charter High School a year after Katrina hit, and we are honored and pleased to be back on the tenth anniversary of that devastating storm. I can’t think of a better place to come here in New Orleans, except for some of the restaurants. (Laughter.) The slogan that guided the school when we first visited is true today: “We believe in success.” And because of the success that schools like this have achieved, you have given all Americans reason to believe that New Orleans is back and better than ever.
Mr. Mayor, thank you for your hospitality. You and the First Lady have been so gracious to us, and we want to thank you for your leadership. If enthusiasm and a good strategy count, New Orleans is in good hands. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
By the way, I do bring greetings from one of the co-chairmen of the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund: 41. (Laughter.) He had one of the great lines of all time. He said, “Who would have thought that getting out of bed at age 91 would be more dangerous than jumping out of an airplane at age 90?” (Laughter.)
I want to thank David Garland, President of the Warren Easton Charter Foundation Board. I want to thank all the folks who have shown up. As Laura said, we had a roundtable discussion. Many of our friends were there, people who we worked with. I think of Norman Francis for example, one of the great leaders of New Orleans, one of the great minds of New Orleans. (Applause.)
In spite of the devastation, we have many fond memories. I remember sitting with [General Russel] Honore on top one of those big ships, strategizing. I think you were drinking; I wasn’t of course. (Laughter.) It is great to see you. We’re honored that you took time to come.
Members of Congress, Members of the State House, Superintendent White, on and on: thank you for coming.
I really want to thank the leadership of the school. I’m going to talk about them here in a minute, although I must confess, the Principal is always a teacher. So she tried to teach me how to Second Line with the band here at Warren Easton. (Laughter.) I know she didn’t say it, but she was thinking, this boy needs a lot of work. (Laughter.) So we’re thrilled we’re here. Thanks for your hospitality.
In a cruel twist, Hurricane Katrina brought despair during what should have been a season of hope – the start of a new school year. Students who had recently gone back to school suddenly had no school to go back to. Many had nowhere to live. The floodwaters, as you all know better than most, claimed schools and homes alike. As Laura mentioned, the ground we’re on today was underwater. All of us who are old enough to remember will never forget the images of our fellow Americans amid a sea of misery and ruin. We will always remember the lives lost across the Gulf Coast. Their memories are in our hearts – and I hope you pray for their families.
Hurricane Katrina is a story of loss beyond measure; it is also a story of commitment and compassion. I hope you remember what I remember, and that is 30,000 people were saved in the immediate aftermath of the storm by U.S. military personnel, by Louisiana law enforcement, and by citizens who volunteered. I hope you remember what I remember, and that is the thousands who came here on a volunteer basis to provide food for the hungry and to help find shelter for those who had no home to live in. There are people all around our country who prayed for you, many of whom showed up so they could say they helped a fellow citizen who was hurting.
One of the groups that stepped forward to serve were the educators of New Orleans. At a time when it would have been easy to walk away from the wreckage, the educators here today thought of the children who would be left behind. You understood that bringing New Orleans back to life required getting students back to school. And even though some of the educators had lost almost everything you owned, you let nothing stand in your way. Today, we celebrate the resurgence of New Orleans schools – and we honor the resilience of a great American city whose levees gave out but whose people never gave up.
Out of the devastation of Katrina, you vowed to do more than just open the schools. You vowed to challenge the status quo. Long before the great flood, too many students in this city drifted from grade to grade without ever learning the skills needed for success. Parents lacked choices and the power to intervene. Principals and teachers lacked the authority to chart a more hopeful course. It was a system that stranded more than sixty percent of students failing in schools. It was what I called the soft bigotry of low expectations.
The decisions you made in the dark hours after Katrina sparked a decade of reform. Rather than just reopen the schools, you reorganized many into charter schools that are independently operated but publicly accountable for achieving high standards. More than nine in ten public school students in this city now call a charter school home. Administrators at these schools have the freedom to slice through red tape and the freedom to innovate. Parents at these schools have choices if dissatisfied. And the results at these schools have been extraordinary. The reason we know is because we measure, and any attempt to undermine accountability our school system is a huge disservice to the students who go to the schools in New Orleans. (Applause.)
According to a new report by the Cowen Institute, the percentage of New Orleans’ students graduating on time has soared since Katrina. The percentage of students who attend schools that score better than the state average almost doubled. And so has the percentage of students meeting basic standards. You’ve got to ask, why? It just didn’t happen. A lot of it’s structural, and a lot of it requires strong leadership – people who stared into the eye of a storm and who refused to back down. And so Laura and I are here in New Orleans to remind our country about what strong leadership means, and we’re here to salute the leaders.
I think of Jenny Rious here at Warren Easton. After Katrina, Jenny was forced to leave New Orleans; she started Warren Easton in Exile. The site reunited students scattered across the country around a vision for returning to New Orleans, and reopening this school. When Jenny returned to New Orleans, the first place she went was not her house. It was this school. And as she put it, “I would rather see my own house burn down than this school.” Jenny would give anything for Easton – and today, we give teachers like her our sincere thanks. (Applause.)
It’s amazing what happened in this city after a storm wiped out the school system. Educational entrepreneurs decided to do something about the devastation, and the failure. I met a lot of them when I was President, and subsequently. Neerav Kingsland is one such person. After Katrina, Neerav took a leadership role at an organization called New Schools for New Orleans, where he worked with others to help launch dozens of new schools and to turn ideas for reform into reality. In other words, this isn’t just a theoretical exercise. It’s important for people for our country to look at New Orleans and realize this is an exercise in implementing a plan which works.
Neerav was so encouraged by what he saw here, he was talking up the reforms that worked in New Orleans to other cities across the country. Isn’t that amazing – the storm nearly destroys New Orleans, now New Orleans is a beacon for school reform. (Applause.) Neerav represents the virtues that Bill Clinton and I had in mind when we announced the new Presidential Leadership Scholars program – and we are honored that Neerav was among the first class of scholars.
Achieving these results took librarians who salvaged their collections from the watery wreckage. Listen, I know something about librarians. (Laughter.) I married one. (Laughter.) I’m really proud of the Laura Bush Foundation. She talked about the grants; she talked about Pam and Marshall. These are citizens who supported this Foundation who, like many around the country, they care deeply about the future of this city. I hope the students here – and I’m really thrilled you’re here by the way, thank you for staying awake (laughter) – I hope you realize the compassion of others in helping you realize a good education.
It turns out that every good school that’s succeeding – and we know it’s succeeding, because we measure against other standards – requires strong principals. And there’s no doubt that Lexi Medley is a strong leader. (Applause.) I love when she says, “If you fail, we fail. The student is our product. We don’t believe in putting out anything but the best.” In order to succeed, in order to lead properly, you’ve got to set high goals and high expectations. And that’s what Lexi and this school have done. As you heard, this school has graduated 100 percent of its seniors for the past five years. (Applause.) Lexi, you’ve earned our admiration and our gratitude, along with our best wishes for a happy birthday tomorrow. (Laughter and Applause.)
In the stories of schools like yours, we see a determination to rebuild better than before. It’s a spirit much stronger than any storm. It’s a spirit that has lifted communities laid low by tornadoes or terrorist attacks. It’s a spirit that I saw in New Orleans ten years ago, and that is very evident today.
We see that spirit in a population that has ticked back up as families settle back down. We see it in tourists who are drawn not only by this city’s rich heritage but by the new hotel rooms and restaurants. And we see that spirit in Lauren LeDuff. As Lauren mentioned, Laura and I first met her in 2006 when she was a senior at Easton. She was happy to be back at the school she loved at the time – and you know what she told me? She said, “I want to be a teacher.” And here she is as a member of this faculty, teaching English. I probably needed her when I was in high school. (Laughter.) When asked how students have overcome adversity, Lauren says, “We teach our kids to be resilient. That’s in the culture of the city.”
Lauren is right. The resilience you teach at Warren Easton is the same resilience that this city showed the world in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. On this anniversary, the work of making a stronger and more hopeful New Orleans goes on. We have achieved a lot over the past ten years. And with belief in success and a faith in God, New Orleans will achieve even more. The darkness from a decade ago has lifted. The Crescent City has risen again. And its best days lie ahead. Thank you for having me. (Applause.)