“In some parts of Africa,” said Ray Nagin, mayor of New Orleans, “people upon meeting you don’t ask, ‘How are you doing?’ They ask, ‘How are the children?’ If the children are doing all right, the others probably are, too.”

Trying to ensure that the children of the Gulf Coast will be doing all right was the fundamental objective of an event organized by the HELP (Hurricane Education Leadership Program) Team, a consortium of more than 30 ed-tech providers, associations, and foundations. The event was held Aug. 1 and 2 in the Algiers section of New Orleans. Mayor Nagin was the keynote speaker.

Two dozen corporate HELP members had come together on the eve of the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to demonstrate for beleaguered Louisiana educators the promise of a 21st century learning environment. The HELP partners demonstrated their classroom and administrative solutions to educators who, for the most part, had little or no experience with the cutting edge of education technology.

Nagin praised the assembled educators and providers for their efforts and their positive outlook on education recovery.

“You are doing something near and dear to my heart: trying to figure out a way to elevate the level of education, and make sure the best technology and resources are available to our children,” Nagin said. “As I look out on New Orleans and the challenges we have, we’re trying to do something that no one has ever done in the history of this world. No one.

“No one has ever tried to restart a community that has been totally devastated. Eighty percent of our city was under water for weeks. We have an opportunity now to rewrite history and change a city that, for 300 years, has gone in the same direction.

“Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, Katrina has done a lot of negative things, but she has also opened up a world of opportunity,” Nagin continued. “As we sit here today, trying to figure out what we are going to do, you will be able to tell your children and grandchildren that you set the direction for the way New Orleans is going to be 30, 40, 50 years from now.”

Nagin encouraged educators to seek out every tool that could be brought to children to make sure they have the best opportunities and the best educational system in the world.

“I have had the wonderful opportunity to go to a lot of different technology companies,” Nagin said. “Intel is one; Microsoft is another. The tools are out there for us to do something special. It’s just up to us. Now that you have this opportunity, go for it.”

Algiers Charter Schools Association hosted HELP’s “Education Technology Experience” at the William J. Fischer Elementary School. Other leaders speaking at the opening ceremony included representatives from National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the State Education Technology Directors’ Association, and the International Society for Technology in Education. The second day of the event unfolded during the annual meeting of principals from the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans, held at a nearby hotel.

“This is really the first time anything of this kind has been done,” said Terry Smithson, education strategist for Intel and the founding manager of the HELP Team: the “first time for-profit companies are working with nonprofits in a recovery effort.” Although two dozen companies were on hand to demonstrate their solutions, the event was decidedly not “a sales pitch,” Smithson explained to the educators. This event is “about coming together and showing you what a 21st century learning environment can be like.”

The recovery project began taking shape last December. Approximately 35 vendors, nonprofit organizations, state and national leaders, and national ed-tech advocacy groups came together to form the HELP Team, offering time, equipment, and expertise to the effort (for a complete membership roster, go to http://www.educationhelpteam.org). At the event in New Orleans, area educators attended demonstrations scheduled like class periods in actual classrooms, where three or four vendors per period in half a dozen classrooms laid out the pedagogical or administrative effectiveness of their technology.

Introducing New Orleans educators to 21st century solutions in this way was a logistically challenging and expensive undertaking. When the collective costs of such items as travel, lodging, meals, and shipping of equipment were taken into account, HELP partners spent “about $300,000” to present the event, Smithson estimated. Subsequent meetings between educators and HELP partners, he said, likely would be at the request of school officials and would probably offer demonstrations of only those ed-tech solutions specifically requested by the school leaders.

Mobility was a theme throughout the event, with vendors presenting tablet PC solutions in mobile racks and AV solutions for classrooms that could be easily removed in case of a new disaster. Mobility of information was also represented in the form of smart cards and other technologies used to store student data and keep it mobile, including medical records, many of which were lost in Katrina.

Another reason for the event was to keep the Gulf Coast in the national consciousness. “The United States has lost focus on the New Orleans region,” Smithson said. “That’s a shame. We need to do everything we can to bring focus back to this region.”

“Repainting the canvas”

If New Orleans has begun to disappear from the minds of many Americans, then the city’s leadership appeared eager to make up for the deficit.

“I’m amazed that we are where we are today, given the lack of resources we have,” said Nagin, discussing the recovery effort in New Orleans. “If I were to have told you eleven months ago that we were going to have to run this city with 25 percent of our pre-Katrina budget and a $1.3 billion emergency grant from the state, you guys would have said, ‘No, no way.’ Despite that, we are ahead of schedule. All the experts are now saying that we have 250,000 people in the city of New Orleans and climbing. The prognosticators were saying that we may get 150,000 at best. Our economy is showing signs of coming back. Our sales tax revenues are hovering anywhere between 65 to as high as 80 percent of our pre-Katrina values on a monthly basis. You’re not going to like this one, but property-tax collections are exceeding anybody’s expectations. We thought we were going to collect only 60 percent. We are now at 80 percent and climbing.

“Even with all of that, we are probably going to fall short of what it takes to run the city, but we’re improving, and we will continue to do so,” he added.

In an exclusive interview with eSchool News, Nagin said he believes technology is essential to the schooling of today’s students.

“They embrace [technology] very easily, and they use it on a regular basis,” he said. “[Technology] is going to be the thing that will make the difference [for education] in New Orleans, and probably around the country& I see technology driving the educational process.”

Nagin said he sees “a direct correlation” between bringing good education to New Orleans and repopulating the city to pre-Katrina levels.

“We have good schools throughout the city, whereas prior to Katrina, our school system was not in very good shape,” Nagin acknowledged. “If we can repopulate the city and have a core of 20, 40, maybe 50 high-quality schools throughout the city, I think the repopulation is going to be successful.”

Nagin said that it is his understanding that the federal government has allocated a lot of the dollars toward the education recovery for New Orleans, and that money is being funneled through the state and then to local educational organizations.

“Whether [funding] is flowing efficiently from the feds to the state to the local schools, that’s still a question mark, and that’s something we’re going to find out this fall as a lot of the schools open,” he said.

When asked about the possible difficulties associated with the restoration of a complex school system like that of New Orleans–which includes city-run schools, state-run schools, independently administered charter schools, and parochial or Catholic schools–Nagin said that, for the short-term recovery effort, the segmented system would do.

“For the medium- to long-term, we need to come up with one centralized governing system that manages all four aspects of our educational [system],” Nagin said, “because, at some point in time, you have to have someone driving the quality of education and making sure it’s consistent through all of the schools.”

Nagin had kind words for Intel’s Smithson and the entire HELP Team. He praised them for organizing the technology summit in New Orleans, and for all of their other efforts to bring New Orleans education into the 21st century.

“God bless Terry and the HELP Team for bringing some of the best companies and educational minds from around the country to help us figure out this educational challenge,” Nagin said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity–to repaint the canvas, if you will, and really create something special. I don’t think we could really get our act together without some outside help and resources coming to the table, especially some as talented as these.”

21st century classrooms

The idea of bringing that talent together, Intel’s Smithson told eSN, took shape in the chaos that followed Katrina’s devastation. In the days and weeks after the hurricane, Smithson said, much of the donated hardware, supplies, and money were not reaching the educators who most needed the assistance. And even when the aid did reach them, he said, it was not being deployed as effectively as it should have been. It quickly became apparent that an umbrella organization could better organize the recovery effort for the schools.

“We saw the opportunity to bring these efforts under one umbrella, as well as bring together some more brain power and some organizations that may not have been involved to make a more concentrated effort because we would get a lot further,” Smithson said.

“It is a unique situation,” Smithson continued. “Nowhere have we found a situation where for-profits work with national nonprofit organizations within the same environment to accomplish something. In this case, we have the for-profit companies, the nonprofits, the education press, and the foundation people. Foundations, like nonprofits, are very cautious about how they work in that environment.”

Smithson explained how the HELP Team is organized, consisting of nine committees, working with education departments in five states– Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, and Florida–as well as with the U.S. Department of Education (ED) in Washington, D.C.

“The team felt it was important to have co-chairs for each of the [nine HELP Team committees], a for-profit and a nonprofit, to create a check and balance [system],” he said. “The 18 co-chairs form an advisory panel for the executive oversight committee, made up of five people who represent all the organizations.”

Smithson said HELP is continuing to work with officials and consultants at all levels to make sure the goals of the team are achieved.

“We are looking at four areas. First, the schools that were completely destroyed and have lost all their infrastructure: It is a horrible thing, but it creates a unique opportunity. If a school is rebuilt correctly, it can then leap ahead into a 21st century learning environment. These schools have to replace their infrastructure, anyway, and whatever technology that was lost in the storm. Why not spend the money as wisely as you can and bring them up to date with the teaching methods of today,” Smithson said.

“The second piece is for the wind- and water-damaged schools. They likely do have some infrastructure still left in place. They can’t afford to just trash it all and rebuild. What’s happening there is we’re giving them guidance on how to move as far down that road as they can,” Smithson said.

“The third element is the displaced students who landed all over the United States,” Smithson said. “It is a burden when somebody comes into a school. How do we help those schools that accepted those displaced students?

“The fourth element . . . we couldn’t find a model like this for recovery disaster. [We are bringing] together a team that can mobilize quickly, address whatever education issues are happening, and help get over some of the hurdles that these people [in the affected Gulf States] faced,” Smithson said.

In tandem with that fourth element, Smithson announced in his eSN interview that HELP has formed a rapid-deployment Education Recovery Team. The team is made up ten members, two from each of the five affected Gulf States.

“They can go in and say, ‘We lived through this. Here are the things you can do,’ and provide them with that kind of guidance, which is invaluable. Here, [in New Orleans], they had none of that. They just had to figure it out on their own,” he said.

ED has been supportive of HELP Team efforts, according to Smithson: Hudson La Force III, the senior counselor to ED Secretary Margaret Spellings and chief operating officer for ED, sits on the HELP oversight committee.

“[ED] wanted to find exactly the right person to be on this team,” said Smithson, “the person who has the ear of the secretary, can keep her informed of the progress being made, and also can share information with us, share information with the team. [La Force] has been very active.”

Digital Arts Summer Camps

One of the first outcomes of the HELP Team’s efforts has been to establish technology summer camps for students in Plaquemines Parish, an area approximately 10 miles south of New Orleans severely devastated by the storm. That effort has been led by the Pearson Foundation, the nonprofit branch of Pearson Inc. and a member of the HELP Team.

Smithson described the genesis of the summer-camp program. “What became painfully obvious [in Plaquemines Parish] was that there are no playgrounds, shopping malls, movie theaters, sports complexes–everything is gone. You think of all of these thousands of children who are sitting in 10-by-20 foot [FEMA-issued temporary housing] trailers–they have no outlet for anything to do throughout the summertime.

“Mark Nieker, the president of the Pearson Foundation came up with the idea of doing the summertime digital arts camps. The first one was in Plaquemines Parish, and it served 100 middle-school students,” Smithson said.

The summer digital arts camps were split into four class periods, the first being an English-language period, in which students were asked to write about their Katrina experiences; the second was a digital arts period, which employed college-level movie-making software to take the Katrina story written in first period and make it into a movie.

“The students would come up and say ‘this [movie-making course] was so important to me, because this is my first outlet to be able to share what I think. I can’t talk about this at home. My parents are always fighting; they don’t have any money, because they are waiting for insurance payments; they haven’t gotten anything. We don’t want to bring [our feelings] up, because it’s a burden.’ Those were the kinds of comments we have received,” Smithson said.

The last two periods of the summer camp were a Physical Education period and an elective period that included cooking and drama. About 500 students overall have taken part in such programs in a number of affected areas. (Samples of the videos the students produced may be viewed at the Pearson Foundation web site referenced at the end of this article.) Smithson said that the HELP Team wants to extend the digital arts summer camp concept into an after-school program, so that this kind of work can be done with students throughout the year.

Perceptions of the possible

Efforts such as the digital arts summer camps and the “Education Technology Experience” are designed, in part, to expand the understanding of what education can be. At the two-day event in New Orleans, it seemed to be working.

“Some of the comments that have come back are just amazing,” reported Smithson. “I spoke with a school board member yesterday, a former teacher, who said, ‘If I had had this in my classroom, I could have made such a difference with my children.’ I told her,” ‘You still can make a difference. You’re a school board member! You have the influence to help all the children, not just the ones in your own class.’ We’re getting those kinds of comments, and we’re hearing from others who didn’t know [these kinds of technologies] existed.”

The two-day event helped teachers and administrators who have become “boxed in,” Smithson said toward end of the last day. “We wanted to create this environment–yesterday and today–so that when they go back, they will think, ‘How do I create my own 21st century environment?” Every such environment will look different, he explained. “We want to make sure that, when you choose your environment–it’s important for educators to have the flexibility to pick and choose what they want. But you choose 21st century tools; you don’t choose a 17th century tool, like a chalkboard and chalk.”

One of the first needs HELP Team members recognized was “mobile classrooms,” Smithson said. They fashioned a mobile cart that would hold up to 30 notebooks, a wireless access point, a printer, a server, a projector, an interactive white board on wheels. Such a setup, Smithson said, could bring the 21st century environment to all students, and its mobility would help protect it in the event of another disaster, because the cart could be wheeled to safety.

A school in Plaquemines Parish is opening for 600 students, said Smithson; it has 11 portable trailers. “When you look at the trailers, there are about two that have computers in them. That’s not technology for the students. But they can use this ‘mobile classroom,’ rolling from trailer to trailer, to give students greater access” to technology.

HELP Team members have donated millions of dollars in funds and equipment throughout the Gulf Coast, Smithson said, but the real contribution from the team is in human terms.

“It is really about providing guidance and support,” Smithson said. “We have heard from superintendents who have said, ‘What we really need is a blueprint. We don’t know how to get from where we are now to that new environment that we need so much for our students.”

In New Orleans, the HELP Team answered just such a need, Smithson said. Officials from the city asked what kinds of infrastructure would be needed to facilitate 21st century classrooms. HELP infrastructure experts put together a document for New Orleans officials; that document was immediately posted to the HELP website, with a more robust version to be posted later as a guide for others who are facing the same kinds of challenges.

“As a team, we want to be able to provide a [reconstruction] model that can be used anywhere,” Smithson said. “After a typhoon somewhere in another country, they could look and see a model that worked in the United States. Of course, the players would change, the manufacturers might be different from those used in the U.S., but they could plug and play–take the names and functions of these technologies, and employ them in their own reconstruction efforts.”

Next up for the HELP Team, Smithson said, is a “One Dollar More” fund-raising campaign to underwrite the purchase of mobile classrooms for affected school districts. HELP is working closely with the states to identify and address the highest-need areas, he said. The areas to which those mobile classrooms are sent will also be posted, he said, so that interested parties can easily track the impact of their contributions. Working with the Pearson Foundation and its non-profit partners, Smithson said, the consortium has arranged for 100 percent of the donations–free of any administrative charges–to be used to provide direct assistance to Gulf Coast education. Contributions can be made through the HELP website.

eSchool News Editor Gregg W. Downey contributed to this report.


Hurricane Education Leadership Program

Algiers Charter Schools Association

City of New Orleans City Government

Pearson Foundation Gulf Coast Summer Camp