Louisiana and the Gulf Coast are preparing to mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. It is a difficult anniversary to commemorate, as we are reminded of all that was lost.

At the same time however, it is rewarding to think of how far the city of New Orleans and region has come in the last ten years. A decade after the storm, New Orleans is a revitalized, re-energized city – and nowhere is this more evident than in the transformation of our public schools. As a former Louisiana senator, a New Orleans native, a parent and grandparent, I am so heartened to see students across the city achieving, thriving, and graduating at record levels.

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New Orleans is a case study of a community calling out for desperately needed academic improvement and for greater accountability in K-12 education and policymakers really listening. As senator I worked closely with state and city officials to ensure that New Orleans public schools had the flexibility and resources to be transformed as we rebuilt after the storm. It is an example that national leaders can look to, especially now that the House and Senate are working to reconcile their versions of federal educational law – the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). 

The progress students in New Orleans have made after ten years is well documented. For decades prior to Katrina, New Orleans public schools languished at some of the lowest academic levels of any major city in the nation. In 2004, one year before Katrina, 65 percent of all students in New Orleans were attending failing schools. As of 2014, that number has fallen to 7 percent. Graduation rates have risen from 54 percent in 2004 to 73 percent in 2014.  And most importantly, African American students in New Orleans have gone from the lowest performing in the state in 2004 to 5 points above the state average for all African American students today.

This turnaround did not start with the collapse of the federal levee system in the wake of Katrina in August of 2005, but well before that. In the 1990’s, years before Washington took action, Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted rigorous accountability measures for all Louisiana public schools. Our state began to identify failing schools in 1999, a full five years before ESEA required states to do so. The Recovery School District was created by Louisiana law and all failing schools were made a part of that district and required to go through a comprehensive re-evaluation and turnaround process.

At the time state and local leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, recognized the wisdom of granting public schools autonomy in exchange for greater accountability and higher academic goals. In 2001 I supported the University of New Orleans through its College of Education to begin a tough turn around process in some of the worst schools in New Orleans. As a result of that effort, the second and third public charter schools in the city were launched in the year prior to Katrina. Because this effort and the solid legislative foundation that was in place, city leaders were able to quickly and effectively respond when 100 of our 147 schools were flooded and unable to operate.

Of course to undertake this massive rebuilding, we needed passionate and visionary leaders. Many of the remarkable leaders who helped open and staff these schools were from right here in New Orleans. We also had an influx of talented educators coming from across the country, coupled with a timely influx of Teach for America corps members. Together all these leaders helped not only to rebuild our city’s school system, but to create the first all public charter school “system” in the country. 

While we are proud of the extraordinary progress that has been made, we do not confuse it with success. There remain many challenges ahead, including finding the resources to expand early childhood learning opportunities for every child in New Orleans, and providing wraparound health, mental health, and social services for the most needy children and their families through our schools. And we also know we must build a larger pipeline to identify, grow, and develop our own great teachers within the city of New Orleans. 

After two decades of rigorous work to change struggling public schools to high academic performers, we know that investing in accountability and school autonomy was the right strategy and that it will pay dividends for years to come in increased graduation rates, college completion rates, and economic earning power of our citizens.

The New Orleans K-12 education transformation is an example that should resonate across the U.S. as Congress prepares to authorize a new federal education law, and I sincerely hope that policy makers in Washington will understand the power of freedom, flexibility, choice, and the passion for excellence that have made this possible.

Landrieu served in the Senate from 1997 to 2015. She was raised in New Orleans.