On the Beat in New Orleans

Just 16 months after Katrina devastated New Orleans in August 2005, Darran Simon ’98 decided to move to the city to get a front row seat on the recovery efforts. In January 2007, he left The Miami Herald—where he had spent almost three years—and joined The Times-Picayune as an education reporter.

“I saw this as an opportunity to grow as a journalist,” said Simon, who earned a B.A. in English from URI. “There are a lot of stories here that need to be told, and to me it seemed like a logical life move to make. Down the road, 35 years from now, when memories are all I have, I’ll be able to look back at this time and remember this experience.”

Simon showed a penchant for community involvement during his days at URI. He was a member of the men’s track and field team while also working as a resident assistant and as an orientation leader. In his senior year, he received the prestigious A. Robert Rainville Award for Student Leadership. He and classmate Danielle Hill also won the Theophilus E. McKinney Award for Undergraduate Research.

Simon earned his master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “That experience really helped to bolster my career and catapulted me to The Miami Herald,” he remarked.

The Times-Picayune is famous for its efforts to keep publishing in the wake of Katrina. For three days the paper produced a Web-only version because the presses had been knocked out of commission. Staffers who did not evacuate the area relocated operations to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The Times-Picayune won two Pulitzers in 2006: one for breaking news reporting during Hurricane Katrina, and the other for public service.

Simon, 31, who was impressed by the Putitzers, saw the value of joining a newspaper that was so deeply entrenched in its local community. What he has found at The Times-Picayune is “the most fertile, nurturing and professional” environment that he has ever been part of. He works closely with veteran education reporter Sarah Carr and credits the paper’s entire staff for the care that goes into the craft of reporting.

“There is tremendous support here to tell the stories right and to tell them well,” said Simon, who was born in London and lived in Guyana until he was 9 years old, when he moved to the United States.

While the effects of Katrina were devastating, Simon commented that the people of New Orleans are vigorous in their efforts to rebuild their community: “People here have learned to band together, they are taking matters into their own hands to rebuild this city. It’s really inspiring to see people stepping up and taking action. To be a part of that, in any way, is exciting.”

Simon covers all aspects of education in New Orleans. The school system has essentially had to start over. Most of the city’s schools were placed in the state-run Recovery School District (which also includes some schools outside of New Orleans). In the wake of Katrina, the education system had to be reshaped; school buildings were destroyed, and student records in many areas were lost. Since many families permanently evacuated the area, the student population today is roughly half of what it was before the storm.

“The storm shuttered many neighborhood schools, forcing students to attend schools all over the city,” said Simon. “Some students haven’t been able to get into charter schools (independently run public schools) in part because the schools cap their enrollment. In addition, students in many of the city’s schools are two or more grade levels behind, which underscores the enormous challenges to improve the overall system.”

The New Orleans school system, much like the city at large, has experienced checkered progress. “Some low performing schools have seen a rise in standardized test scores this year in some grade levels, though the test scores were so low to begin with that some gains were expected even with a sliver of stability,” said Simon. “And there has been more stability this year. The schools that performed well before the storm continue to perform well, and they will likely surge even further. But those upper tier schools only account for a fraction of the system. This is still an urban school system with other social ills that make progress tough.”

The education system in New Orleans is a work in progress. The city currently has 78 public schools, including 40 charter schools, with seven more charters set to open for the 2008-09 school year. About 57 percent of the students in New Orleans attend charter schools, which is the highest percentage for any area in the country. In late June, New Orleans hosted the country’s largest charter school convention, with more than 3,000 educators, policymakers, and advocates attending.

“A handful of New Orleans schools chartered so they could control their own destiny, including budgets and hiring. State officials have embraced charter schools as a way to hopefully reform the system,” said Simon. “Some of the fervor to start charters comes from educators living in New Orleans, but the city has also attracted a lot of new residents who are starting charter schools and a lot of private dollars intended to bolster the charter movement.

“What you see here are a lot of emotive reactions. There are many decisions being made based on gut feelings because that is all people can really go on. New Orleans is becoming a model for the rest of the country, but it is too soon to truly gauge how well it will work. People will look at it five years from now, and only then will they be able to determine what works and what does not.”

As events unfold, Simon is doing his part to present his readers with a balanced, honest account. There is a responsibility that comes with serving as the source of information for both progress and setbacks. Simon feels a sense of pride in taking on that responsibility.

“There have been tremendous efforts to reform the school system, but what happens depends on time,” Simon said. “It is very interesting to chronicle. History often depends on who is telling it. My role is to try to understand it and paint a full picture. There is a chance to be a go-to voice during a very important time for this area. It is very challenging, but very exciting as well.”

By Shane Donaldson ’99