Tough Road Back for New Orleans' Black Colleges
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
For NPR News, I'm Linda Wertheimer.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne, in New Orleans.
Tulane University and Loyola have reopened with most of their students coming back. But historically black schools are still trying to lure their students to campuses all but destroyed by the hurricane. NPR's Audie Cornish reports.
AUDIE CORNISH reporting:
At a downtown hotel, Darryl Brown is trying to find out the answer to a simple question, how many credits will he need to graduate on time.
(Soundbite of office conversation)
Brown is a junior sociology major at Dillard University. It's a historically black college that's taken up residence at the Hilton French near the French Quarter. The first floor café has been converted to a mini cafeteria, and a large conference hall has been divided into classrooms. But it's just not the same, says Brown.
Mr. DARRYL BROWN (Student, Dillard University): Because I only come here for a couple of hours everyday and it's just not home to me. It's not a classroom. Going in there and sitting in a cubicle with teachers talking around you, students talking around you, it's just difficult for me to view that as a learning environment.
CORNISH: Big schools like Tulane were damaged, but their students have returned in large numbers, and historically black colleges have done better than expected. But the rate of return appears to be on a sliding scale. Xavier, one of the top historically black schools in the country, saw three out of four students return. At the well regarded Dillard, 50 percent. But at Southern University of New Orleans, or SUNO as it's called, it's a different story. While not in the same league as the private black colleges, SUNO was the academic home to thousands of students who grew up here, but just a third of its students are back. And the reason is obvious, says Shamika(ph) Martin, a senior at SUNO.
Ms. SHAMIKA MARTIN (Student, Southern University of New Orleans): We're not like much of the other students who attend Dillard. We have hardly any money. And it's harder for us to return.
CORNISH: Their homes may be destroyed, their relatives split apart, or family incomes crippled, but arguably, its community colleges and schools with students like Martin that will play a bigger role in the rebuilding of the city.
Dr. MICHAEL LOMAX (President and CEO, United Negro College Fund): The question is going to be, are the students who are going to come back going to be students who have a connection to New Orleans.
CORNISH: Michael Lomax is the head of the United Negro College Fund and a former president of Dillard. He says schools like Dillard and Xavier can still draw students from around the country. But he says places like SUNO are vital in preserving the city's heritage.
Mr. LOMAX: Are there going to be people who know the treme(ph), who know what zulu means, who know how to second line, are those traditions going to continue to flourish in that community or is New Orleans going to be a smaller city, populated by people who are disconnected from the heritage that God washed away?
CORNISH: SUNO is an open enrollment school that serves mostly low income students, often single mothers. Many came from New Orleans East or the Ninth Ward, but with those neighborhoods virtually empty, these students will be the least likely to return. The Marriott shuttle bus pulls up to the Canal Street Hotel every hour. This time only half a dozen students trickle out from the lobby, including Shamika Martin. Martin says the classes may be a little smaller, but SUNO still feels like home.
Ms. MARTIN: People ask me, well, what do you want to go back there for? I want what I had, and the only way to get what's gone now is to help rebuild it and help everything to get back to the way it once was and even better than what it once was.
CORNISH: Martin says, compared with the other private black colleges, SUNO's fate is truly tied to the decisions of the people in each and every one of the gutted houses near the old campus. That's why, Martin says, it's even more important for her classmates to come back to the school.
Ms. MARTIN: We have to show the city, our peers, everyone that we can do it, and with blood, sweat, and tears, we're going to make it.
CORNISH: This week, SUNO is setting up trailers on the edge of its old campus where it plans to move its classrooms. Like many of the schools in the area, including staff several majors such as English, Math and Chemistry. State officials say the school will now focus on majors that will help the city fills its immediate needs, including social work, criminal justice and substance abuse counseling.
Audie Cornish, NPR News, New Orleans.