Educator's Charter Schools Help Revive New Orleans

James Meza and children at Medard Nelson Charter School i i

The students at Medard Nelson Charter School show their appreciation for James Meza, whose real job is serving as dean of the education college at the University of New Orleans. Since Hurricane Katrina, Meza has dedicated himself to helping run six charter schools. Greg Miles for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Miles for NPR
James Meza and children at Medard Nelson Charter School

The students at Medard Nelson Charter School show their appreciation for James Meza, whose real job is serving as dean of the education college at the University of New Orleans. Since Hurricane Katrina, Meza has dedicated himself to helping run six charter schools.

Greg Miles for NPR
James Meza i i

Hurricane Katrina "has given us an avenue to engage in real-world experience and to assume some responsibility for outcomes and to be a major player in the recovery effort," Meza says. Greg Miles for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Miles for NPR
James Meza

Hurricane Katrina "has given us an avenue to engage in real-world experience and to assume some responsibility for outcomes and to be a major player in the recovery effort," Meza says.

Greg Miles for NPR

Even though James Meza doesn't wear the uniform of a first responder, he is doing rescue work. Meza is saving the children of New Orleans from the miserable education system they had before Hurricane Katrina.

His day job is dean of the University of New Orleans' education college, but since the storm, six charter schools have become Meza's life.

He points to Gentilly Terrace Elementary, the newest of the charter schools that he helps run, as an example of how schools can be seeds to improving struggling neighborhoods. "There seems to be some relationship between students coming to Gentilly Terrace and the percent of families that have returned to the neighborhood," Meza says.

Meza hopes that the presence of a solid school will jumpstart the recovery. That's the big picture. But walking around the school, Meza gets a smaller reward: The halls are full of the sound of children learning.

Gentilly Terrace was closed until last September. Now, it's a sunlit dream of a school, with tall ceilings and gleaming paint. The upside to the storm is that many schools now have all new equipment.

It is a chance to start over, and though he's not the type to get emotional, Meza is jazzed about what's going on here. "It's just amazing, the excitement we have in this community about Gentilly Terrace," Meza says.

Pierre A. Capdau Charter School

A year-and-a-half ago, most of the homes in the middle-class Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans were vacant or obscured by piles of debris. Today, most of the trash is gone.

But the people are still missing. It's the grim view that Meza sees on his way to work every day.

Still, he feels his schools are clearly helping the surrounding neighborhoods. Meza says that before Katrina, he wasn't always this connected to the world outside the university.

"Katrina has given us an avenue to engage in real-world experience and to assume some responsibility for outcomes, and to be a major player in the recovery effort," Meza says.

The recovery effort at Pierre A. Capdau Charter School shows just how overwhelming this task is.

When I first visited Capdau with Meza in 2006, the school had been quickly repaired after the storm and was apparently in good shape. But now that rush job can no longer hide the deeper decay. Meza says the troubles will continue until he's able to waterproof the building completely.

While the surrounding neighborhood has been improving, the 80-year-old school building has started to crumble. Vines are sprouting from one particularly large crack in the stucco.

While instruction goes on in one classroom, workers prepare once again to repaint other parts of the interior.

Meza may have been trained as an academic, but he's morphed into a part-time subcontractor. Meza says this is part of his education in the real world of school management.

"We prepare leaders for the management of facilities. We prepare them for the management and understanding of budgets, not only instruction," Meza says. "So it really gives me firsthand information of the challenges one has as they assume responsibility of a school district."

Improvements and Setbacks

A New Orleans native, Meza is generally reserved but also endowed with plenty of Southern charm. He grins as he greets Capdau Principal Christine Mitchell. He doesn't hug, but his handshakes are warm and long.

Mitchell has been at Capdau since the school reopened after Katrina. She believes in Meza's philosophy that these schools will bring back Gentilly.

"We see people working daily on their houses," Mitchell says.

It can be a little hard for outsiders to understand all of the optimism. For all the progress here, some areas are still a mess. Driving back to Meza's office at the University of New Orleans, he points to many closed buildings, signs of ongoing struggles with hurricane damage.

Meza has also suffered his share of personal defeats since the storm. Last year, the local school authority turned down his application to open another charter school. He blames that on some simple mistakes made during the application process. That was a big embarrassment for him and the university, Meza says.

"It's been difficult, there's no doubt about it. But every day, it gets a little better," Meza says. "It's like any type of recovery, you're going to go through periods of quick improvement, and then you're going to have some setbacks."

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