Urban Resilience: A Tale of Two Cities

09/03/2015 03:19 pm ET Updated Sep 02, 2016

When all eyes were on New Orleans recently because of the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, many observers recognized the renaissance of a city most people thought would never recover. I, personally, have had the privilege of witnessing the decade of sustained, passionate effort that brought New Orleans back from the brink. But before I came to that city in the late 1990s, I spent twenty-three years in Cleveland, also once viewed as a city in crisis but now in the midst of a remarkable comeback. I've reflected often on what those two cities -- one the inimitable Big Easy, the other a "Legacy City" recalling the age of steel and industry -- have taught me about the extraordinary resilience of urban America.

When I moved to Cleveland in the 1970s, the city was primarily known for its race riots, blight, poverty, and, most notable of all, its flammable river, a catalogue of wretchedness that earned it the nickname the "Mistake on the Lake." When I moved to New Orleans, the city was considered a fun place to visit but not to raise your family; it had many of Cleveland's woes plus the added liability of a vulnerable flood protection system -- a vulnerability that was New Orleans' undoing when Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

Today Cleveland and New Orleans are both becoming known as turnaround cities. Cleveland has been named one of America's most cultured cities (Travel + Leisure's latest Favorite Cities survey), one of the top 20 best metros for recent college grads seeking work (The Atlantic's CityLab), and -- with a downtown population that nearly doubled between 1990 and 2010 -- one of 15 U.S. cities with emerging downtowns (Forbes). Similar superlatives apply to New Orleans: #1 most improved metro area (The Wall Street Journal's Best Cities for Business list), #1 new brainpower city (Forbes), best city for school reform (the Fordham Institute), and #2 travel destination in the U.S. and Canada (Travel + Leisure's World's Best Awards 2015).

What do these two turnarounds have in common? Both cities are treating the symptoms of decline (e.g. blight, crime, unemployment) and the underlying causes (e.g. poverty, poor schools, inadequate support systems). Most importantly, both Cleveland and New Orleans, drawing on a high level of civic activism and involvement, have zeroed in on education reform as the critical strategy for strengthening their cities.

In both cities reform began with the enactment of laws that cleared a space for change. Mayor Frank Jackson and a coalition including charter representatives, school district leaders, business leaders, and Cleveland's two largest foundations worked with Governor John Kasich to change antiquated seniority and tenure rules in order to give the district more decision-making power. In 2012, House Bill 525 supporting the Cleveland Plan -- the city's blueprint for K-12 education reform -- set the stage for substantive community action: Cleveland passed its first new school operating levy in recent memory, precisely because citizens became convinced that things could get better. In a unique arrangement, tax dollars go to both district schools and partnering charter schools.

The implementation of the Cleveland Plan has been strengthened by the Cleveland Transformation Alliance, a public-private partnership with members representing the district, the charter sector, and the community. The Alliance is evaluating the effectiveness of this diverse portfolio of schools, with a new emphasis on accountability, autonomy, and choice, and with more resources going to high-performing "New & Innovative Schools" like the non-profit Breakthrough Schools, nationally recognized as the best charter network in metropolitan Cleveland. Since the inception of the Cleveland Plan, the number of students in failing schools has fallen 8 percentage points.

New Orleans' education reform was also catalyzed by legislation. Two years before Katrina, then-Governor Kathleen Blanco, under pressure from local and state education activists, passed Act 35, which established the Recovery School District (RSD) on the model of a chapter 11 bankruptcy, allowing the state to create a 'zone of improvement' for poorly performing schools. Post-Katrina, in the midst of the school system's collapse, the RSD took over 112 of New Orleans' 128 schools. At the same time, reform-minded local leaders teamed up with educational visionaries from across the country to inaugurate the process of replacing failing schools with their own portfolio of schools, leading to the ascendance of charters (93 percent of New Orleans school children attend charter schools).

The last decade has been an era of sustained effort: nonprofits like 4.0 Schools and New Schools for New Orleans have served as incubators for a spurt of innovation in the school system, ed tech startups have developed novel learning tools, and a host of other local education organizations have assumed critical roles such as developing school leaders and helping parents navigate school options. Accountability, autonomy, and choice are the mantra here too. The end result: ten years after Katrina, New Orleans test scores have shot up, the percentage of students in failing schools has shrunk from 62 percent to 6 percent, and a recent Stanford study of schools in 41 cities rates New Orleans charter schools as among the strongest, with students showing more academic growth than their peers in conventional schools.

Cleveland and New Orleans, like many cities across the country, are trying to reinvent themselves for a new tomorrow. I would argue that the driving force for this reinvention comes from an engaged citizenry -- the sum total of a city's philanthropic and business leaders, local nonprofits, and, most of all, its boosters and activists, voters and volunteers. Politicians and legislators may facilitate reforms, but they come and go; private citizens and local organizations remain the key anchors of their communities and the chief agents of transformation. These two very different cities have responded to the problems of the urban core and the demands of a new economy with a strong communal resolve -- all together, now -- to change the future of their schoolchildren, and hence, the future.