Lakeysha London, 39, is a lifelong resident of New Orleans and a career educator. Before Hurricane Katrina, she was a high school teacher with a gift for motivating her students, and then an assistant principal.
In 2005, she was named principal of a middle school – two weeks before Katrina hit. At that moment, her role changed – along with everything else about educating students in New Orleans. Today, she believes that schools post-Katrina need to think beyond simply providing education, to the needs of the “whole child.”
She began to see the signs that her role would have to change during the year she, her educator husband, and their two children relocated to Houston. She took a teaching job in a Houston-area high school, where several students were also New Orleans evacuees.
“The kids from New Orleans were not well received,” she said. “They weren’t supported as a group, and I ended up staying on there mostly to help those students.”
When she was able to return to New Orleans, London worked as an assistant principal at Eleanor McMain Secondary School, the first high school to reopen. McMain also opened a night school to serve the many children who, as the only members of their families living in New Orleans, had to work during the day to support themselves.
She said one of the key challenges to restarting an effective educational system in New Orleans was the ongoing impact of Hurricane Katrina on the lives of students and teachers.
“One day, we had a really hard rain, and the whole school basically just had a meltdown. They were having a traumatic experience, and it was just raining. It made me realize that these kids are still having issues,” London said, noting many students had stayed in the city during the flooding. “It was not just about educating them, but we really had to deal with the whole child.”
Teachers also struggled. London would find them crying in break rooms, as many had family members who had left the city and not returned. London herself had been extremely homesick during her year in Houston.
“It’s such a family-oriented city. People never really leave New Orleans,” she said.
By 2010, London had applied to become a high school principal, but was instead chosen to lead Mahalia Jackson Elementary, which was opening in the Central City community with two pre-kindergarten and two kindergarten classes.
“I really thought I would be bored,” she said. “I had a real knack for working with high school students, and this was going to be very different.”
Now, she admits that leading a school that is the only one of its kind in Louisiana has been anything but boring.
Mahalia Jackson provides wraparound services in academics, health and social, emotional, cultural and civic development. The campus includes Early Head Start and Head Start programs, a public library, a health clinic, an office of the Department of Children and Family Services and has been home to nonprofits and other community agencies. In addition to leading the school, London serves as the landlord for the other nonprofit and public sector programs that call Mahalia Jackson home.
“I think my children are going to be more well-rounded overall because of this model (focusing on) the whole child – not just the academic side of it,” said London. “If we keep going and we keep paying attention to the needs, we could become the national model for how to do school.”
Through grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the school also provides an extended day with after-school enrichment programs for Central City children, including ballet, Brazilian drumming, yoga, jewelry making and academics for students who need it. And London’s “Super Saturdays” program has been especially welcomed by community members, providing once-a-month yoga and other fun classes, and working to empower parents who want to learn how to better help their children with reading and other activities.
“Had I not gone to Mahalia, I would have done that old traditional way (of educating),” she said. “I think Katrina helped me to become a better educator, in terms of how you really teach children.”