Benjamin Franklin Senior High School was on the short list of New Orleans public schools still standing after Hurricane Katrina. Though parts of the school had severe water damage and mold growth, the building's concrete structure and brick facade remained sound. But Franklin's good fortune almost meant its demise.
For more than 50 years, Franklin—which is ranked 16th on this year's U.S. News's Best High Schools list—had been a school for the city's top students. But after Katrina, the New Orleans Public School System made plans to reopen Franklin as a regular high school that could accommodate students who had attended schools demolished by the hurricane.
When Franklin's teachers, parents, and students heard of these plans, they quickly took preserving their school's identity into their own hands. Teacher Charles Firneno was one of the first to return, and he worked with other volunteers up to 18 hours a day for four months to get Franklin up and running. If Franklin had not opened right away, Firneno says, the chances were high that the school would have ceased to exist as a magnet for New Orleans's best and brightest. "The cleanup effort was intense for a while," Firneno said. "We were out here constantly up to our elbows in dirt and grime for this school and not getting paid for our work, but we knew this was the only way to get the school going."
Franklin reopened in January 2006, the first New Orleans public school to do so after the hurricane. The determination used to get Franklin's doors open is the same determination that leads the school's students and teachers to work together to achieve academic excellence. Of last spring's graduates, 94.5 percent scored a 3 or higher on at least one Advanced Placement exam, and 99.5 percent went on to attend college. Just three years after Katrina threatened its existence, Franklin has become one of the nation's best high schools. Senior Evan LaBranche was just seven days into her freshman year at Franklin when Hurricane Katrina hit, and even that small taste of the top high school's atmosphere was enough to make her long for it during the time she had to attend a football-crazed "hurricane school" in nearby Alabama. LaBranche says what she saw in those seven days and what she enjoyed after returning to Franklin was a place where she is not afraid to speak her mind and be smart, a school where the students actually want to be there.
Right now, Franklin has 562 students enrolled and could take on up to 700, principal and CEO Timothy Rusnak says, adding that the school's criteria for admission is based on a numerical matrix. If an applicants' grade point average and standardized test scores meet the numerical criteria, then there is a place for the student at Franklin, Rusnak says.
Nancy Isaacson, a chemistry and physics teacher, sees the range of Franklin students' skills every day. Some of Isaacson's physics students crave their work, while others admit their passions lie in writing But Isaacson says she admires all students alike because of what they went through during Katrina and all they were able to accomplish in its aftermath. "I was shocked to know how many of my students had seen death and destruction, escaped floodwaters through their roofs, gone three days without food, or waded through water to try and find help, and here they are sitting in my classroom as if nothing like that had ever happened to them, as if things were just normal."
Shannon Antoine, an English teacher, says her students' Katrina experiences are often explored in their writing assignments. Each year, she works closely with seniors on their college application essays, and each year since the hurricane, Antoine has seen a steady stream of students interested in writing about it. "I'm tempted to tell them to consider a new subject since that's what college admission counselors are getting from every Louisiana and Mississippi applicant, but Katrina is what they are focused on," Antoine says. "Every kid has a story, and it's their own personal story, and they want to tell it."
The common experiences shared by Franklin's students after Katrina brought them closer together. Senior Ben Fleury says the ups and downs he shared with his classmates after Katrina helped him get to know everyone in his grade regardless of barriers like ethnicity. Franklin's student body differs starkly in its racial composition from the rest of the city's public school system, where 90 percent of the students are African-American. One third of Franklin's students are white, one third are black, and one third are of Asian descent.
That racial diversity even showed up in a group of Franklin students who wanted to return badly enough after Hurricane Katrina that they accepted offers to live with a Franklin teacher and his wife. One student was Caucasian, one was African-American, one was Chinese-American, and one was Vietnamese-American. Each of their families faced the same challenge of not being able to return to New Orleans after the storm. The students lived with Firneno, who thought it was only natural to help these students earn their Franklin diplomas by offering them a place to live while they were studying. Each of the students had spent at least one semester in another high school during the months Firneno and others worked tirelessly to get Franklin back online. The students appreciated Franklin even more after getting a taste of high schools where their classmates and classroom experiences simply did not measure up.
"They came back because of the school's atmosphere, their friends, the culture of the city of New Orleans, and of course wanting that diploma," Firneno says. "They worked so hard to get here and stay here, and they didn't want to throw that all away."