The Story of Doris Voitier (as told by John H. Richardson in Esquire)

As you approach New Orleans from the north, passing the airport and the middle suburbs, all the stores and buildings and streetlights and houses look just fine. It even looks good as you cross the bridge into the downtown area—a boarded-up window here and there, that’s all. And when you pull up to the Sheraton and hand your keys to the valet and walk out into the French Quarter, you can still walk down Bourbon Street with a drink in your hand and listen to a dozen bands and retire to Antoine’s for the trout Pontchartrain. Les bons temps still rouler.

Then I’m in my hotel room listening to some guy on Fox News talk about how New Orleans needs charter schools when he says the name of the woman I have come to meet: Doris Voitier, superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish public-school system.

I walk over and look at the TV. She’s a round woman in a lime-colored suit. “You must be confusing us with New Orleans Parish,” she says. “I’m from St. Bernard Parish. We had excellent schools.”

The Fox guy stumbles and says, Well, in general, speaking as an educator, isn’t it time for the New Orleans Parish to accept charter schools?

Polite but clearly annoyed, Voitier tells him again that she is from St. Bernard Parish, where the problem isn’t bad schools but the stinginess and incompetence of the federal government.

Ten minutes later, I see her in the hotel lobby. “I am so livid right now,” she says. “Our kids were at or above state averages on nationalized testing. We’re fiscally sound, we’re managed well, we’re very proud of our schools.”

Voitier grew up on a street corner made famous by a jazz song. Her father was a bodyguard for Huey Long. She started teaching math in St. Bernard Parish in 1971, figuring she’d put in a couple of years and then do something more ambitious—in the excitement of those early feminist years, becoming a teacher seemed almost lame. But she found out she loved to teach, and since she never married or had children, that definitely made it more a vocation than a job, to make a difference in the life of a child, corny as that sounds. She rose slowly through the system and by the time of Katrina, she ran fifteen schools that served eighty-eight hundred kids.

Voitier rode out the storm at Chalmette High School along with twelve hundred other people, sending boats out to scavenge for food and water. Four days passed before they got the first outside help, a little Canadian search-and-rescue unit that showed up out of nowhere. But Voitier still believed in her government, and when FEMA told her it could throw up a temporary modular school in ninety days, she made a pledge: When the first child came back to St. Bernard Parish, she would have a school ready to educate him.

But FEMA did nothing. Three weeks later, when it said the temporary schools would actually take six months or longer, Voitier had her breakthrough. Nobody could come back to a community without schools. If too much time went by, people would get settled in new communities. St. Bernard Parish would die. “To heck with y’all,” she said. “We’ll do it ourselves and send you the bill.”

Working with her own administrative team along with the local sheriff and firemen and congressmen—some of whom she had taught math—Voitier located some portable classroom buildings in Georgia and Carolina and found a local contractor to set them up and tracked down her wandering teaching staff and found trailers for the teachers to live in and took out a Community Disaster Loan to help pay for it, plunging her district from solvency into a debt of $17.8 million overnight. She did all this without phones, without the Internet or grocery stores or Laundromats or even a place to get a sandwich or a bottle of clean water, making handshake deals in parking lots—but she opened the first school on November 14, 2005, with 334 students. A month later, she had 640. A month after that 1,500.

The first day, she saw one little boy grab another and say, “Jeff, I thought you were dead!”

Lunch was another battle. She couldn’t get the gas hooked up till after Thanksgiving, so she called FEMA administrators and asked them to please help feed the kids for a week. “Can’t you give ’em sandwiches or an MRE?” they said. So she found another guy she taught in high school to cook five hundred lunches a day on a barge in the river, and even then FEMA wouldn’t pay for the food, saying it was an operational cost and not an emergency cost.

Then FEMA finally gave her a couple of trailers for classrooms, but the fire marshal said they violated the state fire code, so she put washers and dryers in one of them, because people were driving thirty miles to do their laundry—and the FEMA guy put her under investigation for misappropriation of federal property.

“You just had to live through this to understand,” she says.

Voitier has seen the best of people and the worst of people, has seen some tough it out and others fall by the wayside, and knows what really matters—her students, her community, and the core group of people who stood by her through the worst of it, people like Wayne Warner and Carole Mundt, and don’t forget to mention Bev Lawrason. It’s the unexpected gift from the hurricane that took everything else away. “To be honest, it’s almost like a rush,” she says. “It’s a new purpose. It’s something that is probably the most meaningful thing I’ve done.”

from a longer story here.

Man vs. Wild

Yea.. I remember when Survivor was in its first season. I was so excited to see people actually surviving in the wild. It didn’t end up that way. The show took a different turn and although there was some survival, it wasn’t the focus. I was dissapointed. Well, finally there is a show where you can see someone surviving in the worst places on Earth. It’s called “Man vs. Wild” and its pretty amazing television.

This guy gets dropped into places and has to survive. He’s accompanied by a camera person who documents the journey and it’s pretty amazing stuff.

Why can’t Street see the obvious about guns and murder?

A while back we all had a laugh when John Street did his “take a deep breath and put down the gun” TV address. At the time I was pretty convinced that it wasn’t going to solve any of our gun/murder problems. I was right. For a while I thought that the solution was to just add more cops on the street, or push for better education, etc. But I was wrong. I just read the most amazing article in Philly Magazine about the issue and I urge you all to do the same.

The thrust of the article is twofold. First it demostrates how pathetic and sad and detrimental our 911 system is. The thought of all that wasted effort by cops responding to calls hours after they have come in just makes the logical/organized part of me just cringe. The second part of the article talks about an alternate solution. One that has worked all over the country (including NYC) and thats for police to focus on looking for guns that people are actually carrying. The thought is that gun crime occurs in the same areas over and over again and often for stupid reasons (like someone looked at someone wrong) and if we can deter people from carrying guns we can actually cut down on these senseless crimes. The cops (according to this plan) should spend time in these areas focusing on crimes where they can actually frisk people and then take away their illegal guns. This, if done often enough would deter people from carrying them all the time.

“Looking for guns on the street is not a lock-’em-up strategy,” he says. “It’s not a fill-the-prisons strategy. It’s a specific and focused deterrent strategy that is trying to deter one thing — and that’s people carrying guns around. Because if people don’t carry their guns around, and somebody bumps into them and doesn’t say ‘Excuse me,’ or somebody looks at them with a stare that they find offensive, then they may have to go home to get their gun to do something about it. But by the time they come back, the person may not be there, and the impulse may pass.”

That “stare that they find offensive” is the sort of thing over which young Philadelphians have so often been dying _lately — “Stupid arguments over stupid things,” as police commissioner Sylvester Johnson recently put it.

“Sometimes fights are followed several days later by an assassination, so there’s no guarantee that people won’t get shot when those disrespecting incidents occur,” Sherman says. “But what the evidence suggests is that it’s going to happen at a lower rate if they don’t have their guns in their pockets.”

And what about Philadelphia?

“The police in Philadelphia are not looking for guns in the street, and that has a context in this 40-year story that we have to understand,” Sherman says. “But we also have to understand that as far as the evidence is concerned, the National Academy of Sciences says it is the one thing we know works to reduce the homicide rate. And it’s the one thing we’re not doing in Philadelphia.”

The sad thing is that we were on this path with Timmony and the COMPSTAT system (which we have but don’t follow in any useful way). But now we do stuff that does nothing to solve the problem. Think about it. Why is Philadelphia the one city where this problem is getting worse when all across the country it’s getting better?

if you wanted to play it as safe as possible, you’d model your police department on Philadelphia’s. You’d keep officers in their cars. You’d control and monitor their movements by tying them to the _never-_ending queue of 911 calls. You’d initiate a program for which there is virtually no supporting evidence, like Operation Safe Streets, in which officers do little more than stand on corners. (From a recent study in the scholarly journal Justice Quarterly: “Operation Safe Streets failed to have a significant citywide impact on homicides, violent crime or drug crimes.”) You’d have COMPSTAT meetings, but you’d excise their most important element: accountability. In New York, COMPSTAT meetings are renowned for the rough give-and-take between the top brass and precinct commanders. The prospect of being dressed down in front of your peers was one of the ways former commissioner William Bratton ensured that local commanders would take ownership of their precincts’ successes and failures. John Timoney brought COMPSTAT to Philadelphia, but officers tell me the current version is a far cry from New York’s. “Here, we have COMPSTAT lite,” a former Philadelphia officer told me. “We just go through the motions.”

“Every police chief is just one headline away from losing his job,” Commissioner Johnson told this magazine in 2004. He’s correct, but the history of big-city policing in America offers a caveat: A chief may lose his job if there’s a corruption or brutality scandal, he may get fired if he commits a personal indiscretion, but if the homicide rate jumps up, he is actually pretty safe. The recent history of Philadelphia proves that.

Ugh.. we have to do something.. The sad thing is that there is a solution but nobody seems to want to follow it. What’s that all about? I bet if Milton Street could make money off this system it would have been in place long ago..

HD Tivo

Well.. I don’t even have HD yet but I bought my Series 3 Tivo. Only becasue I got a great deal. There is a company called Weaknees that does Tivo upgrades and they are offering Tivo 3 units for $150 off list. They have a coupon code for $100 off and then if you order by Nov 30 you get a $50 gift certificate for their store. Add this to the fact that for $199 (up until dec 31) Tivo is allowing you to transfer your previous lifetime subscription, this is an amazing deal.. So for approx. $850 I get a new Tivo 3 with my lifetime subscription on it.. not bad at all…

The best part is that Tivo gives the old box a one year subscription so I can get more value for it when I sell it.. nice.

The right way to audition HDTVs

I’ve been to a lot of stores and looked at a lot of HDTVs and one thing has been consistant: They all looked like complete shit and were impossible to compare. Now I’m fairly confident that most of these HD displays are quite good so that would mean that the stores were doing a miserable job shoing them off.. and why would they care to do better? These things are flying off the shelves.

If they cared to improve their sales process, I’ve got an idea. Maybe someone could build this system and market it to stores. It’s simple.. Collect a ton of HD content (in 720 and 1080, interlaced and progressive, static and moving, dark and light, SD and HD, etc.), put it all on a Hard Drive and add a touch screen display to it. Then feed that drive directly to either (and only) HDMI and componant outputs.. Amplify as neccisarry. This way, the content would be consistant on all of the screens at once and we could elimiate the question of the signal being an issue. Oh.. and also offer the demo source as a DVD so the customer can take it home and get a feel for how the content looks on thier system at home.

Really, 95-99% of the time the signals going into these displays at the store are unidentified and just aweful.. in some displays the signal is going in via Coax and in others HDMI.. the only way to tell is to look behind the display.. but even then, how could you compare the displays with different inputs?

Television. The Drug of a Nation

Can I ask a question? Why do the TV networks not “get” the fact that TV shows need to be given some time to “breathe” before they become hits? I can do some research and come up with 10 shows that did terribly in their first and second seasons and then ended up as mega-hits. It seems to me that over the past 3-4 seasons, the networks give new shows 3-4 episodes and that’s it. There is a ton of shows that I loved that got cancelled. Mostly, I’m sure because they didn’t fit the mold of “what TV is for”..

And what is TV for? For most people I think they look at TV as an escape. “give me something simple and stupid and let me get lost for a few hours”. It’s that kind of thinking that gives TV a bad name. I watch a lot of TV but I don’t watch to escape and I don’t watch it as a form of methadone. I watch to be sincerely entertained without having to go out to the movies (which even if I do are usually letdowns anyway).  There is still a lot of great stuff on TV but not as much as I would like. It seems that I’m a small minority.. me, a few friends and the TV critics.

If we let it, TV is going to become pointless to watch. They’ve already ruined the news. Entertainment will be next and then the only thing I’ll have my HDTV (as yet unpurchased) for is sports (which are becoming so corporate to be almost boring).

We can’t let this happen. We need to keep good entertainment on TV. When something good gets cancelled (like I’m sure Studio 60 will and Six Degrees and who knows how many other new shows), you should complain and be heard.

More musings on Time Zones

I’ve had this debate any number of times with any number of people, but I think that Daylight Savings time is purely stupid and I further believe that having 4 time zones in our country is even dumber.

Daylight Savings time.. please.. this is a relic from the farming days and causes untold issues for many of us.. deal with the sun being up sometimes and not up other times…

Sueing robo-dialers

Near election time I bet you get some recorded phone calls like “Hi, this is Ed Rendell and I want to urge you to go out and vote…”. While I generally applaud get out the vote efforts, I don’t like unsolicited phone calls. Apparently you can sue these people (even if they are non-profits). The way to do it can be found in this awesome slashdot post. Not only does the autor detail how to go about suing, he teaches you how to serve papers and what to expect in court. It’s a great read no matter what.