Sugarcane Academy begins as the tale of a one-room schoolhouse created to educate children who were forced to flee as Hurricane Katrina approached. But it evolves into a broader account of how residents of New Orleans struggled to find safety and stability after the storm disrupted, and in some cases destroyed, their lives. A handful of parents, including author Michael Tisserand, provided some stability for their children by opening the schoolhouse near a sugarcane field, which the students named Sugarcane Academy. The school became the eye of the storm, a place where children could continue to learn how to read and write, and also reflect on their experiences related to the hurricane. Taught by an innovative teacher named Paul Reynaud, the children share their fears of the recent past and their optimism for the future through discussions, journals and art projects.
A journalist by trade, author Tisserand goes in search of the experiences of other hurricane evacuees. His quest takes him to a temporary shelter inside a domed sports stadium, where families sleep on cots and eat bag lunches while trying to figure out where they will live next. He returns to New Orleans to examine the death and destruction experienced by the victims, including neighbors and close friends. And he finds others who were inspired to create schools like Sugarcane Academy to educate their children until the troubled New Orleans school system could reopen.
Through his personal account, the experiences of his two children and the stories of people he encounters, Tisserand is able to accomplish what the extensive news coverage could not: He puts a human face on the tragedy, allowing readers to better understand the experiences of the victims of Katrina. John T. Slania is a journalism professor at Loyola University in Chicago.