New year, new school concepts in New Orleans
Katrina's devastation created an opportunity to reconceive a poor system. Charter schools, student input, hope – and controversy – are hallmarks of the one that's emerging.
On his second day of school last week, seventh-grader Isaiah Simms started his music elective in a room where the shelves were still empty and the air-conditioning unit wasn't running yet to combat the soupy heat.Skip to next paragraph
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His sister Iesha had holes in her high school schedule that prompted her mother to shake her head and say, the way only a mother can, "I don't think they were ready."
At least Harriet Simms's children were in school. In the new landscape of public education in New Orleans, even the back-to-school kinks can be Katrina-sized. Some charter schools have pushed back their start dates, while state-operated schools are working up to the last minute to hire enough teachers and pass building inspections before their opening day, Sept. 7.
Amid the swirl of rebuilding, children like Isaiah are stepping forward to say what counts to them: They want to learn on pace with their peers around the country, and they want their environment – their buildings, their teachers, and even their food – to convey respect.
Many students in New Orleans say their schools were ravaged well before the storm, something they saw more clearly after spending months in other schools as evacuees. "There was a sign to wash your hands, but how can you wash your hands when you got no soap and you got rust coming out of the faucets?" says Isaiah of his former elementary school.
He made that point at a press conference last month conducted by a group of 10- to 16-year-olds. It was the culmination of a summer program known as Rethink, short for Kids Rethinking New Orleans' Schools. With the help of community sponsors, about 20 students used art, film, and writing to share their school stories from New Orleans and beyond. Now they are committed to a campaign to make sure students have a voice in the renewal of public education.
The goal is "to have kids tap into the power of their own experiences," says Jane Wholey, a media consultant who helped organize Rethink, "and tap into the hearts of the adults in New Orleans in a way that keeps all of our feet to the fire."
At the press conference, held at an abandoned storm-damaged school, students chronicled their complaints about classrooms without enough books and bathrooms with no toilet paper. Then they presented a one-page school-evaluation form that they hope to distribute to peers, a "report card" of sorts for the post-Katrina schools.
Robin Jarvis, superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District, agreed to discuss with them the possibility of getting the evaluation into all the schools.
"I think that hearing from the children is very critical," she says in a phone interview from Baton Rouge. "These are the schools their children will attend."
Officials say 22,000 to 34,000 of the 60,000 students who attended public schools before Katrina will enroll this semester. Educators are eager to prove that this city's schools can shine in the national spotlight, one that has so far focused on the worst of their past.
"There's tremendous hope and promise for the school system," says Sarah Usdin, who started the nonprofit New Schools for New Orleans, "but when you start from scratch ... it can't be done overnight, especially in a system that had the challenges ... and the decades of inequity that New Orleans public schools have had." Her group trains people to run charter schools, which now make up about 60 percent of the schools here.
Not everyone sees the new, charter-heavy system as a silver lining in Katrina's dark cloud.
Isaiah's parents, along with others throughout the city, are watching closely to see if the promised improvements come to pass.