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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

For Isaiah, it wasn't an option to return to Bradley Elementary, just a few blocks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer he's living in on his grandparents' lot. The school is one of about 70 still abandoned. An upturned piano is lodged in the silt-covered cafeteria. In a classroom, Isaiah shows no nostalgia as he glances at the books strewn over the floor. He says they never had enough books at this school.

After his family returned in January, they enrolled Isaiah in the Pierre A. Capdau-UNO Charter School. A year before the storm, a failing school on that site was transformed into a state-controlled charter partnering with the University of New Orleans. It now serves 350 students in grades K-8 and has hundreds of names on its waiting list.

Principal Christine Mitchell says she applied for the job here, after reopening one of the well-respected city-run schools last November, because of the resources the school has access to through its partnership with the university. She wants her students to be prepared for a new UNO charter high school, where students can get an early start on college classes.

Isaiah says that when he started at Capdau, he noticed "the teachers were highly educated.... Just like in Texas, they took a lot of time out to help us."

His dad, Malik Simms, a chef at a corporate site, prods Isaiah to get out a giant book he made at Rethink. Isaiah takes two steps into the trailer to reach his bunk bed and quickly emerges with the painted canvas pages. One depicts something he may want to be when he grows up (a fireman), another, something he is afraid of (a gun). One page shows a bright blue building: "This is what I want my future school to look like: Big, like they have enough room for everybody ... and then the two doors are, like, handicapped accessible," he explains. Plus a giant "I" logo, for Isaiah, of course.

Home from work at a day-care center, Harriet Simms greets her children with hugs and kisses. She hopes the "cold shoulder" she experienced in the past from some school leaders will be replaced with the warmth she encountered in Texas. Now that her son and others have "told it just like it is," she says, "I want to see [school officials] answer the kids."

Rethink mentor Ashley Nelson helped the students articulate their views this summer. A new high school graduate, she attended some of the most disorderly and lowest-achieving schools in the city. "A good education is supposed to be free – promised to you in the United States. So when they do things like give you books from 1987, you feel cheated," she says. "But the power is all in writing it down."

Despite never needing a backpack because she rarely had books or homework, Ashley says a few really good teachers pushed her to develop her writing. Now she's the author of a book about life in her corner of New Orleans, published recently by the Neighborhood Story Project.

The Rethink students say they don't want to perpetuate the stigmatization that goes along with media portrayals of their schools as the worst of the worst. The system also included a number of top-performing schools in the state.

But the stigma followed regardless of which school students attended. In Opelousas, La., "they would call me 'New Orleans.' They didn't even know my name," says 11th-grader Shannon Taylor. "They was like, 'You don't act like people from New Orleans.... You're not loud, and you don't wanna come and shoot us!'... At first I would just blow it off, but then it was really bothering me."

Longtime New Orleans educators were saddened by such stereotypes, too. Lee Green, assistant principal of Edna Karr Charter High School, says people shouldn't be surprised to see so many students coming back. Many teenagers are living with aunts and uncles, or even on their own, he says, in order to finish high school at home.

With his school now operated by the Algiers Charter School Association, a lot of top-down bureaucracy has been replaced by more flexibility to be student-centered, Mr. Green says. "Now we're asking teachers, 'What can we do for you?' And our teachers are asking themselves how they can do things differently."

Many families have adjusted to life in cramped trailers and other daily changes in a city on the mend. But services are available for residual mental-health issues, especially during the upcoming Katrina anniversary. A number of schools have full-time social workers. Some professionals say more needs to be done to help students cope with daily stresses, however. "If we don't take a proactive approach, I think we're going to see higher rates of mental-health problems, behavioral problems, academic problems," says Stacy Overstreet, director of the School Psychology Program at Tulane University, which helped implement a "healing curriculum" at a charter school last semester.

Becoming engaged in rebuilding the city is one way that older students can feel empowered and move forward, educators say.

Shannon says the Rethinkers are excited about continuing the work they've set in motion. "Someone on the school board already wants to talk about something we made [the evaluation forms].... It can just keep growing."

At the end of the summer, Rethink students gathered in a circle and an adviser gave them each a symbolic necklace. Isaiah's is a heart-shaped stone with a small ball dangling in a hole in the center.

"It means balance," Isaiah says, because after Rethink, "I was able to do everything I said I couldn't do, like draw and paint.... When I got there I was like a big heart with a hole in it ... and then it got filled up."

Who should control New Orleans schools?

Before Katrina, New Orleans had 128 public schools. By September, 53 will have reopened. While some see the need to rebuild the system as a long-awaited opportunity for radical change, others say the very concept of a truly public, locally controlled education is being thrown out.

Parents face potentially bewildering choices: There are 31 autonomous charter schools, some monitored by the state and others by the local Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB). Only five schools are still operated directly by OPSB. Seventeen schools are run by the state-controlled Recovery School District (RSD). After Katrina, RSD's authority was expanded by the legislature so it could take control of schools that had performance scores below the state average, even if they were meeting yearly progress goals. That gave the state authority over more than 100 schools.

"Individual parents might say, 'Oh, this school looks a little better ... but public education has always been a local responsibility, and long term you need an engaged community," says Theresa Perry, a professor at Simmons College in Boston and part of the National Coalition for Quality Education in New Orleans.

That group and local critics say the state gave certified teachers a slap in the face when it dismissed them all after the storm and then made them reapply and take a new screening test. Meanwhile, many former teachers relocated or retired to be able to receive health insurance. Inequities will worsen, some observers say, because the schools serving the poorest children are the ones that were taken over by the state. These schools are experiencing delays and teacher shortages.

Tulane University President Scott Cowen, chair of the Education Committee of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, says 70 percent of his group's blueprint has been followed so far. What's still needed over the coming years, he says, is a central governance system, a bigger investment in prekindergarten, more development of teachers and principals, and improved school facilities.

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