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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.

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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.

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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.

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