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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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With his school now operated by the Algiers Charter School Association, a lot of top-down bureaucracy has been replaced by more flexibility to be student-centered, Mr.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."

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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.