As New Orleans restarts its schools, most are now charter schools

Since hurricane Katrina, the city has been determined to reform one of the nation's worst school districts.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In three New Orleans neighborhoods, young teachers and administrators at charter schools are preparing with haste for the doors to swing open Tuesday.

In the diverse community of Algiers, rookie principal Meredith Summerville relishes a daunting directive: In one week, open a school.

Over at McDonogh 15, a charter school in the French Quarter, 20-something assistant principal Kyle Schaffer rules "controlled chaos" from his desk in the middle of the hall.

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And at New Orleans Charter Middle School in Uptown, an economically and racially mixed area, first-year principal Bree Dusseault prepares to measure her idealism against reality as school begins.

Although hurricane Katrina wrought much destruction and despair, it also provided the spark of reform for one of the nation's worst school districts. Hundreds of young, mostly white would-be teachers and principals from around the country have arrived for the task – replacing a veteran, mostly black teacher corps pink-slipped by the thousands after the storm.

In the two years since Katrina, New Orleans has come to have the highest percentage of students in charter schools among US cities. That's happened partly in response to the needs of rapidly redeploying a shattered system. It's also being done in hopes of improving historically miserable test scores and high dropout and expulsion rates.

Despite some bright spots, however, critics worry that this setup for the school district could further entrench educational and racial inequities. Thus New Orleans is becoming a proving ground for charter schools in US urban areas: Can they really improve academic achievement in places where reform is needed most?

"There's definitely a hope that the experience in New Orleans after the hurricane will show that public charter schools can work at scale, particularly for those students who have struggled historically," says Todd Ziebarth, a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Last year, 91 percent of McDonogh fourth-graders passed their end-of-year tests, compared with 51 percent of students in the city's public schools. To help students who have missed classes catch up, the school day runs until 4:30 in the afternoon, and students attend school every other Saturday.

Mr. Schaffer, the assistant principal, helped run the school when it opened in Houston after the storm, as "evacuated teachers taught evacuated students."

"What sold me on this model is no shortcuts, no excuses, discipline, but having fun," he says. "I love that we have the autonomy to have a longer school day, and we have teachers who are all on the same page, working together."

Like Schaffer, Ms. Dusseault, the principal at New Orleans Charter Middle, is driven by idealism more than pay. When it opens, the school's population will be largely poor and black. "This is an opportunity for people who like dreaming big ideas to put them into reality," says Dusseault, a multidegreed business consultant.

The charter schools in New Orleans are draws because for teachers they offer self-direction, responsibility, and flexibility to oftentimes 20-something whites with lots of academic, but not so much practical, experience, new principals say.

But several new reports out of the city paint a darker picture. One put out in June by the United Teachers of New Orleans union points to an Atlantic Monthly article that described a situation from the spring of 2006: overworked rookie teachers unable to cope with the hardened kids dispersed from their neighborhood schools. In one school, more students were expelled last year than graduated.

Several in the teachers' union report that some students have yet to find room even in public schools, and that district schools are overburdened with students.

Less than a third of displaced students passed crucial tests in math and reading last year, according to the Southern Education Foundation (SEF). And with less than half of teachers being veterans, the new system faces daunting prospects a few years down the road, some warn. Two in 5 schools last year reported an increase in Katrina-related discipline problems, according to the RAND Corp.

"We are concerned about how well these [new] teachers are going to be able to handle working in this district and we're also concerned about how long they're going to stay," says Christian Roselund, a spokesman for United Teachers of New Orleans, the major teacher association in the city.

Jackie Cockerham, a 32-year veteran of New Orleans schools, is one of thousands "still hurting" from the mass pink-slipping of teachers after the storm. They argue that their schools were, in fact, not the worst in the state, and were held to different and often arbitrary standards. After the storm, says Ms. Cockerham, New Orleans' black teachers were the victims of an ideological drive by elitist – and mostly white – pro-charter advocates who now control the central office.

"The threat was that [existing] teachers were too influential," she says. "They're not going to get any qualms from the new people."

Another endemic issue: funding. A study released last week by the SEF says that the total federal aid to schools equals about 2 percent of total US aid for Katrina recovery – far short, they argue, of an appropriate federal response.

Many charters are now using school buildings and equipment free of charge. But with post-Katrina tax revenues off by 15 percent, tensions over funding are likely to rise in the next few years – especially in a district that had a $250 million debt when Katrina hit.

For now, incoming superintendent Paul Vallas, formerly of Chicago and Philadelphia schools, is forging ahead with a daunting mandate to find a good classroom for every child in New Orleans. Mr. Vallas will hear new ideas, but doesn't like complainers, insiders say.

"This is creating a new school system from the ground up," Vallas recently told an audience at Martin Luther King Jr. Science and Technical School in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Cora Pugh, a grandmother in the Lower Ninth Ward, says many black parents are cautiously optimistic about the schools' direction. "They're trying to do new programs to get the kids the learning they need," says Ms. Pugh. "It's really working well." But at the same time, she says, many of the more successful charter schools have replaced what were already high-performing public schools before Katrina.

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