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