Katrina's silver lining: school reform

Even before hurricane Katrina hit, many New Orleans public schools were falling apart. Some of the oldest structures were physically crumbling. Others were collapsing from poor academic performance and rampant corruption.

For decades, the Orleans Parish public school system has been considered one of the worst in the country. So when the storm sunk most of the structures and dispersed all of the students, many here cheered. Now efforts are under way to create a new system - one that many hope will bear no resemblance to its former self.

"We are using this as an opportunity to take what was one of the worst school systems around and create one of the best and most competitive school systems in America," says Walter Isaacson, vice chairman of the governor's Louisiana Recovery Authority. "We can't afford to replicate the old dysfunctional school system."

It will be an enormous task, even though only about half of the 55,000 students enrolled at the start of this school year are expected to return in the next few years. Most of the public schools are damaged. While two charter schools reopened on Monday, a court order has stalled the restart of others. Most public schools won't reopen until next fall.

Initially, much of the emphasis will be on charter schools, Mr. Isaacson says. Both houses of the Louisiana State Legislature have overwhelmingly approved legislation proposed by the governor that allows the state to seize control of New Orleans' underperforming schools (102 of the city's 117 total). Under the plan, many of those will be turned into charter schools.

Earlier this month, the New Orleans school board chartered 20 schools, most of which will begin classes in January. As those reopen, traditional public schools will be added to the mix. "But I think it's possible that charter schools will fulfill most of the needs until next fall," says Isaacson.

One of those 20 is the New Orleans Charter School for Science & Math, formerly a half-day program. Now, it will also offer reading, history, and English.

"We are so jazzed about it we can hardly see straight," says Kris Pottharst, executive director of the school's fundraising arm. "It's time to be expansive in our thinking."

She is sitting outside the community college they were housed in prior to hurricane Katrina, sorting through papers that were just recovered from her office. The first floor, once swamped, emits a foul smell.

Since the building will be useless for many months, Ms. Pottharst has been approaching other city institutions about sharing space temporarily. The response has been overwhelming, she says. "The whole city is excited about the potential for New Orleans schools."

Officials expect the science and math charter school will have about 70 students in January and 100 by next fall.

One of the main reasons for the emphasis on charter schools may be the lure of a $20.9 million federal grant to repair, expand, and create charter schools in the wake of hurricane Katrina. No such offer was made for traditional public schools.

Some experts worry that too much emphasis is being placed on charter schools.

"Frequently in cases of low-performing schools, people hope that charter schools will be the silver bullet that will turn everything around," says Susan Nogan, a policy analyst with the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union. "But they have not been a panacea. There are some very good charter schools and some very horrible ones."

In case studies of five states, charter schools were actually less likely to meet state performance standards than public schools were, according to a US Department of Education study last year.

The long-term plan for New Orleans schools is still unfolding, counters J. Puckett, a senior vice president at the Boston Consulting Group. His is one of the many groups advising the education subcommittee of the mayor's Bring Back New Orleans Commission.

The education committee will have the system's long-term vision hammered out by the end of the year, and then the real work of fleshing it out begins. But the idea "is to create the educational model for the US," says Mr. Puckett. "It's a very bold ambition, but one that has been met with real excitement."

The various groups are currently searching nationally and internationally for "best practices" in education. These might include strong preschool and international baccalaureate programs, stiffer standards, and more accountability.

"There seems to be a growing consensus that charter schools are a strong part of the short-term plan, but I think it's still a question in the long-term," says Puckett.

An outside consultant from New York is currently inspecting each of the 126 school buildings for damage but, so far, only 4,000 students have contacted the parish about returning immediately.

But private and faith-based schools have found that children will return, if classrooms are open.

"When we asked our students and teachers when they planned to return, many said, 'When McGehee opens,' " says Eileen Friel Powers, headmistress at the Louise S. McGehee School. "I figured, if we are the obstacle to New Orleans returning to normal, then let's reopen as soon as possible."

This all-girls school, in operation since 1912, reopened on Oct. 17 and currently has about half its pre-Katrina students. The school has temporarily allowed boys to attend, a first in its history, until other local schools open.

Ms. Powers says she worries about the future diversity of local schools, especially if the public system is slow to ramp up: "Not everyone can afford $13,000 in tuition each year. Parents need a choice.

"The positive spark is that this is really forcing parental involvement and quality control on a very local level," she says.

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