August 15, 2006

Katrina gives New Orleans schools a chance

By Peter Henderson

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Seven-year-old Kennedi DeJean
started school in a better place this year. She got there the
long way -- by way of Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans is rebuilding what was the worst major school
system in the United States, and many hope that what rises from
the mud and debris will be a system that is both fair and
offers parents and teachers more control.

Katrina drove through the city on August 29, 2005, flooding
80 percent of New Orleans and killing 1,339 people in the Gulf
region, according to the National Hurricane Center.

It devastated schools, like every other institution, and
educational authorities sought help.

Out of that chaos is rising a system that combines
parish-run schools, state-run schools, and privately-run
charter schools supported by public funds and generally open to
all in the city.

"The good thing about charter is you have choice," said
Kennedi's mother Kiva, who returned to New Orleans in January
and put her daughter in one of the first charter schools to
open, Lusher, which has a heavy fine-arts curriculum.

On the first day teachers welcomed children to school while
jazz played.

New Orleans was the worst-performing of the 100-largest
U.S. school districts, according to the state, which before the
storm was making good on a threat to take the worst schools out
of the hands of the parish, or county.

Some 40 percent of children attending parish schools lived
in poverty, and 63 percent of schools were deemed academically
unacceptable by the state.

"The storm itself by wiping the slate clean has given all
of us a fresh opportunity to do something different for public
education in New Orleans," said Torin Sanders, a member of the
parish school board, which has embraced some opportunities for


Sanders said that federal aid money was helping rebuild
schools and that community organizations popping up in the
storm's aftermath were active in schools.

That in turn could be a key to turning around a city mired
in crime, city officials and others said.

"Now we have no excuses. We're building from scratch. If we
screw it up, shame on us," said Arthur Hardy, vice-president of
the Warren Easton Senior High School Foundation, an alumni
group which stepped in and got a charter to run Easton high
when the city declined to do so after the storm.

New Orleans paid more per child than many better-performing
cities, although some teachers and administrators said some of
the money was misappropriated. Lusher Charter gets about $6,500
per child per year from the public system, Chief Executive
Kathy Riedlinger said.

But fewer than half the pre-Katrina students are expected
to return as schools open over the next month, and some of the
better parts of the system are gone also.

Linda Harris, who still lives in a government-issue trailer
across town in once-flooded New Orleans East, is uncertain
about the future for her daughter, Kiara Barrow, 9, who has
special needs and has become withdrawn since the storm.

Kiara used to get tutoring in school. It is unclear whether
she will get it now -- or the psychological help Harris thinks
she needs.

"I am very skeptical about the changes," Harris said.

Ed Drozdowski, chief administrative officer of the newly
formed Lafayette Academy charter school, based in the brick
building of a failing public school, said many parents embraced
the chance to choose a school for their children.

About 800 students from across the city had enrolled at
Lafayette, he said.

"If they don't like it, they can pull out," he added.

Critics of charter schools say they divert much-needed
resources from the public system and that their freedom does
not necessarily mean better management or education.