Friday, August 25, 2006

New Orleans' Public Schools: One Year After Katrina

Schools are reopening all over the country. And that includes those in New Orleans one year after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina:
As survivors go, Julia Felix may be small, but those third-grade pigtails are as long as the tales she has to tell.

Like so many displaced students, Julia spent a year as one of Katrina's vagabonds, CBS News correspondent Lee Cowan reports. "I've been first to Mississippi, then Atlanta, then Mississippi again, then here," Julia says.

And it hasn't been easy. "I have to keep switching friends," she says, "and then you never see them again, and then you maybe see them again. But you never know."

But this week, that all changed.

It's back-to-school in the Big Easy, and any reunion is a good one.

More than 50 schools — some in the hardest-hit areas — are scheduled to re-open by the end of the month. That's only half the number of schools that existed before the storm, but it's more than many thought possible just a year ago.

Floodwaters ravaged nearly a third of all the classrooms in New Orleans beyond repair. Some haven't changed much since the day the levees broke. But given that New Orleans had one of the worst public school systems in the country, Katrina may actually do some good.

"This is an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild the school system the way it should be," says Scott Cowan, president of Tulane University.

Cowan helped lead the charge for change, encouraging the state to take control away from the failing New Orleans school district and hand over an unprecedented 60 percent of the public schools to private companies.

They will be managed as charter schools — publicly funded but independently run.

"We can make faster decisions, we can make decisions that are more consistent with the needs of our kids than we ever were before," Cowan says.

Still, the challenges are daunting. Registration has been chaotic and confusing. Some schools are nowhere near ready. Teachers still have to be hired, and critics worry that many charter companies may not have the experience to handle the task alone.

But Julia, whose charter school opened on schedule, says Katrina taught her something that all of New Orleans should take to heart.

"I learned that sometimes you have to take a hard road, but you know that it is going to get all right," Julia says. "You never know when it's going to get all right, but it is." Watch video

She says she is now on the medium road, but the hard road will be OK eventually. Given where her road started, medium isn't too bad.
In pre-Katrina New Orleans, few of the affluent or upper middle-class sent their children to public schools, which were notorious for their crime, violence, and underachievement.

After speaking with relatives of ours who live in the New Orleans area, I don't think that's likely to change in the foreseeable future as those who have the financial means continue to re-enroll their offspring in private and parochial institutions.

And as long those folks with plenty of cash continue to "opt-out" of their own school system, I'm not optimistic that positive systemic change will occur in New Orleans' public schools.
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