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Graduations Mark the End of a Traumatic Year for New Orleans Schools

June 2, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: [A]n update of the school situation in New Orleans. The reporter is NewsHour special correspondent for education John Merrow. He’s been tracking the story since Katrina hit.

PHOTOGRAPHER: One, two, three!

JOHN MERROW, NewsHour Special Correspondent: Last week was graduation for Edna Karr High School in New Orleans.

PARENTS OF STUDENT: The hurricane tried to put a damper on things, but we were strong.

STUDENT: Oh, yes, I was determined. We were determined.


JOHN MERROW: In many ways, it was an improbable ceremony, considering how the year began.

The rebuilding effort

HURRICANE PLANNER: This is the old Perry Walker Auditorium, which had some significant roof damage with the roof torn off.

JOHN MERROW: Hurricane Katrina severely damaged more than half of New Orleans' schools...

HURRICANE PLANNER: What's the time line for moving off of our disaster recovery system...

JOHN MERROW: ... leaving the cleanup efforts to consultants like Sajan George.

What do you have to do to get some schools open?

SAJAN GEORGE, Alvarez and Marsal: What don't we have to do? We've been submitted bids to get the repair work done.

HURRICANE PLANNER: You can still see some standing water over here, too.

SAJAN GEORGE: Select the bidders. They've got to do mold testing throughout the schools.

HURRICANE PLANNER: It's all going to have to come up.

SAJAN GEORGE: We've got to get food into the schools. Our cafeterias are wiped out. You've got to clean the schools. You've got to get textbooks and supplies. You've got to get the grade configurations right. You've got to get classes set up, curriculum. And then, last but not least, we got to get the money to pay for all this.

JOHN MERROW: But in the wreckage lay opportunity. Before Katrina, New Orleans public schools, 128 in all, were an educational disaster, underachieving, riddled with corruption and financial problems. The storm opened the door to a state takeover of almost 90 percent of the schools.

JOHN HISER, Principal, Edna Karr Secondary School: It is a good day for the city of New Orleans, and it's a great day for you guys who are here.

JOHN MERROW: By mid-December, only nine schools had reopened. Most of them, including Edna Karr, as charter schools, independently-run public schools.

JOHN HISER: We're trying to have some generic lessons that will put everybody on the same page.

JOHN MERROW: Returning Principal John Hiser embraced his new role.

As principal of a charter school, are you going to have more authority?

JOHN HISER: Yes. Now, I'm in charge. In fact, I was telling the teachers yesterday that we are all accountable, that I will determine whether they stay or whether they go. They will determine whether I stay or whether I go.

JOHN MERROW: We went back to Edna Karr as the school year drew to a close.

JOHN HISER: It's been a struggle. It's been a joy, but it's certainly been a struggle. These kids have been awesome. I mean, they've come in, and they've had to adjust to a different standard in a lot of ways.

The faculty we started with in December was 17. The faculty that we have now is 50. And they've really done a remarkable job; you know, we've basically created something out of nothing this year.

JOHN MERROW: By year's end, 12,000 out of 60,000 students had returned. Next year, New Orleans plans on opening 58 schools. It's anticipating 34,000 students.

Planning for an uncertain fall

JIM LEHRER: Earlier today, John spoke with Ray Suarez from New Orleans.

RAY SUAREZ: John Merrow, welcome. Do school authorities have any reliable way of knowing just how many kids are going to show up for school at the end of August?

JOHN MERROW: Not only do they not have any reliable way, Ray, they keep changing the number. The number in the piece, which was recorded two or three days ago, changed yesterday. They said 27,000 or 24,000. And then it changed again today, and now they're saying they expect anywhere between 17,000 and 34,000. That's a lot of wiggle room.

RAY SUAREZ: And I guess the uncertainties don't end with the number of students. Do the New Orleans public schools know where all their teachers are and whether they're coming back to work?

JOHN MERROW: No, they don't. And, in a way, they can't, Ray, and they don't know about the parents, either, because housing is so uncertain. They don't know if there will be places to live.

As it turns out, New Orleans has a lot more older students than would be expected, and that's because the younger siblings, apparently, are still in Houston or somewhere else. Now, they probably will come back, if there's housing, but nobody knows if there will be housing.

And they're uncertain about money, as well. You know, the state took over about 90 percent of the schools. They told us, well, they do have enough money for next year, but there's an uncertain look when they say the long-term future is just not very clear as a real tax base.

A state takeover

RAY SUAREZ: As a practical matter, what does state receivership mean? Does is it mean that the mayor and a local school board are not in charge of the public schools?

JOHN MERROW: They are most certainly not in charge. The New Orleans school board is in charge of four schools at this moment, and two of those are charter schools, which essentially are independently-run public schools. And the other two may also apply for charter status.

The state has control of over 100 schools, most of which, of course, are not open, but about half of them will be charter schools, which means the principals, like John Hiser, have an awful lot of authority and can be held accountable, but they can take some chances and maybe make a difference.

I mean, they cannot go back to what they were. This was easily the worst public school system in the nation. On a test last year, a GEE test, which is a test for seniors, 96 percent scored below basic in English and 94 percent below basic in math. I mean, that is just disastrous.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, this was all, of course, before Hurricane Katrina hit. Now, the system is going to reopen, reorganize. But if you've got largely the same staff, largely the same student body, and largely the same physical plant, how much does just being a charter school really change day to day?

JOHN MERROW: You won't have the same staff, I don't think, Ray. I mean, the principal can hire and fire. Teachers who have been in the system can apply for their jobs, but there's no guarantee they'll get them.

And I think they're looking for people who want to make a difference, looking for young, energetic teachers who will work as a team. So there really is an opportunity there.

They will have the same students, of course, but intelligence is randomly distributed. You can do catch-up work with these kids. You can't give up on these kids, for sure.

Lingering issues

RAY SUAREZ: Well, will there be some difficulties in placing children when they return? Some of them may have been attending schools in places like Houston and Memphis; some may have not attended school at all.

JOHN MERROW: You know, your first question was about uncertainty, and that's just another element of uncertainty. You're right, of course.

And adding to it is New Orleans has decided to become an open-access system, a choice. That is, parents may choose whichever school they want their kids to go to, which sounds wonderful, except there's no information about any of these schools.

It would be a little bit like being given a restaurant guide which lists the name of all the restaurants but doesn't say whether it's Italian food, or Indian food, or French food. They have choice but no information as to how to make a choice. So it's going to be a very, very complicated story.

Now, there's another argument about vouchers. New Orleans has a huge private school population, the largest of any place in the country. Almost 45 percent of school-aged children in New Orleans go to private schools, parochial schools, evangelical Christian schools, traditional private schools.

They wouldn't mind seeing vouchers from the state government to allow public school kids to go to their schools. On the other hand, the governor says, "No, wait a minute. We have to choose: vouchers or rebuilding the public system." She says there's only enough money to do one of those things, and she's pledged to veto any effort to create vouchers.

So really a remarkable situation here. It's a chance -- it's a kind of a do-over. I guess that's a golf term. New Orleans gets to start over. And what's interesting is I'm here with 150 education reporters, part of the Education Writers Association, so we're all watching, and we're all going to be watching all next year to see what happens.

RAY SUAREZ: Aren't private schools facing some of the same challenges, having to get their physical plant back in order and figure out where their students are?

JOHN MERROW: Yes, of course they are, but private schools reopened pretty early after Katrina. New Orleans didn't open its first school until November, and it only managed to open 12 during the year.

Private schools in New Orleans, Ray, started the year, before Katrina, with 49,000 students. Today, as school is ending, they have 42,000 students.

New Orleans started with 60,000-plus; they have 12,000. So New Orleans public schools lost 80 percent. The private schools not only reopened, they reopened and they got most of their students back.

RAY SUAREZ: And, John, before we go, during my reporting trips to New Orleans, I saw a lot of public schools in some pretty bad shape after the storm. Who's bearing the costs of fixing them up again?

JOHN MERROW: Well, they were taken over by the state. They've become a state responsibility. The state is asking FEMA to pick up the cost, and there are some rules about the except of damage, but there's a lot of fighting going on about the money. So right now, again, that's just yet another area of uncertainty.

RAY SUAREZ: John Merrow, thanks for being with us.

JOHN MERROW: Thank you.