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New Orleans Struggles to Revamp Public Education

March 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: During his daylong trip to the Gulf region today, President Bush visited one of the city’s alternative charter schools to see what progress has been made, but life in the city’s traditional public schools has been tougher. The NewsHour’s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has our report.

JOHN MERROW, Special Correspondent for Education: New Orleans, 18 months after Katrina. The hurricane and flooding damaged more than 100 of the city’s 128 public schools and led to a state takeover of the district. Among the state officials put in charge was Robin Jarvis, a former school principal.

ROBIN JARVIS, Superintendent of Schools: I watched from my home in Baton Rouge as the hurricane hit, as the flooding occurred, and as the entire city was evacuated, and I knew then that everything would have to be rebuilt.

JOHN MERROW: To reverse years of corruption and academic failure in New Orleans, state officials designed a plan they hoped would make the city a model of urban school reform. The state turned most schools into independent charters, privately run public schools, and decided to run 20 schools itself.

ROBIN JARVIS: There are so many needs; there are so many things that have to be done.

JOHN MERROW: Robin Jarvis became the acting superintendent of the state-run schools. She began by asking the federal government for help.

ROBIN JARVIS: We requested modular school buildings. In November of 2005, from FEMA, they were refused. I don’t know what you do when you have the federal government telling you to repair what you have. You have to overcome that challenge.

JOHN MERROW: So you’re saying there were lots of surprises?

ROBIN JARVIS: Yes, there were. We had 11 buildings where the construction was delayed. Many of them are over 100 years old, so there are challenges that, once you start taking walls down and re-plastering and that sort of thing, you discover.

JOHN MERROW: Repairing school buildings was only half the challenge.

ROBIN JARVIS: Everything had to be replaced, every pencil, every piece of paper, every desk, every book.

JOHN MERROW: And it had to happen in time for opening day.

STEVE RITEA, The Times-Picayune: The year started off without a lot of books for children, without enough teachers.

JOHN MERROW: Reporter Steve Ritea covers education for the Times-Picayune.

STEVE RITEA: You have students who have lost everything to the storm, some of whom are living in the city without their parents. And so they’re very angry, as well, so there is a lot of violence at some schools, with several security guards and at least one teacher I know of being put in the hospital.

JOHN MERROW: Was it chaotic?

ROBIN JARVIS: I don’t make a habit of making excuses anymore, because I don’t think there are good excuses, but the reality is that we worked as hard as we could to make sure we were ready.

Some improve, others decline

Richshad Lee
Rabouin High School
But down here, it's like students talking in class, are cutting up, running around the hallway. That's taking away time. That's 30 minutes gone. Now we ain't got no time to learn.

JOHN MERROW: Since opening day, some state-run schools have improved.

PERRETTA MITCHELL, Principal, Tureaud Elementary: We don't harp on Katrina. We did try to create a climate for the children that is conducive to learning.

JOHN MERROW: Perretta Mitchell is principal at Tureaud Elementary. Before Katrina, it was a failing school.

PERRETTA MITCHELL: The children are getting music; they're getting physical education; they're getting computer; they're getting counseling services from the counselor. So we've made great strides, and I see lots of improvement.

STEVE RITEA: I've been in some schools where teachers tell me they have every supply they could possibly want and they had them back in October. I've been in other classrooms where teachers have told me they don't have the most basic supplies. I think it's really spotty.

JARROD DANFORD, Rabouin High School: For whatever reason, I don't understand what takes so long to ship books, but they didn't plan it well enough to have books here for the kids.

JOHN MERROW: For teachers at Rabouin High School, it's been like this for seven months.

JARROD DANFORD: We've had finals just now, and they weren't able to supply the paper for us to make the copies for the exams.

JASON DENLINGER, Rabouin High School: We had a workshop on reading, how to help teach kids how to read, and I said, "That's great, where are the books?"

STUDENT: It's unorganized. They don't have nothing that you're supposed to have in 10th grade.

JOHN MERROW: Following Katrina, these Rabouin students attended schools elsewhere.

STUDENT: I went to Bel Air in Baton Rouge. It was a lot better. I mean, I was in honors classes. There's no honors classes here.

JOHN MERROW: Where'd you go to school last year?

RICHSHAD LEE, Rabouin High School: Castlemont High in California. There's a big difference. Teachers, they really teach.

But down here, it's like students talking in class, are cutting up, running around the hallway. That's taking away time. That's 30 minutes gone. Now we ain't got no time to learn.

KEVIN GEORGE, Principal, Rabouin High School: On the other side, you have the teachers saying the students are just disrespectful, you know, they haven't been accustomed to this type of, you know, disrespect. And I can agree with the teachers on that.

Staffing woes

Kevin George
Principal, Rabouin High School
I've met certified teachers who could not teach. I've met teachers who weren't certified who were excellent. So you have to take it on an individual basis.

JOHN MERROW: For Rabouin Principal Kevin George, staffing has been the biggest challenge.

You have 35 teachers. How many of them are not certified?

KEVIN GEORGE: Approximately, out of 35, about 14 to 15 are not certified.

JOHN MERROW: Is that a huge barrier?

KEVIN GEORGE: That's a tricky question. I've met certified teachers who could not teach. I've met teachers who weren't certified who were excellent. So you have to take it on an individual basis.

LOUIS HARRISON, Rabouin High School: Your projects/papers are going to be due very soon.

I'm a political science major, and I'm teaching algebra. They need somebody in here to teach them.

JOHN MERROW: Louis Harrison is the fourth math teacher these Rabouin students have had this year.

LOUIS HARRISON: The tension rate around here is high. The frustration rate around here is high. I've dealt with situations I've never dealt with before in my life.

JOHN MERROW: You live in that trailer?

MARVA DOMINICK, Rabouin High School: Absolutely.

JOHN MERROW: For teachers, the situation at home only adds to the tension.

MARVA DOMINICK: We've been under so much stress, when you have to go to a job and then come home to this.

JOHN MERROW: For seven months, Rabouin teacher Marva Dominick has called this trailer home.

MARVA DOMINICK: A lot of teachers are living like this, and, you know, we have a low -- you talk, and we cry.

ROBIN JARVIS: Good quality educators, wherever they come from, wherever they were before, we want them. But our biggest challenge is getting them housing when they get in the city or helping them locate housing. Housing shortages are a problem here.

JOHN MERROW: It's so strange to think an educator saying education's biggest problem is housing.

ROBIN JARVIS: Well, we are still in a disaster area, and I think that's what many people across the country don't understand.

Rats in the schools

Robin Jarvis
Superintendent of schools
There's not a lack of money for any of those other things. We've been trying to get rid of the rats. The library books are ordered and should be coming in.

JOHN MERROW: The devastation has created other problems for schools.

STUDENT: Rats just jump out of the wall.

JOHN MERROW: Rats?

STUDENT: Big ones.

SAID JORDAN, Rabouin High School: I was sitting in class one day, and a rat jumped out from out the hole in the ceiling and ran down a pole into the heater.

ROBIN JARVIS: The rat problem in New Orleans is not an easy problem to solve right now with all of the debris everywhere, but we are working on it.

JOHN MERROW: Jarvis cannot fix a citywide rat problem, but some teachers question decisions that she's made in areas she can control.

SEMINAR SPEAKER: If there are misconceptions, then you have to go back and do what? Re-teach.

JOHN MERROW: Recently, her office organized two days of professional development for 812 New Orleans teachers.

AMANDA SIAS, Rabouin High School: The training we're going to tomorrow is at this big fancy hotel. They're going to feed us; they're going to pay for our parking.

That's going to cost thousands and thousands of dollars that could have been spent on something, could have been getting the rats...

JOHN MERROW: On the kids.

AMANDA SIAS: ... getting the rats out of here.

JOHN MERROW: The training cost $280,000, paid for with federal money.

Some of your teachers said, "This is a crisis. Why don't we spend that money on books? Why don't we spend that money on getting rid of the rats?"

ROBIN JARVIS: There's not a lack of money for any of those other things. We've been trying to get rid of the rats. The library books are ordered and should be coming in.

The message to the students

Said Jordan
Rabouin High School
But now, I feel like America's just left us behind, like this city is going down in the dumps, period.

JOHN MERROW: What is the message to kids that go to schools where there aren't enough books, there are rats in the cafeteria?

ROBIN JARVIS: The message for kids is that nobody cares, but I think the reality is we care very much. We are trying to meet their needs.

RICHSHAD LEE: Like, they didn't forget about us when I was in California. They treated me like I was a king, like they wanted me to succeed. Down here, they're going to just throw us away.

JOHN MERROW: Do you feel the rest of America cares about New Orleans?

SAID JORDAN: At the beginning, they probably did. But now, I feel like America's just left us behind, like this city is going down in the dumps, period.

JOHN MERROW: In April, you said, "We're going to build a new national model of urban education." It's now almost a year later. Do you still feel that way?

ROBIN JARVIS: We will. It will take time. You do not rebuild schools, and you do not reform schools in nine or ten months. And I don't know that we explained it appropriately to people. I think they expected instant success and an instant change, and it is going to take time.

JOHN MERROW: But Robin Jarvis may not lead the schools much longer. She's begun to speak publicly about leaving her job, but has not officially resigned.