JOHN MERROW: When it was announced last month that a handful of New Orleans schools would be opening their doors once again, displaced students and families traveled from all over the country to line up to register.
SPOKESPERSON: Glad to be back, oh yes.
JOHN MERROW: Every student had a story.
STUDENT: I went to school in Houston. The students were so nice and the teachers were nice and they gave me stuff. I was on the football team automatically and played my first game and scored two touchdowns and I was like, oh, I can work this out. But then, you know, started hitting me I wasn't used to the people and my friends, I started missing my friends. So I was like, I'm ready to go back home.
STUDENT: We've been moving around a lot. And I really don't like moving around. So I'm just happy to come back because I love my school.
JOHN MERROW: Last week O. Perry Walker and Edna Karr were the first two public high schools to welcome students back since Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city more than three months ago.
SPOKESPERSON: We are going to learn much, much better.
JOHN MERROW: Just about everything except the school's names is different.
SPOKESMAN: This is the chance to start anew. This is an opportunity like none other.
JOHN MERROW: Many in the education community see Katrina as an opportunity to start over. For years New Orleans has been regarded as one of the worst school systems in the country, plagued by academic failure and corruption.
Teacher Mark Bailey says a lot of work lies ahead.
MARK BAILEY: We're trying to overcome years of educational mistakes. We're trying to overcome years of mis-serving students.
JOHN MERROW: When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and its public schools, some questioned whether any of its 55,000 plus students would get to come back to school here this year.
Well, a few thousand are returning. But they're coming back to a system that's been turned upside down and not just by a hurricane. For one thing, the school board, which once ran about one 115 schools now is in charge of only eight.
The state of Louisiana is taking over schools, which haven't met academic standards; that's about 90 percent of the system; and 13 schools are part of a new independent district of charter schools.
BRIAN RIEDLINGER: I think the schools have been a real albatross. And so I think what we're giving parents is the possibility of hope, a possibility of wiping the slate clean and starting over.
BRIAN RIEDLINGER: Didn't get to tell you hello earlier.
SPOKESMAN: How are you?
JOHN MERROW: Brian Riedlinger is the director of the Algiers Charter Schools Association, which now controls the three primary and two high schools that opened last week.
SPOKESPERSON: I urge my fellow board members' support of that.
JOHN MERROW: Before the storm, these schools were controlled by the New Orleans school board. Now that they're charter schools the dynamic has changed.
BRIAN RIEDLINGER: The rules and regulations for charter schools gives you a great amount of flexibility which allows you innovation that a typical public school wouldn't be able to have.
BRIAN RIEDLINGER: A principal's work is never done.
SPOKESMAN: And now we will be doing everything but dropping the buck.
JOHN MERROW: As director of the Charter Schools Association, Riedlinger was able to hand pick new principals. He hired Mary Lori as the new principal of O. Perry Walker. He rehired John Hiser as principal of Edna Karr, which pre-Katrina was a magnate school, one of the best public schools in New Orleans. Now that it is open to anyone, maintaining the high caliber will be a challenge. But Hiser says there are some advantages too.
JOHN MERROW: As principal of a charter school, are you going to have more authority --
JOHN HISER: Yes.
JOHN MERROW: --than you had before?
JOHN HISER: There will be more authority, there will be more responsibility.
SPOKESMAN: I took a bold step last night. You know the policy and procedure manual we have for Orleans Parish, I took the one from the '70s and I actually threw it away.
JOHN MERROW: Now are you in charge?
JOHN HISER: Now I'm in charge.
JOHN MERROW: You can hire and fire?
JOHN HISER: I can hire and fire. 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: Riedlinger and his colleagues were under immense pressure to establish this new system in a short amount of time.
BRIAN RIEDLINGER: Within a week and a half, two weeks, we were doing principal screening; a couple days after that we were doing teacher screening. A couple of days after that we were selecting teachers; principals called teachers Monday afternoon and teachers showed up for work Tuesday morning. So we've been on a pretty rapid time line.
JOHN MERROW: More than 500 teachers showed up to interview for fewer than 100 positions, allowing principals to pick the very best. To qualify, applicants had to pass a test.
BRIAN RIEDLINGER: We asked the teachers to give us a writing sample and we gave them a couple of math problems to work. And we had probably of that 200, probably 30 who did not do well on the test. So they were screened out.
JOHN MERROW: Teacher Nicole Jackson passed the test. Tell me about the test.
NICOLE JACKSON: It was pretty simple, you know. I didn't appreciate it. I can honestly say I didn't appreciate it because I felt that I had proven myself. But having to do that again gave me the opportunity to again prove myself and say that yes, I can do this job.
JOHN MERROW: At Walker, which had a poor academic record, only four of its former teachers were rehired.
JOHN MERROW: Most of what was going on at this school did not work. I mean you have 83 percent of the students in English, below basic -- and 76 percent below basic in math. I mean, that is a disaster.
MARY LORI: I agree. The reality is that they are struggling in reading; they are struggling in writing; they are struggling in mathematics.
JOHN MERROW: Which is why Principal Lori was looking for teachers with a new attitude.
MARY LORI: If you cannot take responsibility for the failure of young children, this is not the place for you, not O. Perry Walker, not at this time, not at any time.
JOHN MERROW: Reporter: If you heard someone blaming, you said I don't want that guy here.
MARY LORI: Not here.
JOHN MERROW: Reporter: Once teachers were hired, principals Lori and Hiser had one week to get the buildings ready for opening day. With resources limited, the teachers' responsibilities included cleaning and preparing the classrooms.
SPOKESPERSON: What do we do with the computers back in the back?
SPOKESMAN: If it's ancient, we put them out here; we are going to dump them.
JOHN MERROW: They threw out damaged computers and old books and sorted through materials to see what was salvageable. They emptied students' desks, which had remained untouched since the storm.
Getting the damaged buildings in order was the least of their challenges. Built for about 1,000 students, each school currently has a fraction of that, but despite smaller classes, teachers are going to have to help many students catch up.
BRIAN RIEDLINGER: Some of our students haven't been in school since Katrina. Some of our students have been in school a month since Katrina. Some of our students have been in school completely since Katrina. So I think our kids are going to come in really all over the page. And we're going to spend the year trying to catch kids up.
SPOKESMAN: Our kids want what was and the new kids coming in may, in fact, have some fears that they can't compete. This situation will call us to use every bit of sensitivity that we have.
JOHN MERROW: Since Walker and Karr are open to anyone who wants to attend, teachers have to integrate new students with old ones.
SPOKESPERSON: We want the students who come in now to understand that they are the student body, not the students we had before. We don't want anybody thinking well, you know, they were at Karr already and they are already special.
SPOKESPERSON: It's been a horrible experience for a lot of people.
JOHN MERROW: In addition to helping new students feel comfortable, teachers must also consider students personal circumstances. Some have been forced to relocate four or five times since Katrina.
Like many who lost their homes, Sonia Edwards and her family are still living in a hotel room. Despite their difficult situation, Sonia registered her children at Walker.
SPOKESPERSON: Once these children return they're going to need consistency. And that's going to have to be among each and every person here administration, teachers, custodial staff, cafeteria staff whoever is going to be in this building.
JOHN MERROW: In the week leading up to opening day teachers met daily to discuss how to handle the various issues facing students.
SPOKESMAN: I think one of the most therapeutic things that these students need is that return to normalcy, going back to math and English, going back to science and going back to homework. I think that is therapeutic.
JOHN MERROW: Under the new charter school system principals and teachers are expected to be creative in their approach to teaching.
JOHN MERROW: Are you going to use Katrina as part of your curriculum?
SPOKESPERSON: You have to use her, as part of your curriculum, but there is so much that you can do with it.
SPOKESPERSON: I can see children writing about their experiences, autobiographical writing is one of the skills that we build.
SPOKESPERSON: Plotting the hurricanes, Cartesian coordinate planes, looking at distance, if you have families living across hundreds of miles away, how long is it going to take you to visit them.
JOHN MERROW: One other challenge teachers face is getting parents to believe in the public school system.
WOMAN: Yes, I'd like to register my daughter.
SPOKESMAN: For what grade?
WOMAN: For the 11th grade.
JOHN MERROW: Parent Rhonda Birdwater is not convinced that things will change.
RHONDA BIRDWATER: I don't think it's going to be bigger and better, not unless they fix the problem. A lot of kids, they're not concerned about education. They're more concerned about how to survive today, how to make it out alive tomorrow, you know, and to get to school.
JOHN MERROW: It remains to be seen whether these new charter schools will be able to overcome the trauma of Katrina, raise the academic bar and create a quality school system for the city.
JOHN MERROW: What I hear people say is Katrina was in some way a blessing, you know, it's an opportunity for a do-over.
JOHN HISER: Let me tell you something. If you looked into the eyes of children who had been through that, you would never say that. I talk to kids in Houston. I've talked to kids here. I lost, you know, I had to leave my dog behind. You know, I left my teddy bear behind; I left my room behind, my games behind, my friends behind.
They want their lives back. They want their friends back. They want their neighborhood back. They want their school back.
SPOKESMAN: It is a good day for the city of New Orleans. And it is a great day for you guys who are here.
JOHN MERROW: So far more than 2,000 students have registered to attend one of the five Algiers charter schools. On opening day last week about 150 students arrived at Karr, and 280 at Walker. The Algiers Charter Schools Association expects hundreds more students to arrive in January once they complete the semester in their current schools.
GWEN IFILL: John will continue to report on the progress in the New Orleans schools in the months ahead.