TOPICS > Education > Katrina 10 Years Later

In reforming New Orleans, have charter schools left some students out?

August 28, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
Ten years ago, New Orleans public schools were headed for academic rock bottom. And then Hurricane Katrina came, a disaster so devastating that it offered the rare opportunity to start over. Charter schools, empowered to take over, have raised test scores and graduation rates. But some say that success comes from bending the rules. Special correspondent John Tulenko of Education Week reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That brings us, appropriately, to our look at what’s happened to New Orleans’ schools over the course of the past decade and the big changes that they have undergone.

It’s a story we have reported on closely throughout.

Tonight, John Tulenko of Education Week, which produces stories for the NewsHour, has our report.

JOHN TULENKO: As you can see, in parts of New Orleans, life seems to be getting back to normal 10 years after Katrina. But many folks are wondering about the public schools. For the last 10 years, they have been engaged in what some have called the most ambitious experiment ever in public education. And whether or not it’s working depends on whom you ask.

WOMAN: I do see improvement in the kids and in the schools.

JOHN TULENKO: Is it working?

MAN: No.

WOMAN: The charter system has done tremendously well for the local kids here.

WOMAN: It’s working for those who have their money, their hand in the cookie jar.

MAN: I think they are better than they were 10 years ago.

JOHN TULENKO: Ten years ago, New Orleans’ public schools were headed for rock bottom. Fewer than a third of eighth graders could pass a reading test. And corruption was so deep, the FBI had set up an office inside the school administration building.

Patrick Dobard, who oversees the schools today, remembers those days.

PATRICK DOBARD, Superintendent, Recovery School District: Orleans Parish School Board at that time, unfortunately, it was really academically and in some instances morally and financially bankrupt.

And then Katrina came. When you have a catastrophe like that, it is an opportunity to start anew, because a lot of the institutional barriers, both real and perceived, were literally and figuratively, unfortunately, washed away.

JOHN TULENKO: Seizing the moment, the state took control of the city’s failing schools. Pink slips were sent to all 5,000 teachers and the state set out to remake New Orleans as a city where nearly all the schools would be independently run charters. Local school officials were no longer in charge.

MAN: I will know you’re ready because your eyes will be just on me. Thank you so much.

JOHN TULENKO: Some charters split up the boys and girls. Others focused on the arts. Most introduced uniforms and strict rules, and all were to be held accountable for results.

PATRICK DOBARD: And then you have a five-year contract. And if you don’t meet the terms of that contract, we have the ability to not allow you to continue in existence.

JOHN TULENKO: Charters were new and different. And it took some getting used to for parents like Cheryl Griffin.

CHERYL GRIFFIN, Parent: The first time I came to a meeting here, I’m going to tell you the truth, I was like, what kind of crap is this bojangle? What are they doing? I am not going to be a part of this. And so when I really got it, when I see that Summer got it this way, I said well, that’s the process. The process is to get it. She loves it.

MICHAEL FRANKLIN, Parent: Definitely, the environment is safe. Definitely, the teachers — I mean, they have excellent teachers. They have more things for kids to do.

JOHN TULENKO: Michael Franklin is another parent the charters won over.

MICHAEL FRANKLIN: With the charter school systems, there’s more creative thinking. I think there’s more creative exploration as far as helping kids and ways to get kids to meet their — to achieve their potential.

JOHN TULENKO: New schools were opening every year and the results were promising.

MAN: We went up in every grade in every subject. Congratulations.


JOHN TULENKO: Today, graduation rates have climbed from 54 percent to 73 percent. Test scores are substantially higher, and more students are enrolling in college.

For some, New Orleans has become a model of urban school reform.

PATRICK DOBARD: When I think about, nationally, people looking at it, it makes me realize how big this is, because what we’re doing is extremely different and progressive, but it’s also, in my mind, like the fundamental things we should be doing across this nation regardless.

JOHN TULENKO: But there is another side to this story. Some say charter schools, operating with little oversight, have succeeded by bending the rules in their favor.

WOMAN: So, your shoes cannot have gray on them. Must be all white or all black.

JOHN TULENKO: Critics point in particular to school discipline codes, which charters write themselves.

ASHANA BIGARD, Parent: The rules — like, a lot of the schools have rules called like willful disobedience, right, which is subjective. It’s anything I want it to be.

JOHN TULENKO: For 10 years, Ashana Bigard has been helping parents navigate the schools here. Her daughters attended local charter schools.

ASHANA BIGARD: So willful disobedience could be anything from you not tracking the teacher with your eyes to being perceived as coughing too much in the classroom.

JOHN TULENKO: The punishment for that is what?

ASHANA BIGARD: A lot of times, suspension.

MAN: If you’re meeting these expectations, you’re going to be stepping out of this room, and you might not come back to this room.

ANTONIO TRAVIS, New Orleans: They wasn’t interested in trying to help a problem child. I would say that. They wasn’t interested in trying to — in seeing what your issue was at home or why you are coming to school and why you’re having a bad day. It was five days and go home.

JOHN TULENKO: Antonio Travis says five-day suspensions for minor infractions were the norm at his charter school.

Did you see the students in your class start to disappear?

ANTONIO TRAVIS: Yes, most definitely. From numerous amounts of suspensions, parents would just get tired of it and just take them out of school.

JOHN TULENKO: Just two years ago, some charters were suspending 40 percent or more of their students.

ASHANA BIGARD: They want to have great test scores. If you’re a low tester and I really want to get you out of my school, one of the tools that I have seen used is suspension.

JOHN TULENKO: While some charge students were being pushed out, others claim their kids couldn’t even get a foot in the door.

SUE BORDELON, Parent: The first time we went and applied at a charter after Katrina, what I heard was, oh, we can’t — we can’t accommodate him.

JOHN TULENKO: Sue Bordelon’s son, Clarke, has autism.

SUE BORDELON: And this was repeated over and over at every charter school we went to.

JOHN TULENKO: Parents of students with disabilities took their claims to court and won stricter oversight and regulation.

But even before the lawsuit, state officials had begun to reassert control over charter schools, starting with a new centralized system for admissions.

PATRICK DOBARD: Within our central enrollment system, it’s agnostic and doesn’t know whether or not the kid has a disability. So, schools, once you get a kid in a school, the child is assigned to the school, you have to serve that kid.

JOHN TULENKO: The approach to discipline is also changing. Any expulsions must now be approved by the state.

But what about suspensions?

ASHANA BIGARD: Oh, they can suspend as much as they want. And if you’re 14 or 15, 16 and you’re on suspension every two weeks, every two weeks, after awhile, you’re not going to come back to school.

JOHN TULENKO: Charters point to declining suspension rates as evidence they’re not pushing students out. To keep kids in school and address behavior, some are bringing in more counselors. It’s a start, but there’s hard work ahead.

PATRICK DOBARD: I think the next 10 to 15 years is literally around mental health interventions that we could put in place. Like, do we need more than school psychologists? Maybe we need psychiatrists.

Those are the things that traditionally haven’t been, like, the main focus of schools, but we have to look at that.

JOHN TULENKO: The difficult work of school reform has also made New Orleans look within.

PATRICK DOBARD: We have to have like a federalist type of oversight. Government has to play a role and make sure that all students are being served well.

But then, within that framework, we want to be able to give like individual rights to charters, much like states’ rights. That’s in essence what we’re building.

JOHN TULENKO: Whether charters schools can deliver on their promise to provide quality education to all students here remains to be seen.

In New Orleans, I’m John Tulenko of Education Week, reporting for the PBS NewsHour.