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Week of 6.22.07

Brian Epstein's Return to New Orleans

NOW producer Brian Epstein NOW producer Brian Epstein returns to New Orleans to see how public schools have fared after their first full school year since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city's education system. The news is sobering.

Following Principal Eileen Williams through the hallways of Lafayette Academy, a new charter school in an old school building in a devastated New Orleans, I was inspired by the Herculean effort taking place. Administrators, teachers, parents, and children were pitching in to paint walls, clean floors, and decorate classrooms for a new school year that was about to start. It was the first year back for many students since Hurricane Katrina, and the stakes couldn't have been any higher. Without a viable school system to return to, the future of the crescent city would be in doubt. But that afternoon, standing in a stately old school building on South Carrollton Avenue surrounded by a dedicated community of New Orleanians, the future looked bright. That was September of last year.

I wish I could say the same thing now. At the end of a long school year veteran teacher Holley Bendsten puts it best: "I can say it for myself, and I can say it for everyone else, too, because everyone else has said it, this has been the hardest year teaching I've ever, ever experienced. It's been a hard year living."

By any measurement, Lafayette Academy's first school year has been disastrous. Students didn't have textbooks for months, there was no real curriculum in place, computers never got up and running, bus service didn't start until November, copy machines didn't work, and teachers were dropping like flies. The school was so overcrowded that middle school students who were supposed to change classrooms for different subjects ended up staying in one class all day to avoid chaos in the hallways.

And who's at fault? The state that couldn't provide books on time? The foundation that opened the charter school without one educator on its board? The company that was brought in to run the school? Or teachers that quit out of frustration and left their students behind?

Laying blame is like throwing a bottle of ketchup against the wall. It lands everywhere. Principal Williams puts it bluntly: "I think all the responsibility is on the shoulders of all of us, because we all made a promise to these kids. We opened the doors in September, said that we would take care of kids and provide them with a quality education. And we have not done that."

For students like 7th grader Domonick Foy, the consequences of a poor education this year are serious. Next year he has to take a state standardized test and he's concerned about not being prepared. "My hopes for next year is ... to try get ready for the LEAP test." He describes much of the past school year as "sitting in class all day not doing nothing."

While most schools in New Orleans are now out for summer break, children and teachers at Lafayette are still trucking along due to a late start this past fall. For me, having seen the school year start with so much promise, the mood is sobering. Sitting with Bendsten outside her recently reconstructed home, she considers her words carefully. "The Big Easy ain't easy anymore. It's hard. And it's hard every day. And we just want it to get a little easier."

Here's hoping next year is.

» Read Epstein's first notebook from New Orleans

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