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November 24, 2006
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NOW Transcript - Show 247
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Transcript - November 24, 2006

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.

If you believe education is the key to the future, I need a few moments of your time to look at something with us. It's about New Orleans, post-Katrina, but you haven't seen this view before. There've been plenty of stories about renewal there and a visit in late 2006 to the fabled French Quarter can be once again a deliciously good time. But there's a good argument that the state of education trumps tourism—or football—as a gauge of recovery.

Before Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans public school system was widely viewed as a mess. After the destruction, city planners decided not just to rebuild but revolutionize. Fully 60 percent of the city's reopened schools are independently run charter schools—each an experiment in education. How's it been going? For the past several months, one of now's teams has been spending time at a place called Lafayette Academy —an old school with a new mission. Our story is reported by senior correspondent Maria Hinojosa. And the producers are Gini Reticker and Brian Epstein.

HINOJOSA: Here in New Orleans, the city is getting its groove back. Tourism is returning, homes are being rebuilt and hope is in the air. For many New Orleanians, the reopening of the public schools back in September signaled that it was time to come home.

DROZDOWSKI: Yeah, there you go... perfect!

HINOJOSA: Just three days before Lafayette Academy opens, Principal Eileen Williams takes us on a tour.

WILLIAMS: We've been trying to work around the clock...We've had crews in doing some painting, some scrubbing... assembling furniture.

WILLIAMS: We need two desk on the outside...

HINOJOSA: Williams a highly esteemed educator, lost her job along with thousands of others, when the state shut down the city's public schools after Katrina. The entire community helps prepare for returning students.

MS. PAULINE: I am painting so we can get the school ready for Monday. So my grandchildren and the other kids can come to school and start learning and having a beautiful time while they learn. They can't wait... to get and play with the other kids.

WOMAN: It looks great. You guys are doing an awesome job.

HINOJOSA: This building was mostly spared, only the basement flooded. With only two days to go, even prison inmates are brought in to help.

WILLIAMS: This is a—truly an effort of blood, sweat, and tears, but it—I am convinced that this is all gonna—be the basis for the rebuilding process in New Orleans.

HINOJOSA: Rebuilding means starting from zero. After Katrina, the state mandated that all equipment, furniture, and books be thrown away from the city's public schools because of potential mold spores. Now the state is responsible for replacing the books citywide.

WILLIAMS: We're here in the library where... About six weeks ago we had shelves overflow with children's literature. And It was very sad to come here in July and to see that there dumpsters on the school yard, where they literally threw away everything that was in this building pre-Katrina —it's—it's was a very sad day to see things being discarded that I knew children all over the world could benefit from.

CHEYNNA: Look at that ... That's my old supervisor. . . check her out

WILLIAMS: Ohhh, is she someone we like, we want?

CHEYNNA: Ah. Okay. Okay. She another you...

WILLIAMS: All right. We need to call her today and ask her if can she come by.

HINOJOSA: Cheynna Moore was hired to be a parent coordinator.

CHEYNNA: Joshua Pauline?

HINOJOSA: No one knew how many students would show up, so she is trying to find spots for students who applied late to Lafayette. She and her family spent most of last year in Texas. There Cheynna was amazed at the resources available at the schools.

CHEYNNA: When I realized that they had public schools that had everything a teacher needed, a TV—a telephone, a computer, a overhead, internet access. I say, "Why we don't have that one state over? So I said, "Whenever I get back home this is what I want to do...

HINOJOSA: Cheynna like many others, is hoping that Katrina's silver lining might be a transformation for New Orleans notoriously bad public schools. After the storm, the state took control of 85% of public schools and invited private citizens to rebuild them as charter schools. A year later, some remain beyond repair. These shots were taken just days ago.

Back in September, the night before school starts, Cheynna is getting both herself and her kids ready. With no school buses running, they'll have to be up at 5 am to make it to school on time...So Cheynna is in mommy-prep mode.

CHEYNNA: So I'm gonna be at the school with my kids. They're gonna ride with me every day to school. That's exciting for them. Huh? So hopefully they'll stay out of trouble. I doubt it.

What you doin?

RENEE: Getting in my bed!

HINOJOSA: For four long months, this family of five has been living in this two room Fema trailer while they repair their home.

RJ: What belt are you wearing ...The brown or the black?

RONNELL: I wanna... I wanna.... wear the brown one tomorrow...

HINOJOSA: Cheynna's family only returned to New Orleans once they heard the schools were reopening.

CHEYNNA: You know, I'm looking forward to a rebirth of the school system. And I'm just looking for a new New Orleans, you know, being in Texas and seeing how awesome their school systems are, I know that we have the opportunities to do the same. And, you know, and this is our chance. I'm just looking forward to the chance, 'cause it's about the children.

MS. PAULINE: Take your time...

HINOJOSA: Early the next morning, On September 11th, children from ages 5 to 15 head to Lafayette Academy for their first day of school in New Orleans in nearly a year.

WILLIAMS: Good morning. Are y'all ready?

FEMALE VOICE: Oh, I'm ready. Ready as I'm gonna be.

WILLIAMS: Ready, girls?

GIRLS: I think so!

HINOJOSA: Principal William's father was the first African American superintendent of New Orleans schools, so, education is in her bones.

WILLIAMS: I'm a firm believer that—if we're gonna do away with poverty in this country and—and—and do things that are right, we've gotta begin with educating our youth, and taking care of kids.

WILLIAMS: Hello, how are you?...fine.... I can't believe this miracle is happening...

COOK: What time is my lunches gonna start?

WILLIAMS: I just brought you a copy of the lunch schedule.

DROZDOWSKI: We've been around here, we've seen what this place looked like when it started. And even since Thursday when you first walked in here it's been an absolute miracle and it's because of y'all.

HINOJOSA: Just minutes before school starts Chief administrator Ed Drozdowski gives the staff a final pep talk.

DROZDOWSKI: We're on the verge of making history here. We're part of a big experiment. We're going to be the ones to make it go. This staff right here. A lot of responsibility. A lot of responsibility. But I know you can do it.

WILLIAMS: Good morning. Don't you look nice in your grey and blue. You ready for school? Yes,Yes? Good morning. Hello. Good morning. Hi, How are you?

DROZDOWSKI: We want you to walk on the red carpet to come in and feel special. Start down there, come on up on here. Oh, we're gonna do some ribbon cutting, too.

DROZDOWSKI: One—

VARIOUS VOICES: Two, three.

DROZDOWSKI: Nice job. We'll keep that as a souvenir. Come on in. We all want you here now.

WILLIAMS: Second grade, you're on this floor.... Pre-K, K, and one, first floor. Second, third, and fourth. Second floor.

HINOJOSA: Seven Hundred and Fifty Four children will attend Lafayette Academy this year. Some didn't go to school at all last year. Others spent the year at several schools around the country.

WILLIAMS: Good morning, what's your name young lady.

HINOJOSA: Cheynna's daughter Renee attended four schools last year...Once again, she has to search for her new classroom, new friends, new teacher.

WOMAN: Renee Burbank, you have Ms. Sutton, that's wonderful, she's such a nice teacher...in this classroom... here's your teacher.

SUTTON: What's your name?

RENEE: Renee.

SUTTON: Renee? Come on in Renee. You can pick out any seat you want... we've got paper out for coloring and books for reading.

HINOJOSA: Renee is lucky to have books brought in by her teacher. Most of the school's textbooks have still not been delivered.

What's the big experiment in education here? New Orleans will now be the only city in the country where the majority of public schools are independently run charter schools. That means the schools can enhance the state curriculum; they can hire non union employees; and they can decide how to run the schools. The federal government has underwritten this experiment to the tune of $24 million.

The hope is to make up for lost time and get students, like 7th Grader Domonick Foy, back on track.

DOMONICK: Before Katrina I finished the year off in sixth grade with a 3.0. And when we went to a different school, I was passing everything except math. So I'm trying to repeat the seventh grade so maybe next year they can put me in my right grade so I can go to high school.

HINOJOSA: Domonick and his mom have been living in their Fema trailer since the summer. They spent last year staying with his aunt in Patterson, Louisiana.

DOMONICK: I think Katrina changed everybody's life. I wouldn't say that it traumatized everybody. But people who lived in the Super Dome, people who stayed at the convention center, I feel for 'em. Cause I was lucky enough and blessed enough to get away before that storm happened. And they had to stay and deal through all the stuff and drama that was happening during the storm so... it's always in the back of your mind.

HINOJOSA: Domonick is in Holley Bendtsen's social studies class.

BENDSTEN: To me Limboland means where we have been for a solid year.

We've been trying to go forward, We haven't gone forward, we've try to get schools open, but we didn't get it open. But this year we've got our school open, we're here building our own school ourselves. And that's what this song is supposed to be about.

BENDSTEN: There was not a huge stampede to come and—work in this state. I wonder why. You know? Limboland... it's—it really is. Like we slipped off the third world, and we're our own little island now. And that was one of the funny Mardi Gras themes this year, "Buys us back Chirac. We're gettin' more help from France sometimes than we're gettin' from the United States."

BENDSTEN: So, so exactly what happened? Y'all were there during the storm, the electricity went off, what happened?

STUDENT: We went to sleep 'cause we ain't know if there was a flood or not when we woke up, we felt wet and all.

BENDSTEN: So literally when you went to bed, you were all laying in water?

STUDENT: Yeah.

BENDSTEN: Ok After Katrina... After K I was in my bed...until the water reached my head...

Half my kids are writing flood experiences down, cuz all our materials aren't in, so we're just—pretty much vamping right now.

Ok, so say, then we climbed up through the roof.... and used an axe to bust on through.. that's what we're gonna say.

It's amazing how many of them swam for it. Lots of them. Lots of them.

What did y'all actually see in the water?

STUDENT: Like fishes and snakes.

HINOJOSA: Since there are no books and no curriculum, veteran teacher Bendtsen, who moonlights as a jazz singer in the French Quarter, decides to improvise.

BENDSTEN: After we sat on the roof a while, we had to swim 7 miles, when we made it to grandma's house I saw some fish and snakes and one dead mouse.

Ok...And that's the theme of our song. We waited for people to come to, to help us. And we waited a long time.

BENDSTEN: Limbo Land's gonna be the title. This is gonna be our first verse that we shared his story-

And in fact I'm gonna make this the past tense. Because you know what? We don't live in Limbo Land anymore except for FEMA...

We're through livin' in Limbo Land, way down here in Louisian. We're the people that have the plan, so no more livin' in Limbo Land. —it's come to the point where if nobody's comin' to help you, what do you do?

Listen!

HINOJOSA: Then someone acts up in class.

BENDSTEN: Listen! Since I came to this building, I have heard no naughty words, no disparaging remarks, nothing negative 'til now.

MALE VOICE: No one negative—

BENDSTEN: You gonna work the evening, baby. You gonna work.

MALE VOICE: —talk about your momma on the T.V.

BENDSTEN: Don't even go there.

BENDSTEN: We're not gonna play the dozens. That is nothin' but a old slave game. And we not gonna be slaves here. We are independent free people. We no longer live in Limbo Land. We are not New Orleans refugees. We are not New Orleans evacuees. We are New Orleans what? Survivors.....

BENDSTEN: the most—telling thing I can tell you is the stress is not post-traumatic. There has never been a post yet. The stress is continuous stress disorder, comin' from every direction. And everybody feels it.

HINOJOSA: For Holley and most of the families and teachers at Lafayette, the stress comes from living in tiny Fema trailers in neighborhoods that remain devastated more than a year after the storm. Kids come from all over the city where homes are being rebuilt after work or on weekends. A short distance from Domonick's hard hit neighborhood, Tulane University is a beacon of hope.

HINOJOSA: Domonick's mom, Karen works at Tulane. She is able to get Domonick and his friend Phillip in to use the gym.

DOMONICK: My mom has been working at Tulane about 16 years—if your parent works at Tulane, you get a free scholarship to Tulane. So most likely, I'm gonna go to Tulane, cause I get to go there for free.

HINOJOSA: But in order for Dominick to go to Tulane, he needs to do well academically. But how can he do well when most textbooks still haven't arrived?

DOMONICK: We need to start getting textbooks now because children who are behind, they are behind. And we're not getting what we need if we behind. We don't have no books.

WILLIAMS: I think the storm and the turmoil that is presently going on has affected our older kids a lot more than it has those younger kids. Younger kids are much more resilient. Teachers who teach primary kids have a way of making it a little different for kids, and making sure that the things that they perceive—that may be a problem, are not really problems.

HINOJOSA: The Lafayette community is encouraged to help out while they wait for the state to deliver the textbooks. In early October, parents, students and volunteers come together to erect a playground donated by Blue Cross Blue Shield.

DROZDOWSKI: We have about oh 200 to 250 volunteers here today who will build
this playground in one day.

HINOJOSA: With music blasting, they lift their hammers, rakes and shovels to create a new playground for Lafayette.

CHEYNNA: I'm excited, I can't wait till the kids get back to school tomorrow to see all the hard work and effort that everyone has put into this playground.

HINOJOSA: At the same time, inside the school library, there are only a few boxes of donated books.

And still no math books for the 7th graders.

BENDSTEN: What is it Derrick?

Math teacher's not here today. So I walked in this morning not knowing I was gonna be doing that until they—said, "She's not here, somebody take the class." And I—crazily volunteered to take the class. So—cuz I know the kids.

BENDSTEN: Dominick and Cerrod, quit playing!

...At least figuring, "I know 'em, I know their names. They won't be that bad for me." But, you know, didn't seem to always work out as I had believed. Let's just say that.

And what is this last one? Thousandths, 9-thousandths, ok so this is correct.

We now have great kids that we have constant discipline problems with. This is third, fourth, fifth grade behavior we're having out of seventh graders. Because—really, what else is there to do? And it's—it's sad. It's—so many smart kids. And what should be content, we should be dazzling them with content right now. We cannot dazzle them with content because we have nothing to work with.

Did you feel things were ready on the first day?

CLASS: No!!

HINOJOSA: Only thirty minutes into the math class, they go back to a recurring conversation: the problems at Lafayette Academy.

BENDSTEN: Do you have a textbook for the math? Raise your hand... no math, ok..textbook...

What did you have a concern about Domonick?

DOMONICK: on the first day I came in here smelling like paint, the walls wasn't painted, it was dirty up in here. We walked up and they lied and told us saying the principal was a man and it was a lady and then they lied and told us we'd have sports and all that. They lied and said this was gonna be one of the best schools and this school lied period. And this school lie period and this school ain't got nothing so it's stupid.

BENDSTEN: Ok, so, no textbooks in math.

DOMONICK: How do they expect us to go to next grade when we can't even get textbooks.?

BENDSTEN: Exactly, exactly.

End of this week makes a month that we have been here with—you know, some plastic and steel desks. And—now we have some pencils, couple a markers. But we don't have much in the way of curriculum. And—I—I think everybody's becoming so frustrated, every—adult, every kid, every parent. You know? It's very tough. we just kind of having school out here by ourselves as best we can with whatever we can get to work with. That's it. I just can't believe we're in America. You know? I guess we are.

HINOJOSA: With the first month of school essentially awash, parents, students and teachers are all growing concerned that the kids will not fare well on standardized testing. Especially concerned are parents of the older kids.

CHEYNNA: I just hope, you know, that we can hold on to our older kids, you know, because they're so easily distracted, because it's not enough for them. They need more, you know.

And everything is un—still uncertain. You know, we don't know what they're gonna be graded on.

HINOJOSA: The uncertainty at Lafayette is felt at schools throughout the city. Domonick and his friend Phillip voice their concerns to Domonick's mom.

DOMONICK: Like the people they think just clown all the time. Like we be—we smart. And the work they give us ain't really nothin'. Like the homework—like Mr. Finley said. Mr. Finley say, "This is honors, but this is not real honors." Cause honors—that homework—that's not homework—

KAREN: Yes, you may be in an honors class. But if they're not challenging you mentally. And you're able to get through that work that quick. And then you go to another state—

PHILLIP: Exactly.

KAREN: and you can't cut that work. Then that means that academically they're—they're not meetin' the challenge or the needs of the students.

PHILLIP: That—that's why they challenge—

KAREN: And ya'll never gonna be ready for those standardized tests if they don't up the ante on the—on the work.

Well then on the other hand, too though. And I tell you this all the time. Your clownin' and all your playin' and stuff. That's outside stuff. When you get in that classroom, that's serious business stuff.

HINOJOSA: Teachers are as frustrated as the students:

TEACHER: When somebody is asking a question, I only wanna hear one voice.

TEACHER: That's rude, you're talking when you're talking.

You owe all of these girls an apology. Sorry, what??

HINOJOSA: When disciplinary issues reach a critical level especially in the older grades, principal Williams has a stern talk with the kids.

WILLIAMS: Your priority has got to be doing your work, and making the grade. And all of us have lived through a—terrible, terrible storm in New Orleans. We all lived through Katrina. Nothing is the way it was before the hurricane. So it was a wake-up call for all of us, to take care of our business. And in case another storm c—comes to New Orleans, another five years from years from now, ten years from now, you wanna be able to get out of New Orleans and not be at that Superdome or at that Convention Center. And you gonna have to have an education and good job to buy that car so you can make sure you have a way out.... Period.

HINOJOSA: As an African American, principal Williams is still distraught by what happened a year ago.

WILLIAMS: I will tell you that that experience of seeing folks on TV—cause I was in Baton Rouge after the storm—and seeing people herded like cattle, was probably —one of the hardest things for me to experience. It was a wake up call for the African-American community in this city. So—because the system failed them. I mean, it was—I know it was a real harsh for me telling kids that you got to get education and get out. But basically you do. Education is the only way for us to—to—to do better. It is the only way to get out.

HINOJOSA: We went back in to Lafayette in early November. Things seem to be falling into place. Buses are running. Children are enjoying the playground. 98% of the textbooks have arrived. The younger kids, like Cheynna's daughter Renee, appear to be thriving.

WILLIAMS: I anticipate after Thanksgiving we should be rocking and rolling. And at least I'm praying we are rocking and rolling by then. 'Cause it's been a long struggle.

HINOJOSA: After a lost school year and a tumultuous beginning of a new one, the stakes are high for New Orleans. More than the success of the charter school movement, more than tourism, more than Mardi Gras, it's about the very future of this city: it's children.

WILLIAMS: If things don't change dramatically and change dramatically soon, it's going to be an upheaval in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The country needs to come down here and demand that we give every child what is their due as far as public education and put our money where our mouth is. 'Cause right now it's not happening.

BRANCACCIO: In the months to come, we'll be going back to Lafayette Academy to find out more about what's happening at the school. And on the web we have a very personal story of life and learning, seen through the eyes of an eight year old boy named D'mar. Find that on the now site at pbs.org, is the jumping off point for that.

If you're traveling this thanksgiving weekend take our portable podcast with you. Sign up at pbs.org/now.

And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.



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