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New Orleans Schools Chief Aims to Curb Dropout Rate

In the latest in a series of reports on how education leaders are endeavoring to reform troubled urban schools, education correspondent John Merrow returns to New Orleans to check in on the city's efforts to repair its struggling school system.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Now, the New Orleans schools. Last night, the NewsHour's special correspondent for education, John Merrow, presented his third progress report on the superintendent's effort to fix the Washington, D.C., school system. Tonight, John has a third companion update on a similar drive in New Orleans.

    JOHN MERROW, NewsHour correspondent: School Superintendent Paul Vallas is making big changes in New Orleans.

    PAUL VALLAS, superintendent, Recovery School District: We need to move now. We need to start building buildings now. We need to modernize those classrooms now. Let's work to get this quick start process going.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    Tearing down this school, abandoned since Hurricane Katrina, is just part of Vallas' plan. He's promising that, by next summer, this site and four others will have brand-new schools.

    These changes can't come fast enough for Vallas' boss, State Superintendent Paul Pastorek.

    PAUL PASTOREK, Louisiana state superintendent: We haven't had such construction in public schools in the city of New Orleans in the last 18 years. This is a real remarkable moment.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    Tearing down old buildings and putting up new ones? That may be the easiest part of Paul Vallas' job. The real work is here in the classroom, where you can't just start over.

    Here, Paul Vallas has to meet students where they are. And in New Orleans, most of them are well behind.

    Brittne Jackson is no exception.

    BRITTNE JACKSON, senior, Rabouin High School: I'm 19. I've been a senior — this is my third year as a senior.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    Like Brittne, many high school students in Vallas' Recovery School District are at least one grade behind.

  • BRITTNE JACKSON:

    I always had the D's and F's, because I didn't want to go to class, and I didn't want to do nothing.