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New Orleans Struggles to Revamp Public Education

Hurricane Katrina damaged more than 100 of New Orleans' 128 public schools and led to a state takeover of the district. As a result, schools, teachers and students have had to start from the beginning to improve the state of education.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    During his daylong trip to the Gulf region today, President Bush visited one of the city's alternative charter schools to see what progress has been made, but life in the city's traditional public schools has been tougher. The NewsHour's special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has our report.

    JOHN MERROW, Special Correspondent for Education: New Orleans, 18 months after Katrina. The hurricane and flooding damaged more than 100 of the city's 128 public schools and led to a state takeover of the district. Among the state officials put in charge was Robin Jarvis, a former school principal.

    ROBIN JARVIS, Superintendent of Schools: I watched from my home in Baton Rouge as the hurricane hit, as the flooding occurred, and as the entire city was evacuated, and I knew then that everything would have to be rebuilt.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    To reverse years of corruption and academic failure in New Orleans, state officials designed a plan they hoped would make the city a model of urban school reform. The state turned most schools into independent charters, privately run public schools, and decided to run 20 schools itself.

  • ROBIN JARVIS:

    There are so many needs; there are so many things that have to be done.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    Robin Jarvis became the acting superintendent of the state-run schools. She began by asking the federal government for help.

  • ROBIN JARVIS:

    We requested modular school buildings. In November of 2005, from FEMA, they were refused. I don't know what you do when you have the federal government telling you to repair what you have. You have to overcome that challenge.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    So you're saying there were lots of surprises?

  • ROBIN JARVIS:

    Yes, there were. We had 11 buildings where the construction was delayed. Many of them are over 100 years old, so there are challenges that, once you start taking walls down and re-plastering and that sort of thing, you discover.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    Repairing school buildings was only half the challenge.

  • ROBIN JARVIS:

    Everything had to be replaced, every pencil, every piece of paper, every desk, every book.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    And it had to happen in time for opening day.

  • STEVE RITEA, The Times-Picayune:

    The year started off without a lot of books for children, without enough teachers.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    Reporter Steve Ritea covers education for the Times-Picayune.

  • STEVE RITEA:

    You have students who have lost everything to the storm, some of whom are living in the city without their parents. And so they're very angry, as well, so there is a lot of violence at some schools, with several security guards and at least one teacher I know of being put in the hospital.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    Was it chaotic?

  • ROBIN JARVIS:

    I don't make a habit of making excuses anymore, because I don't think there are good excuses, but the reality is that we worked as hard as we could to make sure we were ready.