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Students Return to Big Changes in New Orleans
Detail: NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 3 - Hundreds of children returned Tuesday for the first time since Hurricane Katrina to schools here that had survived on dry ground. Some came gleefully. Some came mournfully, and, to be sure, tens of thousands who were still displaced could not come at all.

But for those who ventured back, the educational landscape was much different from the one they had left: New Orleans is now a smaller system dominated by new charter schools in the same buildings that housed traditional public schools before the storm, as well as by leaner private schools eager for what they hope will be new pools of aid.

"We're learning as we go," said Alisa Davailler Dupré, the vice chairwoman of the Audubon Charter School, which applied for its charter only in October and accomplished what is usually a lengthy start-up process in a mere two months. "We jumped for joy, then hit the ground running."

The district's public school system, already known as one of the worst in the country, suffered a near total collapse after the storm. It has opened only one school so far - another is expected to open next week - even though many school buildings suffered minimal damage. Facing a financial crisis from the lack of a tax base, the district plans to terminate all but 61 of about 7,000 school employees who have been placed on disaster leave, although many are being rehired by the charter schools. The district was already nearly bankrupt before the storm.

So that has made this battered city an impromptu laboratory in school choice - at least for the 8,000 or so of the 65,000 public school children who are expected to be enrolled for the second semester, as well as thousands more in parochial schools that are seeking government aid.

Desperate to reopen schools, parents, teachers, principals, neighborhood groups and local universities are banding together to create charter schools, which get less state money than traditional public schools in exchange for more autonomy on curriculum, hiring and other issues.

Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco has already issued executive orders to make it easier to form charter schools, which promise competition and experimentation. The fact that there is $20 million in federal aid in the wake of Hurricane Katrina for charter schools in Louisiana is also contributing to the movement.

So far, state and local education officials have approved 21 charters for schools in New Orleans. Nine have opened - including some on Tuesday - and six are expected to open in the next two weeks. At least one is still waiting for electricity to be restored. The Archdiocese of New Orleans has also expressed interest in opening a charter school, though that idea has not been approved.

The hopes and difficulties were evident at the Audubon Charter School, where students lined up quietly Tuesday morning. Staff members have been working at Audubon Charter without pay, as the school has yet to receive any financing.

Most administrators are holdovers from the old public school, Audubon Montessori. The principal, Janice Dupuy, drives two hours to get to New Orleans from the town where her family is living. Ms. Dupré, a parent who had not worked in school administration before becoming Audubon's vice chairwoman, was overwhelmed by the work required to get the school ready for its 350 students.

After the charter was approved, she said: "We started to wonder, how do we hire teachers? How do we run this school?"

Many people here, still struggling to cope in a fog of grief as stifling as the humidity this balmy winter, have applauded the spirit that has led to the creation of so many charter schools on such short notice.

Without them, supporters say, there would hardly be any public education this year in New Orleans. And of all the opportunities for rebirth in the city, perhaps none is talked about with as much urgency as fixing the school system, which had suffered corruption, bad management and abysmal academic performance. But critics have also begun to question whether a near-total charter system is the best way to recreate a school system.

"It's like you're experimenting with kids who've already been traumatized," said City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, a member of the council's education committee and a former public school principal. "The intricacies of running a successful school are a lot more difficult than anyone thinks."

Ms. Morrell also worries about charter schools' adopting selective criteria that will exclude what she calls "the poor, average kid."

Officials say that because the movement is largely haphazard it is not entirely clear who is being served by the new system or whether the racial makeup of the new schools raises equity issues. Reliable demographic information is sorely lacking, but before the storm, the public schools were 94 percent African-American, and black children seemed to have a significant presence in the parochial schools.

So far, schools do not seem to be rejecting anyone, just hoping that children continue to enroll. "Nobody really knows who all is going to come back," said Cheryl Michelet, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana State Department of Education.

The advocates for charter schools understand that they may have only one chance to make right all that was wrong: "We have a responsibility to rebuild it right," said Una Anderson, a school board member and proponent of charter schools. "It's not just an opportunity, it's a mandate."

But even within some of the charter schools, there is lingering resentment toward the school district for not stepping up to do more. "We never wanted to charter - that was never our intention in the past," said Carol Christen, the principal of Franklin Charter High, which before the storm was Benjamin Franklin High School, the highest-ranked secondary school in the state. "This has been a long ordeal because no one wanted to help us open up the school. This has been a nightmare, a struggle beyond struggle."

She continued: "We were determined to do it for Franklin. It would have been tragic if this school didn't open."

Franklin probably faces some of the most challenging physical problems of all the charter schools in the wake of the storm because it is far from the city's Uptown area that remained dry during the flood. Franklin, on the other end of town near Lake Pontchartrain, had more than $3 million in storm damage, and is still waiting for electricity to be restored. The school expects 580 students for class on Jan. 17, out of the 935 that were enrolled before the storm.

Ms. Christen, like others, said the charter start-up experience had forced teachers, principals and parents to deal with issues like waste management, food service and retirement benefits, taking time away from thinking about the classrooms. Still, she welcomes the autonomy.

"We're treading on new ground," Ms. Christen said. "The city doesn't know the answers, the state doesn't know the answers. We're creating the answers as we go, and we're doing the best we can."

Advisers to the education committee created by Mayor C. Ray Nagin, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, caution against an all-charter model, favoring a mix of district-run and charter-run schools arranged into network clusters run by a single manager. District schools are necessary, they say, because they have more capacity to expand as the population does, and to offer the benefit of standard curriculums to what might be a highly mobile student population.

The advisers, the Boston Consulting Group, which is working largely without pay, favor a single governing body citywide to take over from the multiple boards, state and local, that are in control right now.

"We believe that chartering is a very good short-term intervention given our situation, but it's not a long-term solution to running a medium- or large-scale school district," said Scott Cowen, the president of Tulane University and the chairman of the education committee. Mr. Cowen's group plans to offer a formal proposal on the new school system in a week or so, he said.

State officials are taking a "look and see" approach to the new charters, which will be evaluated annually and will be held to the same accountability standards as other schools, Ms. Michelet said.

"There's not a push to say every school in the district will be a charter, it's just the method we've used so far and we've seen success in it," she said. "It's also because federal money was available, and we were able to use it to get the schools open."

The state considered New Orleans to be in "academic crisis" before the storm and has since taken over 102 of 117 schools that performed below state accountability standards - three of those schools have been given charters, many others are storm damaged and likely to remain vacant for some time. The state is expected to lay out a detailed plan for the schools it took over sometime in the next six months.

At the same time, the city's Catholic schools, which educated 25,000 students before the storm, are also coming back to life and see possible new opportunities. Besides proposing its own charter school, the archdiocese has approached the state about getting government aid for its schools. Neither idea has gone beyond the development stage with the State Legislature out of session.

The Catholic schools expect to have an enrollment of 11,000 this semester. Several Catholic schools opened late last year, and at least eight more were scheduled to reopen by mid-January, said Father William Maestri, the schools' superintendent.
Source: The New York Times, by Susan Saulny
Date: January 4 2006