Among the hundreds of thousands of people forced to flee the New Orleans area in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were some 4,000 public school teachers. Now that schools are re-opening and reform-minded leaders are set to lead the schools out of both physical and fiscal destruction, how many of those teachers will be rehired is yet to be determined.

About 25 of the area’s 128 schools had reopened by last May, with plans to open another 15 for the 2006-2007 school year, depending on how many students return. About 12,000 of what had been a 60,000-student population had returned to classes last spring, and that could reach as high as 34,000 by Jan. 1, 2007.

"We’re looking for people who really want to
be here.”
- Robin Jarvis

Robin Jarvis, superintendent of the Recovery School District, said about 500 more teachers will need to be hired, in addition to the roughly 90 already on board. The Recovery School District was set up in early 2005, before Katrina, after the state took control of 112 schools in New Orleans due to poor academic and fiscal performance.

Because almost all the schools that have reopened since November 2005 have been charters, the administration has a great deal more flexibility in who it hires and how. With no students and no revenue, the schools were unable to pay teachers and ended up laying them off, in effect gutting the local union and getting rid of the collective bargaining contract.

Jimmy Farenholtz, an Orleans Parish School Board member, told a group of education writers at a conference in New Orleans recently that the move was necessary so that teachers did not pass up offers for other jobs while waiting to see what the future of New Orleans schools held.

One-Year Contracts

“A lot of people were leaving, moving to other cities and other states, looking for work,” he said. “The teachers were in the same situation. They had to move on.”

Each school now sets its own salary and benefits schedule, and employees work on one-year contracts.

“Our goal is outcomes,” Jarvis said. “We let them (schools) handle the input.”

The staff at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School has picked up on the idea, and will open a charter school in a different location for the new academic year, with plans for a new curriculum and a 20:1 teacher-student ratio.

“We look at it as a rebirth, a renewal and a rebuilding,” Joseph Recasner, a fourth-grade teacher at King, told USA Today. Jarvis said teachers hired by the RSD are employees of the district, which is conducting a nationwide recruiting drive.

“We want quality teachers,” Jarvis said. “If they happen to be former New Orleans teachers, we’ll be happy to have them back, if they’re quality teachers.”

Another option for hiring new teachers is an alternative certification method, whereby a person with a bachelor’s degree is hired to teach the content of their degree, then placed in a practitioner certification program, earning a teaching certificate in 18 months.

“We’re looking for people who really want to be here,” Jarvis said.

The RSD also is making use of competitive contracting, having hired private companies to handle busing, janitorial, food service and even construction management services, as do more than onethird of Michigan’s public school districts.

“We’re relying heavily on contractors,” Jarvis said. “And we have a very small central staff.”

Another five schools, which sustained very little damage, are located in Algiers, which is on the west bank across the Mississippi from the French Quarter. The Algiers Charter Schools Association operates three K-8 schools and two high schools, and are open to any student in the New Orleans area. The schools had been part of the New Orleans Public School District.

Teachers Must Pass Test to Get Rehired

Brian Riedlinger, a retired New Orleans school principal who was brought in to run the ACSA, told the Times-Picayune that 500 former teachers applied when the schools reopened. The list was cut in half after interviews, and the remaining 250 had to take a test made up of five math questions found on an eighth-grade assessment test, as well as a one-paragraph essay about why the candidate became a teacher. Some 50 teachers failed the math portion of the test, and the list was cut down to 100 based on answers to the essay question.

Carol Christen, principal of Ben Franklin High School, said the new system gives her much more responsibility in the decision-making process. Each school is given a certain dollar amount from which to pay staff, then an additional amount that can be used at the school’s discretion, depending on its needs, such as an extra foreign language teacher or science teacher.

Ben Franklin, located on the campus of the University of New Orleans, was academically one of the highest performing public schools in the state before Katrina. It admitted students based on test scores, and had a heavy math and science focus, having opened shortly after Russia launched Sputnik during the space race. Today, it has 540 students, down from the 935 that began school last August, and is, like the rest of the charters, an open enrollment school.

When a sked how many former teachers were rehired at Ben Franklin, Christen said, “Those I wanted back, if you want to be blunt about it.”

Steve Thompson, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said the union has become a “scapegoat” in the wake of a corrupt school system. Several class action lawsuits on behalf of the fired teachers are before courts. In June, the Orleans Parish School Board decided not to seek a 45-day extension of its contract with the New Orleans Teachers Union, effectively putting an end to collective bargaining in the last four schools that had a union presence.