Damaged school buses are shown in this Sept. 1, 2005 photo, taken shortly after Hurricane Katrina and ensuing levee breaks flooded New Orleans.
(AP Photo/Phil Coale)
One year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, a
school district that had been devastated for years continues to rebuild.
"We were morally, academically and financially bankrupt," Leslie
Jacobs, a member of the Louisiana state board of education and former Orleans
Parish school board member said about the condition of the district before
Hurricane Katrina even hit, speaking at an education writers conference this
summer in New Orleans. "Shame on us if we don’t take advantage of this."
Enrollment Estimate 01/07
The general feeling among those charged with rebuilding the
school system in New Orleans and its surrounding areas is that the damage caused
by the storm has given them a fresh start, a chance to begin from scratch.
"Our focus right now is making the best choices for children so
that families will feel comfortable returning," said Robin Jarvis,
superintendent of the Recovery School District.
While the term "Recovery School District" might make one think
it has something to do with the city’s overall post-Katrina recovery, the RSD
actually came into existence before the storm, when the state took control of
112 of the area’s 128 schools. Of those, 107 were transferred to the RSD, while
the other five re-opened as charter schools.
"Before Katrina, 70 of those 128 schools were failing under the
state’s accountability standards," Jarvis said during a bus tour with writers
that visited damaged neighborhoods and schools. We had a severe financial
Performance was so low that a recent valedictorian at a city
high school scored an 11 on the ACT, according to Bill Roberti, CEO of Alvarez
and Marsal, a private management company hired by the state in July 2005 to
address financial problems in the schools.
"The Orleans Parish School District was a catastrophe before the
hurricane even hit," according to Mike Thompson, a fraud examiner with Alvarez
The district employed 10 superintendents in 10 years, and a
forensic audit found that $71 million in Title I money could not be accounted
for. Two former business officials now face federal charges.
That was before Hurricane Katrina. Today, large swaths of
neighborhoods remain uninhabitable. Some 30 schools are completely beyond
repair, and most sit untouched since the storm and ensuing floods hit. Hardin
Elementary School, just a few blocks away from where a major levee breech
occurred near the 9th Ward, is a collection of twisted metal, disintegrating
insulation and overturned desks. A half-dozen slices of bread and a handful of
M&M candies still sit on a table in the cafeteria. At Abramson High School, down
the street from a boarded-up Wal-Mart and shopping mall, about two dozen cars
sit in the parking lot. From a distance, it looks as though the cars are neatly
lined up in angled spaces, but up close, broken windows and rusting frames show
the damage caused by flood waters.
Thompson says the schools overall sustained $850 million to $1
billion damage. Because the district was underinsured for flood damage, the
schools would need to pay $272 million in cash to rebuild.
Charters Lead the Way
By January 2006, 25 schools had reopened between the Recovery
District and Orleans Parish. All but four of them are charter schools.
"We plan to have a large number of charters," Jarvis said. The
RSD has four now, but that should be up to 19 for the 2006-2007 school year."
Jarvis, a lifelong educator who held several leadership roles
with the Louisiana Department of Education, said the old, adversarial attitudes
towards charters is a thing of the past.
"We have to rely on charters to be successful," she said. "We
used to see them as a drain on resources, but there’s a different way of
Jarvis also said there has been a great deal of cooperation with
private schools as everyone’s focus shifts to doing what is best for students.
Nearly $21 million in federal funds has been dispersed among the
private, conventional public and charter schools in the area. That money allowed
the schools to reopen, some even before the end of 2005, because no state
education money was forthcoming. Hurricane Katrina hit shortly before the annual
student count day, on which funding is determined.
"No kids, no money," says Lourdes Moran, a New Orleans Public
Schools board of education member.
Moran and others helped push for the approval of six charter
schools in what is now called the Algiers Charter Association, a group of
schools in the Algiers area of New Orleans on the west bank of the Mississippi
River, across from the French Quarter.
A New School Year
When the 2005-2006 school year began, New Orleans had roughly
60,000 students in public schools. The school year ended with about 12,000, and
demographers estimate schools could see as many as 34,000 students enrolled by
Jan. 1, 2007.
Compare that to independent schools. Before Katrina hit, some 40
percent of New Orleans-area students attended private and parochial schools. By
the end of January almost 80 percent of students in the Archdiocese of New
Orleans had returned to classes. This was possible because the archdiocese
covers a large geographic region, including areas outside of the damage area.
Students were able to attend other schools in the archdiocese, as well as those
in Baton Rouge, about an hour from New Orleans. Within the greater New Orleans
area, the archdiocese was able to reopen 25 of 28 schools in the months
following Katrina. Another 200 private schools have not reopened, and contact
with the administrators from those schools has been difficult.
"There were quite a few smaller, independent schools, and we
just have no way to locate the people," Jarvis said. "We haven’t heard from
Jarvis said the future of public schools in New Orleans, be it
charters or conventional, will be different.
"We are going to recreate a school district that serves all
children," Jarvis said.
In the past, the city had what Jarvis called a "dual" system,
with a number of magnet schools taking in the cream of the crop based on
selective admissions standards. Because of legislative changes, the city will
operate under methods much like what Michigan public schools have, with limited
open enrollment and per-pupil funding that follows the student.
Questions remain, however, about how many people will return to
the city, which schools should be rebuilt, and where new schools should be
"We’ve heard from a lot of people who moved and they say their
kids are enrolled in such and such a district and they’re getting a better
education," Jarvis said. "We need to focus more on student achievement."
Jarvis said it will be difficult to determine where to build new
schools because it hasn’t been determined where people will live. The 9th Ward,
for example, was considered a low-income area, but had a high percentage of home ownership and many life-long residents. It’s proximity to the levee system means FEMA has designated it a Zone One area, where structures will have to be
elevated by an as-yet-undetermined height.
"It’s a real balancing act," Jarvis said. "We don’t want to
spend money to build schools no one will use in the long run, but at the same
time we don’t want to hinder people’s ability to come back and rebuild by not
Part of the long-range plan for the RSD and other education
providers in New Orleans is community involvement.
"We held a series of public forums in the spring and we kept
hearing that in the past, people hadn’t felt welcome in the schools," Jarvis
said. "We’re trying to create a new image and be up front about the problems
we’re facing. We are asking the community to help."
After hearing input from community members, some changes were
made immediately. One charter school, for example, offers classes from 4-9 p.m.,
so that with jobs can work during the day and contribute to the financial needs
of their families. Another charter school, set to open this fall, will focus on
architecture and construction management.
"Won’t that be a great thing for this city in the long run,"
Ted O’Neil, managing editor of Michigan Education Report,
attended the Education Writers Association annual conference, held June 1-4 in