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New Orleans Schools To Reopen

Fourth graders listen to their teacher, Mianca Delatte, at Fischer Elementary charter school on the first day of school for charter schools in New Orleans, Monday, Aug. 7, 2006.
AP
Education officials prepared to open eight public schools on Monday, giving more than 4,000 students an early start on the school year and advancing a reform movement that blossomed after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city almost a year ago.

More than 40 other public schools are scheduled to open by mid-September for an estimated 30,000 students in what is planned as a rebirth of one of the nation's worst school systems, which had about 60,000 students before the storm.

Potential glitches abound. On Friday, for instance, state officials announced that one school won't meet its target opening date of Sept. 7 because of flooding during recent rains. Opening dates for several other schools are in question and state officials have acknowledged difficulties in finding enough teachers.

Understanding who runs each school almost requires a scorecard: A handful remain under the authority of the troubled Orleans Parish School Board. The board has voluntarily allowed some schools to be run as "charter schools," which receive public money but operate independently. And it has been relieved of authority over more than 100 schools by the state Department of Education, which is running some of them itself and chartering others.

Each charter agency or governing entity makes its own policies, resulting in a variety of registration and starting dates, a source of confusion for parents.

There are no geographic requirements in the revamped public school system. Any student, living anywhere in the city, can register for any school on a first-come, first-served basis or by lottery.

Schools, in essence, compete for students and state funding, which is based on attendance.

During a registration seminar Saturday at the New Orleans Arena, Denise Cooper narrowed the choice for her 10-year-old son, Rahsaan, who is entering fifth grade, to two schools: a charter operated by the state or a restricted-admission school still operated by the Orleans Parish School Board.

Cooper wouldn't say whether she thought the new system was an improvement.

"I'm one of those people who wants to see how things work out," she said. "But I hope it will."

Leslie Jacobs, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, acknowledged there were still some problems but said she was thrilled with the transformation in the city's schools.

"This is huge," she said. "What's happening in New Orleans is turning into a national model on choice."

But not everyone is enthusiastic.

Brenda Mitchell, president of the United Teachers of New Orleans, is discouraged by the way the city's pre-Katrina teachers and support personnel have been treated.

Collective bargaining agreements between UTNO and the board did not have to be honored once the state or charter entities took over, and many school employees lost their jobs.

"I'm disappointed that they haven't done a better job bringing on those employees, including teachers," Mitchell said.

Proponents of the changes argue it would be hard for public schools here to get any worse. They say the changes have helped cut down on bureaucracy and the political fractiousness that plagued the board.

Before Katrina, there was a long history of squabbling among board members. Mismanagement in the school district's offices resulted in criminal convictions and huge budget deficits. Buildings were in horrible shape, performance on standardized tests was poor and the school system was on the brink of financial collapse.

The state had already taken over a handful of schools and chartered them. After Katrina, as education leaders struggled to open several schools, state officials decided to rebuild from scratch.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco pushed a measure through the Legislature that allowed the state to take over more than 100 schools. Meanwhile, some local educators and parents successfully petitioned the school board to set up independent charters.

Now, more than 11 months after the storm, the experiment begins in earnest.

"This is a cause for celebration," said school board president Phyllis Landrieu. "Students and parents have a very wide choice of options for selecting schools this year."