Even before the hurricane, a failed system Far from home, the children of New Orleans go back to school

Posted: September 14, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, fallen tree branches, standing water, and layers of muck still block vehicles from getting to Carter G. Woodson Middle School, a building near the Magnolia public housing complex that has long held the state title "academically unacceptable."

The damage to Woodson and many of the 126 public school buildings in Orleans Parish does not bother school board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz, who is happy the system's 65,000-plus students have been forced to find new schools in Louisiana, Texas and elsewhere. "A lot of them we never should have had open," Fahrenholtz said in an interview on a French Quarter street corner. "I wanted to tear this system apart two years ago. God answered my prayers."

His words may seem callous, but they echo the thoughts of many in Louisiana who have spent years puzzling over how to fix the state's poorest-performing school system.

New Orleans wasn't the only district displaced by Katrina. With all 15 of its schools underwater, St. Bernard Parish has canceled its entire year of classes. Six of the nine schools in Plaquemines Parish were flooded, and the wind blew the roof off another. And countless private schools, including many in the eight-parish network run by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, must also find homes for their students.

But it's the disintegration of the city's public school system that is causing the most discussion - both for its statewide impact and its uncertain future. Like many urban school districts, the New Orleans public school system faces countless social problems. Families are poor. Violence is prevalent. Many parents are uneducated and underemployed.

In addition, the New Orleans schools have been plagued by scandals and leadership crises that have made a difficult situation even more unmanageable. Led by a squabbling school board that state officials openly deride as incompetent, the system was forced to hire a private management corporation this summer after it was discovered that the administration was more than $25 million in the red.

There have been four acting or appointed superintendents in the last four years, and a majority of the district's students fail state-mandated English and math tests.

Now the state's 67 other school systems, many already strapped for resources, have taken in more than 20,000 students with little notice or preparation.

The largest number - more than 5,000 - have gone to East Baton Rouge Parish, where educators have been hiring teachers and reopening previously closed schools to house the transplants, school board member Noah Hammett said. "No one has quite been through this level of academic and financial challenge before," he said.

At the River Center, the Baton Rouge convention facility that has been turned into the city's main Red Cross shelter, children carrying brand-new backpacks with new ribbons in their braids boarded school buses for their first day of classes yesterday.

Odetta Martin saw her six children off with mixed emotions. Despite the district's reputation, Martin liked the New Orleans elementary schools her children attended, although she called Walter A. Cohen High School, where her older children went, "out of control."

Her main concern is that the state will continue to impose the high-stakes "LEAP" test on displaced fourth and eighth graders, who will be held back a grade if they fail.

"It's unfair to say they have to take it," she said. "It's stressful to take when you are at home and you are in your own bed. These children don't even have that."

Besides the tests, which reward and penalize schools on their academic performance, administrators are also worried about state funding, which is funneled to schools based on an October student count. East Feliciana, a rural parish about 35 miles north of Baton Rouge, has 175 displaced children added to its 2,300 students - mostly relatives of families living in the area.

But Superintendent Glenn Brady expects the number to change as federal officials look northward for land for some of their estimated 200,000 temporary housing trailers. "By Christmas we could grow by 1,000 students," he said.

State Education Secretary Cecil Picard said he would ask the Legislature and the U.S. Department of Education to temporarily waive the LEAP test and No Child Left Behind requirements. He will also ask the federal government for $2.4 billion to cover salaries and benefits for 25,000 displaced teachers and school employees.

Many families have no idea how long they will be in their new schools. Italia Bell, 7, has attended the Feliciana Academy in East Feliciana for only a week, yet her grandmother, Emma Bell, wonders how she will pay tuition next month.

Bell, who evacuated to her mother's home in rural Clinton, chose the private school because it offers a Christian curriculum similar to that at Italia's school in New Orleans, St. John Lutheran School.

Some families may be back earlier than expected. St. Tammany and Jefferson Parishes plan to open some schools Oct. 3. In New Orleans, the school system hopes to open 16 schools for 26,000 students by January, although administrators do not expect that many children to return so soon, school board member Fahrenholtz said.

Despite the school systems' negative history, Fahrenholtz sees the next few years as a time when the New Orleans public schools can start from scratch - with local, state and federal planning and private grants from organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "A lot of our bad employees won't come back," Fahrenholtz said. "A lot of our bad citizens won't come back. This can be a turning point. . . . We can change the whole face of this city if we do it correctly."

Contact staff writer Chris Gray at 215-854-2771 or cgray@phillynews.com.

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