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."
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 crisis, too."
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 and Marsal.
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.
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 thinking now."
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 anyone."
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 built.
"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 having schools."
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," Jarvis said.