The Big Easy's Next Test

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School bells have begun to ring in New Orleans as a wave of public school students returned this week to a radically different educational system from the one Hurricane Katrina decimated almost a year ago.

The New Orleans school system, which was widely viewed as among the nation's worst before Katrina, has undergone a complete overhaul since the hurricane raked the city and flooded two-thirds of its 128 public schools. The city's new blend of state- and city-run districts, with charter schools making up 60% of the city's educational system, is unique in the country, according to Tulane University President Scott S. Cowen, who chaired the education committee of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

Cowen called New Orleans a kind of "learning laboratory" for public education, which will likely be closely watched in the coming years, particularly by other large urban school districts grappling with their own problems. "I think anyone who has an interest in public education, no matter where they may be on any particular issue, will watch, because there is something for everybody in what we're doing," he said.

The start of the school year has not been entirely smooth. Several state-run schools won't open on time because of construction problems. Parents have found it difficult to navigate the new school system, and officials are laboring to hire qualified teachers and retrain existing ones. The teacher's union has complained that some schools have opened prematurely.

"It's not going to be anywhere near perfect," Cowen said of the opening, but added that given the "mammoth challenges" facing the city, "I think the state and the parish are probably doing about as well as could be expected."

Before Katrina, 102 of the city's schools were considered academic failures, the city had one of the nation's highest drop-out rates, most eighth-grade students had below-average test scores, and the city had had 10 superintendents in as many years, Cowen told a U.S. Senate subcommittee last month.

Many parents, school officials and education experts agree that Katrina provided New Orleans with an unprecedented opportunity to reconstitute a system that was failing its citizens. "I say, 'Thank you, Katrina' all the time," said Orleans Parish School Board President Phyllis Landrieu.

In addition to five city schools that opened on Tuesday, 17 schools taken over by the state, collectively called the Recovery School District, are slated to open next month. The other 34 are charter schools — some overseen by the city, some by the state — which began opening last week. In all, 56 schools are scheduled to be open in New Orleans by September's end, for up to 34,000 students. If that capacity is reached, the student body will be roughly half the size it was before Katrina hit.

At the Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School, tucked into the city's residential Garden District, the hallways smelled of fresh paint, and new books were on display on the library shelves. In fact, everything was new in the school, principal Mary Hynes-Smith told students and parents assembled on the playground outside.

"This is going to be a wonderful, wonderful school year," Hynes-Smith said. "We're going to make these kids the smartest kids in the world."

Bridget Dukes watched through a chain link fence as her son, 8-year-old Joshua Omar Johnson, lined up with other fourth graders beneath an archway of blue and white balloons. She had doubted that New Orleans schools would be able to accommodate all the returning children like Joshua, who spent last year in school in Baton Rouge. Those doubts have been put to rest, she said.

"I think it's going to be a big turnaround this year, due to all that we've been through," Dukes said. "Katrina was a blessing in a lot of ways."