New Orleans Closes Its Last Traditional Schools

Last week, the New Orleans school district became the first all-charter district in the country. NPR's Rachel Martin talks to Sarah Carr, a reporter who's been following the city's changing schools.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In New Orleans, school is out for the summer. But in the city's largest school district, the last traditional public schools have closed their doors permanently, making this the first all-charter district in the country. This transition started after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005.

At the time, most of the public schools were absorbed into the recovery school district. Gradually, those public schools have turned into public charters.

Sarah Carr covers education in New Orleans for the Hechinger Report. We asked her how public charters are different than the public schools they replaced.

SARAH CARR: Basically, the principals have a lot more independence and autonomy to run the schools as they see fit. They really have carte blanche to hire and to fire and decide with the curriculum will be and how the money will be spent. So in a lot of ways, they're sort of public-private hybrids, in that they're publicly funded, but they're somewhat more privately run.

And the idea is also to have sort of a choice landscape where parents can pick from this array of charter schools. And that's where - I think, that there is still a ways to go, in terms of empowering low income families, in particular, to really be able to navigate this new landscape well.

MARTIN: What do you mean by that? Where are families getting lost in the system?

CARR: It's much better than it was five or six years ago. Then, you might have had, you know, 50 different application and admission processes across the schools. And that really favored the families with the time, with the transportation, with the means, with the connections to navigate those different admissions processes. They do now have a common application process that nearly all of the schools participate in. And I think that has leveled the playing field, to some extent.

But I think you've seen this cycle of sort of schools opening and closing when they don't meet tests score bars. And I think it's, oftentimes, the most vulnerable families that are sort of shuffled from one school that's closing to another that's going to close and don't really have stability, in terms of schooling at this point in the city.

MARTIN: So if this change likely to bring more stability to this district?

CARR: That remains to be seen. I think the theory is that it is going to be a very Darwinian type of structure, where the strong schools survive and the weaker ones are closed down. And I definitely would not want to see schools that don't serve children well staying open in the long run.

But there also has to be attention paid to - if you're going to close a school, is there a better option that we can send those kids to? And are we really giving the families the tools that they need to make the best decisions for their kids?

MARTIN: Is there a way to measure whether or not students are thriving? Are they performing better in charter schools?

CARR: Overall, the test scores have gone up considerably. Before Katrina, there were less than half of the city's public school students who were meeting the basic level on the state's standardized tests. And now you have close to two-thirds meeting that level.

But I really think we need to watch what happens moving forward, because a lot of the charter schools are still pretty young and are graduating their first students. And whether or not they're producing students who are going to go on and thrive in college remains to be seen.

MARTIN: And Sarah, I understand you've been talking to students about how this transition in this particular district has affected them. Could you share with us a little bit about what they had to say? What perhaps surprised you when you had these conversations?

CARR: Sure. One of the things that was surprising to me was just the diversity of viewpoints. I mean, you had one student arguing that Teach for America has really been fundamental to the success of the schools post-Katrina. And you had another who was lamenting the firing of thousands of veteran black educators and who was saying that a lot of the young white teachers who come to the city are unable to connect with students.

MARTIN: Sarah Carr is an education reporter for the Hechinger Report. She's also the author of the book "Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City And The Struggle To Educate America's Children." Thanks so much for talking with us, Sarah.

CARR: Thanks for having me on.

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