Listen to NPR's reports from last fall on the state of New Orleans' schools:
New Orleans schools were in deep trouble well before hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit in 2005. City schools were known for low achievement, the system's infrastructure was in disrepair, and rampant corruption was draining the system's budget.
The state formed the Recovery School District in 2003 to oversee the lowest-performing schools, and five New Orleans schools were run by that agency before the hurricanes. After the storms, most school buildings suffered serious damage, students were scattered throughout the region, and the school system was in complete disarray.
By the end of the 2007 school year, the RSD had opened a total of 53 public schools, some of them part of the growing number of charter schools in the city. The New Orleans Public Schools district has been reduced to five schools, all of them with competitive admissions policies. NOPS also administers a number of charters.
The push by city residents to re-open schools in the aftermath of Katrina created a vacuum, and 31 charter schools have filled the gap.
The charters are run by a variety of organizations, from local neighborhood groups to national organizations such as Edison Schools, which has just been granted a charter to run a school in the Broadmoor neighborhood.
The rapid growth of charters in New Orleans has turned the city into a testing ground for the independent-school movement. President Bush has used New Orleans to highlight his support for charters, and he visited the S.J. Green Charter School in March.
It is hard to judge exactly how much academic progress is being made in the charters, or in any New Orleans schools. Because many schools are basically in their first year of operation, and many are dealing with a new student body, educators have been unable to draw the kind of year-to-year comparisons that are typically used to measure educational quality.
Checking Up on Progress
Last fall, NPR looked at New Orleans schools as the system was getting up and running for the first time since Katrina. Our stories showed that, as some neighborhoods returned to normal, the schools still faced extraordinary challenges. Schools on the city's west bank, where damage was light, faced an influx of students without records. Students who had missed months of school faced the challenge of catching up on their studies. Parents struggled to find a good school close to home.
But there were many bright spots. The rise of charter schools gave many parents and educators hope that the new New Orleans would value education more. And the need for new blood was inspiring some dedicated professionals from local universities to pitch in.
In April 2007, NPR returned to New Orleans, and as you hear in a three-part report this week, we found that some parts of the school system have made great progress.
Part 1 returns to KIPP Believe College Prep, a charter school that NPR listeners heard about in detail last year. KIPP — short for "Knowledge Is Power Program" — operates 52 schools nationwide, and it is preparing to open its third school in New Orleans. Students at KIPP Believe have apparently made great progress during the past year, despite continuing challenges. As the school year nears its end, the student population is growing rapidly. Indeed, the system's biggest problem right now is a major teacher shortage — an issue we explore in Part 2.
The crucial role played by schools can be seen in the Broadmoor neighborhood, a hard-hit area where people are finally starting to rebuild. Local activists say they can't rebuild their community without a local school. But Wilson Elementary, which once served that function, sits in ruins, and residents blame the educational bureaucracy for neglecting the historical building. Their battle to bring back their school is the subject of Part 3 of our report.
This series was reported by Correspondent Larry Abramson and Producer Marisa Penaloza.