New Orleans Activists Seek Educational Growth

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Some New Orleans residents have learned then when dealing with their patchwork public school system, the surest approach is to take matters into their own hands. A wave of reformers, new transplants to the city, are helping to run the schools, 51 percent of which are now chartered.


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Alex Cohen.

One stop on President Bush's tour of New Orleans today was the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology. That's the first public school to open in the city's Lower Ninth Ward. The president spoke of the effort by the community to get the school up and running.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: It is a tribute to volunteers, concerned parents, and citizens who care about education. It is a tribute to the fact that there's teachers who taught in makeshift classrooms during renovations. In other words, they care about the buildings but they care more about education.

COHEN: Even with teachers who care, some New Orleans residents have learned that when dealing with their patchwork public school system, the surest approach is to take matters into their own hands.

Reporter Molly Peterson has more.

MOLLY PETERSON: John Alford dodges some wet paint at Langston Hughes Academy's temporary location. It's the second of three buildings the school will occupy this year. Even though he heads the school, he still doesn't have a set of keys. The state's Recovery School District is still deciding about locks.

Mr. JOHN ALFORD (Principal, Langston Hughes Academy): Little things are big things in the school. And if the bus is late, then that kind of has to delay all the classes because you can't really have a morning meeting if half the kids aren't there.

PETERSON: Alford is 32, an MBA from Harvard. His New Orleans experience is entirely post-Katrina. He's new in a lot of ways. Fifty-one percent of schools here are chartered now, including his. He hired several teachers who are transplants like himself - part of a wave of reformers.

Getting a new school going, he says he hasn't talked school values with parents. But he says it's about meeting and raising parents' expectations.

Mr. ALFORD: I don't know if I know what they want. I think I know what some people expect. And we're just going to have to, you know, stick to our standards, what we expect. And I think it's going to be a longer learning process.

PETERSON: Parents have a lot to learn. Just to enroll their kids in the public schools here they have to find their way among 30 different entities that make up their school system.

A former education reporter, Ayesha Rasheed(ph) became a school advocate before Katrina. Now she works with the school choice group. She says at first people waited for school officials to make a road map.

Ms. AYESHA RASHEED (School Advocate): There were times that I was frustrated. Certainly when I was trying to figure out what schools were open and where they were. And I was just like my God, I can't figure this out. Then I wanted to say why isn't somebody dealing this? And then I guess I sort of realized that the somebody is all of us ultimately. And real change comes from the people who it affects.

PETERSON: So Rasheed put together a guide to all the public schools. She hopes the information will foster equality, that it will empower parents and students. But some students in the state-run school district aren't waiting for the adults. They say the problems at their schools are very basic. And they're speaking up.

Mr. ROGERS YOUNGBLOOD(ph) (Student): We had to ask for our food and books and, you know, a library. We had to ask for a gym. They know the problems.

PETERSON: Eighteen-year-old Rogers Youngblood and some other students organized the Fire Youth Squad. That's fire as in put some heat on school officials.

Mr. YOUNGBLOOD: It's not like they haven't heard it before. It's not like they don't do assessments on the school.

PETERSON: Youngblood and 16-year-old Jerenise Walker(ph), also in the Fire Youth Squad, say their activism was a byproduct of their evacuations. After Katrina, Youngblood went to Baton Rouge. And Walker said her northern Louisiana school was eye-opening.

Ms. JEREMY WALKER (Student): The teachers actually came with the classroom, smiling in the morning. You know, you had lockers. I mean, down here that only exists to me in like TV shows - lockers, you have books, you know, (unintelligible) took home. Pep rallies and stuff, stuff like that that go on. It was just like, no, that really exists in schools. It still was a shock to me.

PETERSON: When Walker and Youngblood got back to New Orleans and to John McDonogh High School in the Tremaine neighborhood, they walked through barbed wire and metal detectors. They say it didn't feel like a place to learn. It felt like a courthouse or a prison. So they held protests, recruited members at other schools, spoke at city council meetings. Walker says her group has earned some respect from adults but not enough.

Ms. WALKER: I mean, they don't want us to fight for what's ours. They want us to shut up and take what's given. But I said I'm not going to do that.

PETERSON: Newly arrived Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas has met with students and he's promised a better tone. He's changed security policies, and he says students should have hot lunch. That may not all happen before Rogers Youngblood leaves school. But Youngblood says fixing state-run schools in New Orleans is a community value.

Mr. YOUNGBLOOD: We have to make it better for the people that come after us, or else they'll be dealing with problems worse than us. My hope for this school is that more of the young people will wake up because the adults are fully aware of what's going on. But the young people - it's kind of easy to steal something from somebody if they're asleep.

PETERSON: When Fire Youth Squad members returned to school next week, they'll be looking for the changes promised to them. But like other reformers working on a broken system, they believe the fix will start with them.

For NPR News, I'm Molly Peterson in New Orleans.

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