Katrina to Change Face of New Orleans Schools

As New Orleans seeks to reopen schools, it appears long-standing demographics will be dramatically altered. Leslie Jacobs, a member of the Louisiana Board of Education, tells Steve Inskeep about the challenges ahead.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here in New Orleans, the public schools took a small step toward reopening yesterday. The acting superintendent appealed for families to make it known if they intend to return. Some buildings like this one, the Eisenhower School, are in good shape. Even the playground equipment survived the storm here. The air conditioning's on inside and the building could open next month. The question is whether anybody will come. The school board president tells us that even before the storm, the system had bad fiscal management, absentee teachers and low test scores.

Yesterday, we met one of the education officials who has returned to the New Orleans area. Leslie Jacobs of the State Board of Education is one of many people who may influence the future of New Orleans' troubled system and through that the future of a troubled city. She's expecting New Orleans schools to become radically smaller as poor and minority families stay away.

Ms. LESLIE JACOBS (Louisiana Board of Education): If I had to be moved out and I've ended up in Dallas and I'm in a better school system for my kids and I have found housing, and they've helped me find a job, why should I come back if I'm going to go to an inferior school and there's no housing and there's no jobs?

INSKEEP: Does anybody have any idea of roughly how many students there are going to be in a few months when the schools open again?

Ms. JACOBS: Prior to Katrina hitting, Orleans school district had enrolled 55,000 students, I think, the day they evacuated or the day before they evacuated. I would be stunned this year if the district had more than 10,000 or so students, and I would be very surprised next year if the district reached 20,000 students.

INSKEEP: How will the demographics be different?

Ms. JACOBS: New Orleans public schools were above 90 percent African-American and very high percentage poverty. The middle class had abandoned New Orleans public schools, so you're going to end up with a city public school system that was more than 90 percent African-American. At least when it starts reopening, it's going to be closer, I think, and this is just a guess, but it's going to be closer to 50-50. It's going to, you know, be more racially equal.

INSKEEP: If tens of thousands of poor students were to disappear from the school system that a lot of people criticize, is that a bad thing?

Ms. JACOBS: To me the issue is, you know, the diaspora of New Orleans presents the opportunity to rebuild our public school system. It was academically bankrupt, it was financially bankrupt and it was operationally bankrupt. Their central office was in shambles, so the central office's ability to support schools was not there. So pre-Katrina, one could argue that Orleans public schools could vie for being one of the worst districts in the nation.

INSKEEP: And what makes this an opportunity to change that?

Ms. JACOBS: Well, for one thing, the schools are empty. It is very hard to turn yourself around while you're operating schools. You're going to take a district that had 55,000 students and probably open it up this year with five to 10,000 students. It is an opportunity to pick your best principals, your best teachers, get training done, rethink the delivery of curriculum and instruction. Almost all of its employees--I think less than 50 remain on payroll. Everybody's been furloughed. I mean, you really get to start the district from scratch. You've had all of these offers of help but they're not going to come until they have confidence that there is a vision, there is unified leadership, and so far they're still waiting because the New Orleans school board is just continuing its politics of old.

INSKEEP: What are signs you see that this opportunity's being squandered? How can you tell that already?

Ms. JACOBS: Well, we are five weeks since Katrina hit. The board has met once. You don't hear them discussing what resources do we pull in to really rethink our delivery of academics. You hear them talking about changing the leadership, contracts. It's a very adult-centered conversation. It is not child-centered at all.

INSKEEP: Leslie Jacobs is a member of the Louisiana State Board of Education.

Thanks very much for speaking with us.

Ms. JACOBS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: After we spoke to Leslie Jacobs, we called up two New Orleans school board members. They didn't agree with all of her accusations, but they did agree that a major American school system is about to become far smaller, at least for now. Right now New Orleans' local school board members are as scattered as the students who once attended the Eisenhower School here in New Orleans. The board members return to this city on Friday to consider their next moves in rebuilding a school system from nothing.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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