New Orleans Releases Plan for City's Schools

A new plan for the troubled and failing New Orleans school district was released Tuesday. It's one of several reports the city is releasing to set a blueprint for rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.

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Education leaders in New Orleans have unveiled their plan for revitalizing the City's schools; most of which are still closed. They were considered among the nation's worse schools, even before hurricane Katrina shut them down. And to some, the storm is a chance for reform.

NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

Before hurricane Katrina, there were more than 100 public schools in New Orleans, with nearly 60,000 students. Today there are just 17 schools open, and some 9,000 students. And getting to that number has been a struggle.

Mary Laurie is one of those fighting to revive a school system that many, long ago, gave up for dead. Laurie is the principal at Perry Walker High School. Walker re-opened just last month as part of an association of five charter schools in New Orleans' Algiers sections. So far, about 600 students have come back. More enroll every day, and Mary Laurie is there in the halls shooing them to class.

Ms. MARY LAURIE: (Principal, Perry Walker High School, New Orleans) Make sure and get to class, make sure and get to class.

ALLEN: It's a couple of hours into the school day, and Laurie still hasn't taken her coat off. She's one of the veterans here in the New Orleans school system for nearly twenty years. She's seen the financial problems, schools that repeatedly failed to meet performance standards, and the state stepping in. Laurie says she was already a believer in charter schools when Katrina hit New Orleans, making them one of the few options available.

Ms. LAURIE: The idea of chartering is not new to me. I believe that it offers an opportunity; we're not saying that it is the definitive opportunity, but it is an opportunity for change.

ALLEN: But charter schools represent just a portion of New Orleans' educational future. Laurie is one of more than 50 educators from New Orleans and around the country who've worked to develop a new vision for the City's schools. They came up with an innovative plan unlike anything that's yet been tried anywhere else in the country. Instead of a school district, the plan would create a network of schools.

Tulane University President, Scott Cowan, the Head of the Bring New Orleans Back Education Committee, says most of the spending and educational decisions would be made not by a district superintendent, but by school principals.

Mr. SCOTT COWAN (President, Tulane University): We want the vast majority of money that's given to the school system to go to the schools and the principals. And we want them to have the authority and the responsibility to make some decisions, and then hold them accountable for results in the end.

ALLEN: The plan envisions a smaller, more efficient district administration, and also a different type of school board. New Orleans' elected school board has long been blamed for many of the district's problems. This plan proposes replacing the current body with a "highly efficient board", but it's vague on the details. Among the plan's other highlights: a universal pre-kindergarten program beginning at age three; also school choice, students could go to any school within the network.

When the plan was unveiled yesterday to the public, there was some opposition, but the main reaction, such as that from community activist Karran Harper Royal, was skepticism.

Ms. KARRAN HARPER-ROYAL (Community Activist, New Orleans): I don't disagree with most of what I, what was presented today. My concern is that this doesn't become yet another plan that gets dusty and it doesn't become just a wish list.

(Soundbite of a school teacher in class)

ALLEN: In Bridgette Fox's (ph) class at the Walker School, students aren't thinking about the future of the city's educational system, they're trying to concentrate on Algebra. If the new school plan is adopted, Walker would network with other schools in Algiers and elsewhere, though it might not remain a charter school.

Like Tulane President Scott Cowan, Walker principal Mary Laurie is optimistic that the school reform plan will happen. And a key factor is the hurricane that almost destroyed the City.

Ms. LAURIE: For a long time we did a disservice to students, but because of Katrina, we have an opportunity that I think we all wish for, in different aspects of our life is that, if I only had a chance to..., if I could only redo things. That seldom happens. We have that opportunity now.

ALLEN: As with any educational system, there are a lot of stakeholders still to be heard from before the New Orleans plan can go forward. But already a number have come out in support, including one group the plan could change or replace: New Orleans' elected school board.

Greg Allen, NPR News, New Orleans.

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