New Orleans Schools Welcome Back Students

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first day at Mary Mcleod Bethune Elementary i

Some 200 New Orleans school children showed up for the first day at Mary Mcleod Bethune Elementary, a magnet school in the city's Uptown neighborhood. Audie Cornish, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Audie Cornish, NPR
first day at Mary Mcleod Bethune Elementary

Some 200 New Orleans school children showed up for the first day at Mary Mcleod Bethune Elementary, a magnet school in the city's Uptown neighborhood.

Audie Cornish, NPR

The city's troubled public school system has been revamped and is welcoming students for the new school year. At Mary Bethune elementary school, the optimistic principal says, "Let's rumble." But some students are disoriented by the past year of disruption. And the best schools seem to be in the dry and recovered neighborhoods.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

In New Orleans, summer vacation is over for a second wave of public-school children who return to class today. The first wave of some 3,000 elementary and high school students went back to school last week. The staggered start dates are a result of changes made to the troubled New Orleans Public School System after Katrina. Most of the schools in the district were seized by the state or converted into charter schools. But the four schools that opened today are among the few that are still in the hands of the original school district.

NPR's Audie Cornish visited one of those schools and has this report.

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

Bethune Elementary School is a magnet school run by Principal Mary Haynes-Smith.

Ms. MARY HAYNES-SMITH (Bethune Elementary School, New Orleans, Louisiana): We are ready. Are you ready?

(Soundbite of children shouting)

Ms. HAYNES-SMITH: I can't hear you. Are you ready?

(Soundbite of children shouting)

Ms. HAYNES-SMITH: Well let's rumble.

CORNISH: There were many uncertain glances and tear-stained faces in the Bethune schoolyard, and some kids, such as 7-year-old Dahlia Clark, were clearly not ready.

Ms. DAHLIA CLARK (Student, Bethune Elementary School): Because I don't like school at all. Now I'm going to have to learn how to do timetables that I don't want to learn.

CORNISH: Clark is coming off a year in Mansfield, Texas, and she's not too interested in starting over in New Orleans.

Ms. DAHLIA CLARK: I want to go back to Texas because it's more funner down there. I barely have friends by my house. I've got friends in Texas.

CORNISH: Dahlia's mother, Linelle Clark(ph), says she understands her daughter's frustration. The family's been fixing up their storm-damaged house and is living in a trailer across town. And with so few families living in their neighborhood right now, they're still keeping an eye out for homes in Texas. Like everything else in New Orleans, Clark says, the best schools seem to be in the dry and recovered neighborhoods.

Ms. LINELLE CLARK (New Orleans resident): Everything we do is uptown. We shop up here. We wash up here. We buy groceries here.

CORNISH: Prior to the storm, Clark says she would've put her daughter in private school because some of the city's top elementary schools had long waiting lists. But Principal Haynes-Smith says the new, smaller school system has afforded parents like Clark access to a school with a whole new outlook.

Ms. HAYNES-SMITH: We have a 20:1 ratio. We have never had that in the district. We have a full-time social worker, a full-time librarian, a full-time P.E. teacher, a full-time art teacher, a full-time music teacher, and all of that will make the whole child.

CORNISH: Are those things you didn't have before, though?

Ms. HAYNES-SMITH: No, we didn't have that before. We had 33:1 in the upper grades and 28:1 in the lower grades, a part-time librarian, a part-time P.E., depending upon the amount of kids you had.

CORNISH: By mid-morning, some 200 students in crisp, white polo shirts and navy blue pants were making their way into new classrooms. First grade teachers gathered in the cafeteria to welcome their students into the fold.

Unidentified Woman #1: Jacob Howard.

Unidentified Woman #2: Jacob, good job. Good listener.

Unidentified Woman #1: Jasmine Jackson.

Unidentified Woman #2: Jasmine.

CORNISH: But this is the first of several first days. The next big test comes in September, when the state will open its new recovery district, and many of those schools are still struggling with contractor and repair delays. Upwards of 34,000 students in all are expected to return.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, New Orleans.

Unidentified Woman #2: Push your chairs in. There you go.

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