A New School Year Begins in New Orleans

Several New Orleans schools spent Tuesday celebrating their first day back after Hurricane Katrina. But aside from the kids, the school reorganization after the storm has unsettled many veteran teachers.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. It's the beginning of school in New Orleans for thousands of kids who face a very challenging year. Hurricane Katrina damaged the city's already fragile school system. Everyone involved is still figuring out the new, reorganized regime. So this new school year begins with even many New Orleans teachers still trying to find their way back to class.

NPR's Molly Peterson reports.

MOLLY PETERSON reporting:

Under an archway of blue and white balloons at the door of Mary Bethune School, students line up for a camera-friendly ceremony behind a grinning school superintendent and other school board officials. One late-arriving dad, holding his son by one hand and his son's school records in the other, rushes up to the entrance.

Unidentified Man #1: I think we have to go the other way.

PETERSON: The two disappear around the side of the building, mostly unnoticed among a crowd of reporters. Around 8:30-ish, the pomp and circumstance begins.

Unidentified Man #2: And at this time we're going to get school started and Ms. Smith and Ms. Landrieu(ph) and I will ring the bell.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

PETERSON: Students showing up days late, trickling into class well after Labor Day, was a bit of a New Orleans tradition before the storm. Absenteeism was so rampant the district even lured kids in for the first day by offering a chance at Saints tickets to those who showed up.

But after the storm, being on time seems more important, especially to teachers. Here at Bethune they've been fixing up bulletin boards and organizing school supplies all month.

(Soundbite of paper ripping)

PETERSON: Veteran first-grade teacher Linda Pho(ph) says there's been way more than usual to do.

Ms. LINDA PHO (Teacher, Mary Bethune Elementary School): We had to get rid of everything. It was, you know, mold (unintelligible) and they didn't want the kids to be effected with that. And so we just get new desks, wonderful chairs, desk for the teachers, file cabinets, and we're just waiting on our books.

PETERSON: Most teachers whose schools remain closed have also been waiting. Since the storm, some schools have been open by the state, some by the local school board, and some by charter groups. In state recovery schools, hundreds of teaching positions still need to be filled, but the process is dragging.

Recovery School District spokeswoman Siona LaFrance says most job applicants taught New Orleans kids before in the old locally controlled system, but some of them don't even qualify for interviews now.

Ms. SIONA LAFRANCE (Communications Director, Recovery School District): We're assessing teachers, and that's not been something that has been well received in some quarters. But we are giving teachers - everybody who applies has to take a basic skills test and they also have to submit a writing sample.

PETERSON: Some former New Orleans teachers say this process is unreasonable. They point out that they too have been living out of state, filing claims with insurance companies, living in FEMA trailers.

Long-time music teacher Holly Benson(ph) rescued her class notes from her flooded house. And she says talking about her old arts elementary school, one of the many not reopening, is like talking about a dream world.

Ms. HOLLY BENSON: It was a very hard job, but it was a very rich culture too. And most of the - a lot of the wonderful music and experiences I've had have been from that culture, and it's gone now, and sorry to see it go.

PETERSON: Some teachers haven't been able to return to the state, let alone their classroom. At the Sophie B. Wright School, Principal Sharon Clark laments the loss.

Ms. SHARON CLARK (Principal, Sophie B. Wright School): Because of Katrina and the living conditions, we have had to re-staff our school with probably about a good 75-percent new staff simply because of housing. Most of our teachers have called asking to hold a spot, but they couldn't find housing.

PETERSON: And teacher Benson says schools opening post-Katrina don't value her years of experience, especially the charters who can cut costs by hiring younger teachers. So while she's considering a job offer from a state-run Recovery school, she still has not signed a contract.

Ms. BENSON: Even those that are already working at a school are still working their job interviews and their resumes at the others that haven't opened yet. So I think it's going to be like a huge re-shuffle at the end, and we won't really know who's still left here teaching until the very last school opens.

PETERSON: And that could take a while. The last state Recovery school doesn't open until September 18.

Molly Peterson, NPR News, New Orleans.

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