Post-Katrina, New Orleans Turning to Charter Schools

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Tony Cox talks with Steven Martin, director of board development at King Charter School in New Orleans, about the transition from public school to charter school. Martin worked with King Charter School's principal to rebuild their Lower Ninth Ward public school into a charter school after Hurricane Katrina.

TONY COX, host:

One of the schools profiled in Amy Waldman's article is the King Charter School, formerly King Elementary. Steven Martin has worked side by side with its principal to help its transition after Hurricane Katrina. He is now director of board development at King Charter.

The principal, Doris Roche-Hicks, had made no secret of her prior opposition to charter schools. So I asked Steven Martin what had changed since King became a charter school.

Mr. STEVEN MARTIN (Director of Board Development, King Charter School): And we're still to some degree opposed to charter schools, but after the city was let back open, we found out that the only game in town was charter schools. So we felt like we had no choice. And if we wanted to continue to emphasize to the city, to the state, and to the world that public schools are essential, we need it to open up a charter school but run it just like we ran our public school.

COX: You know, that's an interesting point that you raise. In Amy Waldman's article, she talked about the fact that per capita there are more charter schools in New Orleans now than any place else in the country. So to your point, though, Steven, which type of school do you think - state-run, city-run, charter, combination - do you think works best to meet the needs of New Orleans students?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, having a charter school does give us a little bit more flexibility because now we're able to do some of the things that we were not able to do as a public school, given all of the bureaucracy that we had to run through.

COX: Yeah, like what? Give us a hint.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, like for instance we fought with the state when we wrote our charter because they said we could not have direct instruction. And direct instruction is a research-based, a reading program that worked well for us when we were a public school. And because we knew during registration that we just had a number of kids who were out of school for three months, six months, were not in any school at all, we needed it to bring back direct instruction.

So when we met with the state, we fought to have direct instruction as part of our charter.

COX: What appears to be an overlay of the educational issues facing you and the others in New Orleans is the politics of it all. And as I understand it, your school, you had to have a '60s-style sit-in to get the facility that you wanted even on a temporary basis.

Mr. MARTIN: And we did. And the unfortunate part is that the facility that we are now in - that we had to, as the state says, defy them to be in - was a facility we asked for that when they approved our charter in March. Had they prepared the work, repaired the building, there would be no need for them to have to push our opening day back four different times.

After we left meeting with the state, Mrs. Hicks and I, who had just come in from Houston, came to this school, peeped in the windows, walked around the buildings to know that it only got three feet of water. And so we knew the basis of what this school would offer based on what we had achieved. They chose not to give us this school, to put us in a school that they're now saying is structurally unsound.

COX: The kids who are in school in New Orleans, there were already problems with their educational achievement before Katrina. Post-Katrina, are the kids being taught and are they learning adequately?

Mr. MARTIN: I can only speak for Dr. King Charter School, Tony, and for some of the principals that we know personally, who were committed before Katrina, who were committed during Katrina, and who are now committed after Katrina.

I mean if you look on a daily basis, even at this school, we're turning away parents daily because we just do not have the room.

COX: I'm going to have to stop you there because our time is running out, but I appreciate your coming on with us.

Mr. MARTIN: Tony, thank you so much.

COX: Steven Martin is director of board development at King Charter School in New Orleans. We asked the Louisiana Recovery School District for a response to Mr. Martin's comments about the sit-in. They declined.

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