STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Schools in New Orleans are approaching the end of the first real academic year since Hurricane Katrina. Some schools still struggle to cope with broken infrastructure; new students returning in the middle of the year; the inability to serve hot lunches; and a lot more.

At one school the sounds of progress, though, are audible, even musical.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: The KIPP Believe Charter School opened its doors last fall without any instruments. And now 90 fifth graders are aspiring to join the city's musical tradition. NPR's Larry Abramson reports on how far this school has come.

Mr. KEITH HART (Music Director, KIPP Believe College Prep Charter School): One and two and three and four and...

(Soundbite of snare drum)

Mr. HART: Stop.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Keith Hart, KIPP's new music director, is still teaching these kids the basics, but he demands that his students use what they know.

Mr. HART: Who knows what tempo means - tempo, tempo, T-E-M-P-O - who could tell me? Dante?

ABRAMSON: If students' progress in other areas there's any guide, they'll be ready to swing by next year's Mardi Gras. When I visited this school last September, these fifth graders - nearly all from low-income families - were still struggling with basic addition.

Ms. SCARLET FEINBERG (KIPP Believe College Prep Charter School): Eight plus ten - you shouldn't have to count on your fingers - eight plus ten.

ABRAMSON: Now that same teacher, Scarlet Feinberg, has every student multiplying and reducing fractions at rocket speed.

Ms. FEINBERG: So three times twelve is?

Unidentified Group: Thirty-six.

Ms. FEINBERG: Great confident voice, Jasmine. I love the leadership in your voice. Four times one is?

Unidentified Group: Four.

Ms. FEINBERG: We have almost every single fifth-grader doing a hundred multiplication facts in three minutes.

ABRAMSON: Feinberg may have the hardest working face in education. Her eyes are on her students as she smiles and urges kids to speak up, to act like the college-bound students she wants them to be, and above all, to stay focused.

Ms. FEINBERG: Thank you for coming in with tremendous focus. Let's keep that up, all class - go ahead.

ABRAMSON: But the ghosts of Katrina are hard to escape. The hurricane badly damaged the school's roof, which was replaced last year. Then in February the school got hit by a tornado - that's right - a tornado hit the school head-on and ate another hole in the roof. But even in this principal Adam Meinig and his students found something uplifting.

Mr. ADAM MEINIG (KIPP Believe College Prep Charter School): I got a voice message the day of the tornado that was one of the cutest things I've ever heard. It was a student who said, Mr. Meinig, two quick questions. I know a tornado hit the school. One is that I know you guys sometimes work really late and even sleep at the school, so I want to make sure everyone's okay. And secondly, I want to know where we're having school tomorrow.

Unidentified Child #1: Hotdog.

Unidentified Child #2: You're getting hotdog?

Unidentified Child #1: Hotdog.

Unidentified Child #2: They have it great, KIPP school, but I think we're the best.

ABRAMSON: Kids gather in the cafeteria for a brain power lunch and talk about how they'll measure up against other KIPP schools in upcoming tests. KIPP, which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program, has 52 schools nationwide. This school is run like a family: the group is responsible for the success of each individual.

Two students who have been arguing are asked to speak. A girl named Taylor steps up and she apologizes to the entire school.

TAYLOR (Student): Not just the school, but New Orleans. We're supposed to change New Orleans, and how I'm going to change New Orleans if I'm fighting all the time? So I want to give a truly sorry sent to New Orleans because that's not the right thing to do. I should have just tried to get rid of it, but I didn't.

(Soundbite of fingers snapping)

ABRAMSON: Everyone snaps their fingers in a round of quiet KIPP applause.

TAYLOR: I'm okay with the consequence that I had paid and I do deserve it.

ABRAMSON: Students here have a ritual. When someone is trying to think of an answer, classmates point their hands in his direction and wiggle their fingers to send some energy to their classmates. It's a nice metaphor for what is working in this New Orleans school.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Larry's reporting continues tomorrow when he tells us about the struggle to find enough qualified teachers as more students return. You can read an overview of how New Orleans schools are faring by going to NPR.org.

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