RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
New Orleans faces many, many challenges as the city tries to rebuild. And here's a new one: finding hundreds of new teachers before schools reopen in September to serve a rapidly growing student population.
Local school officials who've been urging kids to return are struggling to find enough teachers to serve them, as NPR's Larry Abramson reports.
LARRY ABRAMSON: Dorothy Reilly is supposed to be retired.
Ms. DOROTHY REILLY (Teacher): Girls, put your book bags away.
ABRAMSON: So why is she standing in front of a bunch of kindergartners at Drew Elementary in New Orleans' Ninth Ward?
Ms. REILLY: I felt as though if a child ever needed a teacher, it was after Katrina, because you had children that had stayed at home for so long who had no school, just stay at home in front of TV.
ABRAMSON: After Katrina, Reilly lived in Lafayette with her mother, but she felt she had to return.
Ms. REILLY: I don't think it was my decision. I think it was a decision from the Lord to go down and touch somebody and bring these children up.
ABRAMSON: New Orleans will need hundreds of Dorothy Reillys to serve a system where 200 new students enroll every week. Many of the charter schools that have opened their doors here are full. Earlier this year, parents sued when 300 kids were turned away. To avoid more trouble in the coming year, local schools have kicked a major recruiting effort into gear.
Mr. NOVELT ESTRELLA (Recruitment officer, teachNOLA): Congratulations on being accepted. I wanted to talk to you about your acceptance and next steps.
ABRAMSON: Novelt Estrella sits in the kitchen of his home across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. He leaves a voicemail as he tries to track down the 70 or so applicants he's responsible for.
Mr. ESTRELLA: …so that we can talk about your future with teachNOLA.
ABRAMSON: Estrella is part of a recruiting and training effort called teachNOLA.
Mr. ESTRELLA: People from all over the country are applying here, interesting people with a lot of skill and intellect and passion.
ABRAMSON: New Orleans is growing rapidly, while other big city school systems are closing schools left and right. So to laid-off teachers in, say, Detroit, the crescent city might look pretty appealing. Teachers from out of town are also drawn by housing subsidies and a $5,000 bonus the state now offers for teachers who stay a full year.
For some locals like software freelancer David Cash, the reasons for jumping into teaching in his hometown are more spiritual.
Mr. DAVID CASH (Software Freelancer): One is definitely post-flood New Orleans, you know, feeling like I want to be a part of the recovery of this city. Another is that I felt like I didn't really have - my career didn't have quite the meaning that it once had.
ABRAMSON: Cash sits in his small, shotgun house near the city's fair grounds. The clock he salvaged from his father's schoolhouse ticks on the wall. He's a big guy with a bushy beard and a laid back, thoughtful style. Cash says one principal's remark shows how desperate the situation really is.
Mr. CASH: She had several teachers who had, you know, come in and gone, how, and then just quit after six months. And she say, you know, if you come teach for me, all I ask you is that you stay for one year.
ABRAMSON: That hasn't scared Cash away, neither has the fact that shortly after we spoke, he was rejected by teachNOLA. David Cash says he will find a way to get into the classroom.
The new crop of teachers may find that many schools are running smoothly. But in others, many pre-Katrina problems have been magnified by the educational storm that followed the hurricane.
(Soundbite of a teacher writing on a chalk board)
ABRAMSON: English teacher Matt Roberts tries to get a lesson started at Walter Cohen High, one of five new schools opened over the past few months to cope with growing enrollment.
Mr. MATT ROBERTS (English Teacher): We're going to try and bear into this parts of speech stuff pretty fast, and I got another poetry exercise for y'all.
ABRAMSON: Roberts has only seven students in his class today. Some of the others are apparently in in-school suspension. Those who have arrived are bored and unprepared. Well after class has started, one student asked for a piece of paper for the day's assignment.
Mr. ROBERTS: Each line, the first four lines of each stanza must be a prepositional phrase starting with a preposition.
ABRAMSON: Roberts struggles to get kids on task. He bounces around the room, giving each student one-on-one instruction. But as he focuses on this student, the other six kids quickly get off track. One student hides behind a file cabinet and sends text messages on his phone.
Because the school has only been open for a few weeks, a computer-based reading program isn't ready, giving kids one more thing to grouse about.
Mr. ROBERTS: There are computers in the building. They are taking them out of the boxes as we speak. Hm?
Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible)
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, you know, you guys are in here for the two block. You guys have been complaining about this since day one.
ABRAMSON: And things went downhill from there.
(Soundbite of a baby laughing)
ABRAMSON: When we visit with Matt Roberts at his home later in the day, he has a tale to tell. He lives near Tulane University with his wife and two kids. His wife, Jennifer Roberts, listens and shakes her head while Matt describes how things got out of hand in his classroom.
Mr. ROBERTS: At one point, I'm talking and they flicked the lights off and walked out and stuff. I said, all right, well, then, I'm writing you both up. And when I said it, as soon as I said I'm writing you both up, I got the man, I will F you up. And it was like, okay, no. That's it. We've had several teachers being given veiled threats and hostile threats, you know. Woman, I ought to slap you, things like that, from 15-year-old boys.
ABRAMSON: Roberts has seven years of experience teaching out of state, but he says nothing has prepared him for this. Matt and Jennifer are New Orleans natives who return, in part, to help with the recovery effort. They questioned their sanity when they found themselves bathing their kids from a kitchen pot because their New Orleans home had no hot water. But Matt says all the challenges he faces are matched by huge rewards.
Mr. ROBERTS: The same student who threatened me today is a student who on Tuesday, pulled a security officer from the hallway, into the room to show that security officer his poem. Look, the first line is five syllables. It is like a golden ray of light shining down on him. I'm looking at it from afar, (singing) ah!
ABRAMSON: The promise of those bright moments keeps luring people down here, like a woman who just happened to walk in the door during our visit to the school district offices. She came all the way from New York. Deborah Adams of the Recovery School District quickly sat her down for a chat.
Ms. DEBORAH ADAMS (Recovery School District): Have you ever taken the Praxis exam?
Unidentified Woman: No, but I've been studying for them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ADAMS: You're studying for them?
Unidentified Woman: Yeah.
Ms. ADAMS: What do you want to teach?
Unidentified Woman: Anything as needed, to tell you the truth. I have a degree in theater, which probably isn't the most useful degree, but…
Ms. ADAMS: I think it's very useful.
Unidentified Woman: I'm comfortable learning anything that you need.
Ms. ADAMS: Even though this woman will have to take a major pay cut and cover the cost of getting certified herself, she says she's ready to sign up.
Unidentified Woman: I used to live here, and just been missing New Orleans like nothing else - especially after the storm. When you see the way the city has really been let down, I just needed to come back and just, you know, give some kids a shot at an education.
ABRAMSON: The Recovery School District has filled one important post - Paul Vallas, CEO of the Philadelphia city schools has agreed to take over as chief down in New Orleans starting July 1st.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: Part one of this report is at npr.org. Tonight, on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, part three: one New Orleans neighborhood tries to bring back its local school.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.