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Parents Push For Diversity In New Orleans' Schools

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Parents Push For Diversity In New Orleans' Schools


Parents Push For Diversity In New Orleans' Schools

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The New Orleans school system has been almost completely remade since Hurricane Katrina. Test scores are climbing; new charter schools are opening all the time; facilities are being upgraded.

But one thing is pretty much the same: The population of the New Orleans public schools is overwhelmingly African-American.

As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, some parents think that has to change.

LARRY ABRAMSON: For decades, white and black families ran away from the city's schools because they were terrible. Caroline Roemer Shirley, head of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, says that bred a strong tradition of sending kids to private schools.

Ms. CAROLINE ROEMER SHIRLEY (Executive director, Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools): And you have parents that were working multiple jobs to ensure that their child did not have to go to a school that not only was not academically excellent. It was not a safe place to be; it was not a good facility.

ABRAMSON: Today, parents have more choice.

(Soundbite of children)

ABRAMSON: They can send their kids to Arthur Ashe Charter School. On first glance, you notice the place is organized. Kids are wearing their blue-and-khaki uniforms. And you also notice that nearly every child in the room is black.

Jay Altman is head of FirstLine Network, which runs this and three other charters.

Mr. JAY ALTMAN (FirstLine Network): It's 95 percent African-American - or more.

ABRAMSON: Why do hardly any white kids attend this and countless other schools in New Orleans, a city that is about 40 percent white? Test scores have improved dramatically at this school, but Jay Altman says it takes a long time to break old patterns.

Mr. ALTMAN: There are a lot of parents who are waiting until there is a greater mass of students who are from the same background as their own students, so either Latino or white students.

ABRAMSON: It's hard to be the first white kid in a school, basically.

Mr. ALTMAN: Yeah, or the first black kid in the school.

ABRAMSON: There are many reasons to question whether schools will ever become more diverse here or in other urban districts. For one thing, some of the city's most successful schools are completely focused on educating low-achieving, inner-city kids.

(Soundbite of classroom)

Unidentified Woman: We want to be silent because - raise your hand.

ABRAMSON: The conventional wisdom here is that these students need a lot of structure to catch up.

(Soundbite of classroom)

Unidentified Child: ...don't disturb other classmates while they read.

Unidentified Woman: Absolutely.

ABRAMSON: Melanie Boulet is a veteran teacher.

Ms. MELANIE BOULET (Teacher): We need a maximum learning readiness on the part of the kids. These particular learning habits or behaviors have been researched, and they lead to maximum learning. And they're very necessary in an environment like we're in.

ABRAMSON: Many people point to the energy and care shown at schools like Arthur Ashe as the triumph of post-Katrina schools. Underachieving kids are simply not allowed to languish, as they did before. But will upwardly mobile parents ever be comfortable sending their children to schools that are this focused on low-achieving kids? Some parents feel they can't wait for test scores to lure a broader mix of students.

(Soundbite of children talking)

ABRAMSON: School has just opened at Morris Jeff Community School, where diversity ranks right up there with test scores as a central goal. This brand-new charter school was founded by neighbors like the school's board president, Broderick Bagert.

Mr. BRODERICK BAGERT (School Board President): We printed big brochures that said that we're a school as diverse as the city it calls home - before we knew what our enrollment was. And it turns out that we're almost exactly - reflect the diversity of the city.

ABRAMSON: Bagert says that just by knocking on doors in the school's midcity neighborhood, he managed to attract a student body that is 40 percent white, 60 percent black - just like the city overall.

Among them is the daughter of Florestina Payton Stewart, a black parent who wants her child to have a different experience than she had growing up.

Ms. FLORESTINA PAYTON STEWART: For me, I went to private African-American schools my whole life. But when it came down - for graduate and post-graduate work, I attended Tulane University. And it was a big culture shock for me to adjust to new surroundings, new people, and things like that. And I don't want my daughter to have to experience that.

ABRAMSON: Brod Bagert says when he proposed starting a diverse school here, he was told by others that he was naive.

Mr. BAGERT: To think that it's going to be scores on a test alone that allows parents to overcome that historic distrust, that's naive.

ABRAMSON: Many school leaders say they, too, want a diverse student body. But they're convinced that once achievement levels rise, white students will follow. That logic rules the day here, for now. There are no legal requirements that schools integrate, but schools are required to improve.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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