STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of the nation's leading educators may face his toughest assignment ever. Paul Vallas gets credit for turning around schools in Chicago and Philadelphia, but never before has he faced the challenge of a failing school system that was also under water. He's come to New Orleans, where schools perform so poorly before Katrina that some people actually said their destruction in the storm might be a good thing.

NPR's Larry Abramson has this profile of the man who's trying to rebuild.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Before we meet Paul Vallas, how about a taste of the boiling pot of gumbo he's just jumped into?

Listen to how New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin revved up the crowd at a convocation of teachers last week.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (Democrat, New Orleans): When they laid off every teacher and didn't give you the proper benefits to support you after that layoff, I still had faith.

ABRAMSON: There is still palpable anger over the way the state took over the local schools, creating something called the Recovery School District, the RSD. But district superintendent Paul Vallas is making nice with the teachers in ways they can understand.

Mr. PAUL VALLAS (District Superintendent): For example, today, you know, I need to make sure that this payroll is going to be met. I've got a few teachers who are really nervous. Payroll is supposed to be out on the 31st. I mean I we cannot have any screw-ups with payroll. And you know, Pastorek can kick everybody in the ass.

ABRAMSON: Paul Vallas scrunches up on the front seat of a black SUV as his driver rushes through morning traffic. He is on the phone with his boss, State Education Superintendent Paul Pastorek, a New Orleans resident who recently hired Vallas.

Mr. PAUL PASTOREK (State Superintendent of Education, New Orleans): All right. Well, listen, I'll talk to you this afternoon, all right?

ABRAMSON: Vallas has his feet up on the dashboard. His feet is pushed so far back that his press aide can barely squeeze into the back. Like a restless teenager, he's constantly trying to find a place for his long legs.

(Soundbite of car door)

ABRAMSON: Vallas stops off at local TV station WWL to do a taping for the Sunday public affairs show.

(Soundbite of "Sunday Morning with Dennis Woltering")

Mr. DENNIS WOLTERING (Host): Welcome back. The Recovery School District will open for...

ABRAMSON: Like everyone else in town, host Dennis Woltering wants to know, will we have a repeat of last year's problems?

(Soundbite of "Sunday Morning with Dennis Woltering")

Mr. WOLTERING: Okay. As I mentioned, I mean last year that was one of the big issues. There weren't enough teachers for the whole school year...

Mr. VALLAS: Yeah.

Mr. WOLTERING: I mean, you will have plenty of teachers?

Mr. VALLAS: Yeah. We are over-hiring and we've had more applicants than we have slots for.

Mr. WOLTERING: Certified, qualified teachers?

Mr. VALLAS: Yes. And in fact, the good news is we've had so many teacher applicants that now we are able to exercise some selectivity.

ABRAMSON: Doubt about the quality of instruction in the RSD's 22 schools is the biggest hangover from the rush to open schools last year. More than half of all eighth graders ended up failing the state math test. But for this and any other question, Vallas has an answer - sometimes even a whole speech.

Mr. VALLAS: We are in fact building a school district from the ground up where everything we're putting into the district, everything we're doing is brand new.

ABRAMSON: I went to schools last year that opened up in March, and teachers told me - and I could see for myself - that these schools really were not ready to be open. They had just met the demands of the parents. Is that going to happen this year?

Mr. VALLAS: No. I equated the school openings last year to being a passenger on a sinking ocean liner and you're just trying to grab as many lifeboats as you can. And if - once you've run out of lifeboats, you start ripping wooden walls out and throwing them in the water - anything that floats, so to speak. And you know, and a lot of times it was just get the kids in the building and get a warm body in front of the kids.

ABRAMSON: That rush to open schools led to concerns about violence and gang problems, as kids from different parts of town were thrown into the same schools. Last year the district hired lots of security guards. Many said that made schools feel like prisons. Here Vallas has employed one of his favorite strategies: hire a local, a known quantity.

Mr. VALLAS: (Unintelligible) I knew a police superintendent. I told him welcome back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ABRAMSON: Vallas introduced his former police chief, Eddie Compass, to a local minister who's offering to help wayward youth. And the meeting quickly turns into old home week. Compass was forced out of his job right after Katrina. Vallas has just hired Compass as his security chief, and that gives the new superintendent instant street cred.

Mr. VALLAS: So I'm looking at Ed - at Eddie focusing on obviously the critical safety and security issues, but safe, secure climate; these community groups and faith-based organizations we're going to bring in to help us provide supplemental services.

ABRAMSON: Vallas holds meeting after meeting with potential rivals and allies. He'll talk to anyone. It's never completely clear just how much Paul Vallas is really listening. He interrupts a lot, but no one seems to mind. Vallas is like an express train and everyone wants a ride.

Armando Almendarez worked with Vallas in Chicago, Philadelphia, and he came out of retirement to help him here.

Mr. ARMANDO ALMENDAREZ (Almendarez Consulting): I don't think that there is another urban superintendent quite like Paul Vallas, who really looks at solutions out of the box.

ABRAMSON: He can't be the easiest person to work with in the world.

Mr. ALMENDAREZ: Oh, no. Not at all. Not at all. But you can't find anyone with a greater passion, a greater vision.

ABRAMSON: But Vallas still faces an uphill climb here. Suspicions run high after Katrina. Since the storm, low-income residents have complained that the city's growing crop of charter schools are skimming the best students. Some fear the city's traditional schools are quickly returning to the dismal state they were known for before the storm.

Mr. DONATUS KING (NAACP): Will you have enough trained professionals...

ABRAMSON: The head of the local NAACP, Donatus King, confronts Vallas at a forum at a YMCA. He is angry about Vallas's proposal to send new students to so-called welcome schools so they can be properly assessed.

Mr. KING: What procedure is there in place to ensure that any mental evaluation is not a 30-minute evaluation that will result in our children being wrongly placed in Special Ed classes...

Mr. VALLAS: Let me just say that, believe me when I say the welcome school will be well-staffed because - and it will be well-staffed because we want it to be well-staffed. But you'll be watching, so...

ABRAMSON: After years in tough districts like Chicago and Philadelphia, Vallas seems confident he can humor even the skeptics in New Orleans. But he knows that any turnaround superintendent gets a short honeymoon.

Mr. VALLAS: The first two years, he's like a demolitions expert. You know, go and diffuse the bomb. Nobody interferes with you. Everybody keeps their distance. How's it coming, you know? By year three like maybe test scores are rising, you're building new schools. Things are really happening. People start to turn around, they go this is easier than we thought, you know? By year four if things are still improving, people are moping that you're getting way too much credit for it. And then by year five you're chopped liver.

ABRAMSON: But for now Vallas is still a fine pate.

(Soundbite of band playing)

ABRAMSON: And here Vallas gets to the boss of some teachers who know how to party. When the John McDonogh High School Trojan band started playing at that education gathering last week, a bunch of teachers - some young, some not-so-young - broke into a wild dance in the aisle. Everyone jumped to their feet and joined in, and for a brief moment Paul Vallas wasn't the center of attention.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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