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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week, we're looking at the rebirth of the New Orleans school system, once considered one of the worst in the nation. Many of the schools that have reopened since Katrina are now charter schools, and the city has in many ways become the country's leading laboratory for charter school experiments.

NPR's Larry Abramson has the second of three reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Drive through the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans and you'll see boarded up homes and FEMA trailers, but there's one bright spot here: Pierre A. Capdau Charter School on Franklin street.

Mr. HARRY DICKSON (Dean of Students, Pierre A. Capdau Charter School): You're in the right place. You're in the right place.

ABRAMSON: Okay. Why is that?

Mr. DICKSON: Because learning is going on around the clock, from the moment you hit the building to the moment you leave.

ABRAMSON: Harry Dickson is the very optimistic dean of students here. He's been at Capdau since this charter started three years ago.

Mr. DICKSON: How do I know? Because our test results indicate that, the students are engaged, and they're all telling us from their parents, how much enjoyment they're having everyday at Capdau.

ABRAMSON: The school's mission has always been to provide a path to college for kids who ordinarily would not be able to get that far. And now that Katrina basically wiped out the city's education system, this school has a new purpose: to help lead the recovery of this one neighborhood by drawing families back into this area.

So just what is so different about this school? Step into a classroom and you'll see second graders cutting and pasting pictures.

Unidentified Woman: Remember to put your pictures on in order, so that we all glue in the same direction.

Unidentified Child: If not, draw a line?

Unidentified Woman: You can talk to your group about that. That is your group's choice.

ABRAMSON: At a glance, this class looks like other well run elementary classes, but Capdau is run by the nearby University of New Orleans. And Principal Christine Mitchell says the connection with the university provides additional resources; resources the old system just couldn't provide.

Ms. CHRISTINE MITCHELL (Principal, Pierre A. Capdau Charter School): If I wanted somebody, like I said, to come out and talk to my teachers about anything, again, I guess it goes back to money. I had to pay for it. But with UNO, I don't have to pay for that. They come out and talk to the teachers and work with the teachers for free, because of the connection. And they come out willingly. They call me and ask me how can we help, what can we do? We want to be a part of the school. We want to work with the school.

ABRAMSON: The transformation of this once failing school persuaded Marcia McGee(ph) to transfer four of her six children from their old school. She stands in the hallway with her 4-year-old twins tugging at her legs. She hoped to enroll them in kindergarten here, but it turns out they're not quite old enough.

Ms. MARCIA MCGEE (Parent): I was paying tuition. I had them going to a Christian academy and it was really out of my budget. But then when UNO took over and things started looking so promising - the cleanup job and everything -it was just like amazing. I was like, okay, let's get in the lottery.

ABRAMSON: That kind of enthusiasm is now quite common among New Orleans' parents and educators. They have hope and choices for the first time in a long time. What they do not have is results. Most schools are starting with a blank slate. It will be a couple of years before test scores will show which schools are doing a good job.

Robin Jarvis, superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District, insists she will yank charters from schools that are not on the path to success.

Ms. ROBIN JARVIS (Superintendent, Recovery School District): We will begin to look at it in the first year to see where they are at that point, where your baseline is, and then each year thereafter where the trajectory is for growth. Anybody that's not moving or growing, we will begin very early conversations with, about what needs to be changed.

ABRAMSON: Right now, it would seem that outcomes can only improve, given how far behind some kids are.

Ms. SCARLET FEINBERG (Teacher, KIPP Believe College Prep School): What's eight plus one?

ABRAMSON: At the KIPP Believe College Prep School, teacher Scarlet Feinberg is putting her new students through their paces. These fifth graders have to get past some addition flashcards before they can enter the classroom. For many, it's clearly a struggle.

Ms. FEINBERG: Nine plus 10. What's nine plus 10?

Unidentified Child #2: Huh?

Ms. FEINBERG: What's nine plus 10? All right, back in the line. I need effort.

Unidentified Woman #2: Thirteen.

Ms. FEINBERG: But it's just so interesting how they're still very low at just those quick mental math skills, which just goes back to not getting drilled enough in the lower grades.

ABRAMSON: But that's what - a second or third grade skill?

Ms. FEINBERG: Yeah, it's a second grade skill.

ABRAMSON: But these kids are in fifth grade. In the classroom, Feinberg is relentless in her efforts to make up for years lost in the old New Orleans school system and the months of instruction lost to the storm.

Ms. FEINBERG: And which one am I bumping?

(Soundbite of children responding)

Ms. FEINBERG: Wait, please. Which one am I bumping?

ABRAMSON: KIPP is a San Francisco-based company that runs two schools in New Orleans and 52 schools nationwide. Like other KIPP schools, this one relies heavily on a call-and-response style of teaching. It's one way to keep the attention of 10 year olds who are expected to stay focused for KIPP's nine and half hour long school day. The kids are kept so busy they hardly have time to act out or lose attention. They wait eagerly for Feinberg to snap her fingers so they could respond in unison.

(Soundbite of children responding)

CHILDREN: So I keep the one on the right, bump the other to the left.

Ms. FEINBERG: Six plus one?

ABRAMSON: Many of the teachers here are young. Feinberg is in her third year teaching. Charter schools have the freedom to pick their teachers; and for this school, being young and enthusiastic counts for a lot. Feinberg knows that she and the school face tremendous pressure to improve the test scores of the city's most challenging students.

Ms. FEINBERG: But it's great pressure. I mean it's pressure that makes you work harder, that gives you a sense of urgency every day, that they must learn these skills, these things. I need to be the most efficient I can be for them to learn those things.

ABRAMSON: Can you lose your job if they don't progress?

Ms. FEINBERG: Yeah. That's very clear from the very beginning. If you don't produce the results that need to be produced, it's very possible you could lose your job.

ABRAMSON: That lack of job security has turned teachers against charter schools in many cities. The threat has been dulled in New Orleans. The state has taken over failing schools, so teachers' unions have lost their citywide contract and much of their clout. The teachers who are working at schools like KIPP Believe, definitely don't have time for much of a social life.

Adam Meinig is the principal.

Mr. ADAM MEINIG (Principal, KIPP Believe College Prep School): So the teachers that I've gotten have been people who can give 110 percent of their life, right now, over to teaching. They're here on Saturdays. We're here on Sundays painting the walls, and putting up posters, and unpacking furniture.

ABRAMSON: The federal government has sent millions of dollars to help jump-start charter schools in New Orleans, and the city is being watched closely by charter school backers nationwide. Local school reformers, like Sara Usdin of New Schools for New Orleans, say they challenge is to stay away from policy debates about the merits of charters.

Ms. SARA USDIN (New Schools for New Orleans): I think that we have the chance to create a very different type of system. And what we absolutely have to focus on is what's happening in classrooms with kids and the outcomes of the schools are getting, and keeping the really good schools open; whether they're run by Orleans Parish, whether they're run by the State Department of Education, or whether they're run by charter operators.

Unidentified Man #2: Let me see, can you count by nine!

CHILDREN: Yeah!

Unidentified Man #2: (unintelligible) Go. Let's go! Let me see your fingers roll!

CHILDREN: Nine, eight...

ABRAMSON: At lunchtime, the KIPP Believe kids go through their times table in a chant they repeat throughout the day. They may not know it, but their ability to master basic skills may determine the shape of education in New Orleans.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

(Soundbite of teacher and children reciting)

INSKEEP: You can hear part one of this report at our Web site, npr.org. And you can hear part three by tuning in tomorrow. We'll hear how parents and students brought back one Catholic high school.

(Soundbite of children chanting)

CHILDREN: Woop, there it is!

Unidentified Man #2: Can you count by seven?

CHILDREN: Yeah!

Unidentified Man #2: Go. Let's go. Let me see those fingers roll.

CHILDREN: Seven, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42! Ooh, ooh, 49, 56, 63, 70, 77, 84. Woop, there it is!

INSKEEP: You're listening to NPR News.

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