MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
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.
BLOCK: 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.
BLOCK: 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.
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ABRAMSON: Jay Altman is head of FirstLine Network, which runs this and three other charters.
BLOCK: 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.
BLOCK: 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.
BLOCK: 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.
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U: 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.
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U: ...don't disturb other classmates while they read.
ABRAMSON: Melanie Boulet is a veteran teacher.
BLOCK: 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.
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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.
BLOCK: 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: 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.
BLOCK: 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.
BLOCK: 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: Larry Abramson, NPR News.
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