LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. We've been following up this week on one effect of Hurricane Katrina. When the storm swept through New Orleans, it washed away the city's old school district and brought in a flood of charter schools as time when on. More than half of New Orleans schoolchildren attend charters, and more are on the way, which is making teachers at some traditional public schools nervous, as we'll hear this morning. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.
LARRY ABRAMSON: In New Orleans, the charter train is rolling down the track. Paul Pastorek is superintendent of education for Louisiana.
Mr. PAUL PASTOREK (Superintendent of Education, Louisiana): I can imagine a district that would not only be 75 percent, that would be 90 percent, perhaps even close to 100 percent charter schools.
ABRAMSON: Why is Pastorek so bullish on charters? Well, visit a charter school and you can start to understand.
Ms. SHARON CLARK (Principal, Sophie B. Wright Charter School): There are days that I serve lunch. I serve breakfast some days. The only thing I don't do right now is drive a school bus.
ABRAMSON: Sharon Clark is the hard-working principal at Sophie B. Wright Charter. She comes across as a tough and loving mother hen.
Ms. CLARK: Let's go, ladies and gentleman. What's wrong with your voice?
ABRAMSON: But her success is based on hard numbers. When Clark took over in 2001, this was still a traditional public school. School performance scores back then were lousy: around 25 out of a total score of 200. Schools are supposed to score at least 60 right now. How did Sophie B. Wright fare after it became a charter? Clark hauls her recent scores out of a file cabinet.
Ms. CLARK: And in 2006 to 2007, I think our actual score was a 61.6. This is when we were chartered.
ABRAMSON: And those scores are even higher today.
Sharon Clark says under the old central school district, she often had to wait for approval before she changed instruction or could even repair her building. But beyond a few anecdotes, she can't explain exactly why things have gotten so much better.
Ms. CLARK: What I do know is under the local authority, the schools failed. I mean, we did fail. And I don't see us failing now. And the kids have not changed. I have the same amount of poverty.
ABRAMSON: The level of poverty is just about as high across town at Coghill Elementary School, but test scores here are much lower than at Sophie B. Wright. This school is housed in a maze of trailers near Lake Pontchartrain. Coghill is run by the Recovery School District, the state-run agency that is the closest thing New Orleans has to a traditional central school district.
Ms. AISHA JONES (Principal, Coghill Elementary School): Hello.
ABRAMSON: Aisha Jones, principal at Coghill, is just as spunky and energetic as her charter counterparts. Now in her second year here, she says the Recovery District has started to give her more autonomy to hire and fire. This is a clear attempt to run this school more like a charter.
Ms. JONES: This year, the superintendent came with a big push for us to be able to pick our team, you know, because he wants great things from each of us. So it makes sense for you all to pick your team.
ABRAMSON: Jones says that kind of independence helps, but it can't overcome many inequities she faces. Take special education.
Unidentified Woman: Say good morning, Cyrus.
ABRAMSON: In one hallway at Coghill, a heavily disabled student is learning to use a walker. Statistics show that Recovery District schools have nearly twice as many students with disabilities. And Aisha Jones says schools like hers are known to have more behavior problems.
Ms. JONES: I am concerned that the charters are pushing their problem children onto us.
ABRAMSON: Although charter operators deny this, you hear this complaint all the time here. Still, the Recovery School District will convert four more underperforming schools into charters by next year. But the issue remains sensitive - so sensitive the district would not let NPR visit one of the very lowest performing schools. Officials feared that would send teachers a message that their school had been targeted for conversion. But by another standard, all the schools here are failing. Coghill Principal Aisha Jones.
Ms. JONES: I would like to see a better integration of students. If you look at our student population, we are almost completely African-American students - I mean, almost completely.
ABRAMSON: And that's true across the board, as affluent parents exercise their choice away from public schools, whether they are charters or not.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.
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