ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Nine years ago today, Hurricane Katrina demolished much of New Orleans and gutted almost all of its public schools. Today, the school system is unlike any other nation. More than 90 percent of the city's students this fall are attending charter schools run by dozens of private nonprofit organizations. All parents choose their kids school regardless of where they live. The NPR Ed team is focusing on these and other remarkable changes in the New Orleans schools this fall. As Claudio Sanchez reports, some say this so-called competitive market-driven system is the future of public education, and that New Orleans is the model.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: A massive $1.8 billion school construction project is underway here. Almost all the new buildings will eventually house charter schools like George Washington Carver Collegiate Academy in the city's Ninth Ward. It operates out of a maze of double-wide trailers in a big open field not far from its future home, which for now is nothing more than a skeleton of steel beams. Buses arrive and unload 320 teenagers in white polo shirts and khaki pants.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Scholars, I need everybody inside the line. Hands to your side. Please do not touch the rim. Remember...
SANCHEZ: Kids cannot wear colors that are not the school's colors. They cannot walk outside the blue lines painted on the floors. Too many accessories, too much bling - all banned. Carver's strict approach to discipline and academics were devised not by a central administration or school board, but by collegiate academies - one of 42 private nonprofit organizations that have pretty much taken over public education in New Orleans. Each one of the 85 charter schools under this system has its own curriculum, its own hiring policies. The expectation - results, namely high test scores.
JEREL BRYANT: I got into this because I recognize the stakes of it.
SANCHEZ: Carver principal Jerel Bryant.
BRYANT: Here is a group of people who are not getting what they deserved.
SANCHEZ: Bryant, 29, grew up in Harlem, New York, graduated from Yale and came to New Orleans in 2007. Like most of the young people who flocked here after Katrina, Bryant had no teaching experience, but says he wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids who had been through so much. Jessica Butler, 15, was in elementary school when Katrina demolished her home.
JESSICA: We basically lived in our car for, like, two weeks. And when I actually got to school, I was the new kid. I was the kid from New Orleans.
SANCHEZ: Jessica and her family fled to Houston where she says they did not feel welcome. 16-year-old Clarence Plummer and his family ended up in Houston, too.
CLARENCE: And once I got to Texas, people looked at me differently because I was from New Orleans. And they looked at me like, oh, you supposed to be a gangster, let me test and see how real you are. So I'm like, how you just assume that I'm one of them people? I just come here to go to school. I'm to learn like you.
SANCHEZ: Clarence lost count of the fights he got into in Houston. Carver Academy, on the other hand, has been good for him.
CLARENCE: Because now it's like the teachers aren't really teachers. It's like they're actually people you can sit down and talk to like part of your family. So it's like reaching for their approval on most of the things you do.
SANCHEZ: That change in how kids view their education is why New Orleans has come under a microscope. The city's children - almost all African American and poor - are now part of an experiment, a chance to rethink everything says principal Bryant.
BRYANT: There is something here that requires some change. I mean, this city, it's the gumbo city for a reason - whether you want to call it an experiment, we have to give it a fair opportunity to see if this can work.
SANCHEZ: Nine years after the state turned the city's public schools over to charter organizations, test scores have shot up, and kids are outpacing their peers throughout Louisiana. But are New Orleans schools today good enough?
JOHN AYERS: I think the evidence is mixed.
SANCHEZ: John Ayers is director of the Cowen Institute for Public Education at Tulane University. It has chronicled the takeover of New Orleans' public schools since 2007.
AYERS: Before the storm, 65 percent of students were attending a failing school. Now, about 13 percent are in failing schools. And we replaced a system that was rife with corruption and failure, and that's kind of a miracle. But...
SANCHEZ: In a decentralized school system with 45,000 students, Ayers concedes some kids still fall through the cracks.
AYERS: Chronic absenteeism and truancy problems have not been dealt with well. We have not done a great job on special ed., which is common. We've got data that suggests a degree of success. But we're aiming at basic skills, not at mastery. And mastery is what you need to get to to go to the next grade. So we only have 19 percent of the young people in Orleans Parish hitting mastery.
SANCHEZ: For a system that's supposed to be a model for the nation, critics say that's far from impressive.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG: My reading of the evidence is that it's been overblown. There's still substantial numbers of schools that struggle in New Orleans.
SANCHEZ: Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow with the Century Foundation, is a critic of the most important feature of the New Orleans experiment - school choice.
KAHLENBERG: We've had corporate reformers come into the public school system and impose this market-based model. The problem is that in education, choice by itself - unregulated choice will often lead to higher levels of segregation, greater inequality. And that is quite disturbing.
SANCHEZ: So sure, says Kahlenberg, parents can choose, but there aren't enough spots in good schools. White students, meanwhile, disproportionately attend the top-performing charters, or so-called A and B schools, in part because these schools kept their selective admissions policies after Katrina. Still, Ayers insists, school choice works better than people think.
AYERS: We are the only city that has created the first true market in public education and, by no means, a perfect market. But listen, it's unique.
SANCHEZ: Parents, meanwhile, seem split. At this city-wide fair, hundreds have shown up to pick up free school supplies. Denise Molosong's three daughters all attend charters.
DENISE MOLOSONG: If an organization or some sort wants to invest and take interest in the school system, and if they can produce a quality education, then I think it's great. And the children are the ones that benefit from it.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Oh, my gracious.
MOLOSONG: Oh, my goodness.
SANCHEZ: Molosong says her three little girls are thriving.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What size does she wear?
SANCHEZ: A few tables down, Marlise Franklin waits in line for a free polo shirt for each of her two kids. She put her 15-year-old daughter in a non-charter school this year - one of only six left in the entire city. It's been a lot tougher finding the right school for her 6-year-old, says Franklin, because he has a learning disability, and the charter school that he went to last year didn't treat him or her very well.
MARLISE FRANKLIN: They never put me around the table to try to tell me what's going on with him or anything like that. I was in the blind, and so this year coming up, I'm educated about it so they won't be able to fool me this time.
BRYANT: Good morning, team.
UNIDENTIFIED STAFF: Good morning, Mr. Bryant.
BRYANT: It's good to see you all.
UNIDENTIFIED STAFF: It's good to be seen.
SANCHEZ: It's 8 A.M. at George Washington Carver Collegiate Academy. Principal Jerel Bryant gathers his staff before kids arrive. He agrees with parents who say there is a lot to fix. Indeed, the discipline policies at collegiate academy schools, including Carver, have prompted a civil rights complaint by parents who say discipline is so harsh it verges on abuse. Bryant is not free to discuss the issue. He has a lot more to worry about. Less than a fourth of his ninth graders this year are reading at grade level. And a fifth have a learning disability.
BRYANT: We don't deserve a lot of time to make this work because it's too high stakes. It's not about politics, it's about kids. You get one childhood, and we have to make it count for kids.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Who are we?
UNIDENTIFIED STAFF: Carver Collegiate Academy. When one rises, we all rise.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: How do we start?
UNIDENTIFIED STAFF: One step, one classroom, one school.
SANCHEZ: Before he wraps up his morning meeting, Bryant joins his staff in an incantation of sorts, the same one students will have heard hundreds of times by the end of the school year.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Where are you headed?
UNIDENTIFIED STAFF: To college.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: And will you succeed?
UNIDENTIFIED STAFF: Yes.
BRYANT: Exceed the expectation.
UNIDENTIFIED STAFF: C.
UNIDENTIFIED STAFF: Team.
SANCHEZ: It's 8:20, and teachers scurry to their classrooms well aware that the entire country is watching. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.