By November, a few private schools had opened, and the fate of public education in New Orleans was under debate in the state legislature. Pre-storm, the Orleans Parish School system had been a mess. It was in receivership and, like many other poor, urban school systems, was struggling against all odds to fix all the social ills its children faced in school and out, with little or no resources to do so. With the legislature called into emergency session, Gov. Kathleen Blanco proposed a dramatic move: The state would use its power to take over "failing" schools, more than 107 of the 128 public schools. With a lopsided vote in the legislature and a stroke of the governor's pen, the landscape of public education in New Orleans changed forever. The Orleans Parish School Board still held on to a few schools — those that had been magnets and therefore had good test scores. However, in Louisiana, a school administration, with a demonstration of parent support, may apply for charter status, first to the local school board, then to the state. So the most elite magnet schools, fearing the school board might choose not to reopen them in a timely fashion, fled the sinking ship by voting to charter themselves anyway. They wanted to reopen soon and had powerful Parent Teacher Organizations and well-connected parents.
Then the West Bank of New Orleans broke with the East Bank and created a charter district, comprised of some eight schools, with its own school board and superintendent. The few existing charters, such as New Orleans Charter Middle School and its sister school, Green Charter School, as well as the International School of Louisiana (offering French and Spanish immersion education), struggled to figure out how to reopen.
New Orleans Charter Middle School merged with Green, since Green's building had escaped major damage. The staff (those of us who had returned, or could return) met in November. Some of us drove in from as far as Baton Rouge, an hour and a half away. The good news was that anyone who still wanted a job had a job. The school would reopen and we would start planning at the end of the month. But then weeks went by and it became clear the school could not open yet. The date to begin planning was postponed to Dec. 18. Then it was postponed again. As time dragged on, I became increasingly alarmed. I was getting closer and closer to my due date. Would the school really have a place for me if I was leaving in February to have my baby? In December, I sat down with the school's director. It became clear that the school wouldn't reopen until January and that because of my pregnancy and impending maternity leave, I couldn't stay at the school.
Despite my job search frustrations, I ended up at a great school, which, I'm happy to say, had already begun serving New Orleans children before Hurricane Katrina. The International School of Louisiana (ISL) is a six-year-old charter school built around foreign language immersion (currently French and Spanish, though another language will one day be added). Like many school startups, ISL started with kindergarten and 1st grade and adds a grade each year; it is just this year embarking on its middle school. ISL is also, like the city's high-performing public school magnets, evenly integrated. Unlike these magnet schools, however, ISL does not use selective admissions standards, and half of the student body is considered "at risk." The ISL philosophy of greater international and multicultural understanding through language acquisition was particularly attractive to me. The broad ethnic and social range of the student body, all engaged in mastering French, Spanish, and English, seemed to represent a valuable way for our unique city, after so much suffering and insult, to love what is best about itself, to find a usable past worth celebrating as we face the extreme makeover.
Like the many other ghosts of New Orleans, Katrina still haunts us as we start the 2006-07 school year. My school's opening day, like the opening days of many other schools, has been delayed by weeks due to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) typically inept approach to readying the school buildings (mold remediation, etc.) for the start of school. Many questions remain for public education in New Orleans. For one thing, as new schools scramble to become "high-performing," which will guarantee their survival, the temptation to restrict admissions becomes great. What happens to students with learning challenges then? Will there be any place at all for them? Most new schools seem to be concentrating uptown, what about downtown residents like me? And how many of these brave new experiments will fail, anyway? What will happen to students who plug away for a few years at a school that then folds? Uncertainty, to be sure, is a big part of the educational equation here now. As a recent New Orleans Times-Picayune headline put it, "New Orleans Education System Has Dizzying Options" (Aug. 6). These options are so dizzying that parents without the time to do meticulous research may simply feel left out of the loop. A friend of mine recently bemoaned the fact that she couldn't just send her child to a competent district school down the street.