Some locals suggest that the public schools in New Orleans were laid waste long before Hurricane Katrina. At O. Perry Walker High School, for example, mounds of desks, chairs, boxes and four barrel-size hazardous-waste containers littered the campus. The school, like so many others, was a symptom of an educational system crippled by years of political infighting, fiscal mismanagement and outright neglect. There are those who say Katrina gave the city's school system something it sorely needed: the chance to begin anew.
But facing systemic problems-poor drainage and sanitation, rancid water and no electricity in many areas-the Board of Education didn't convene the first post-Katrina meeting until last October. A month later, state legislators announced a takeover of schools deemed academically unacceptable because of low student test scores. The vast majority of the city's schools fell into this category.
With city and state now forced to coordinate their efforts, officials hope the takeover will bolster public education in New Orleans, despite dwindling numbers of students and more than $60 million in cuts to the state's public education budget this year. Indeed, after a slow start, by January, 17 of the city's 117 public schools were scheduled to reopen. Several of the schools were designated as independently run charters, making them eligible for some of the $20 million in promised federal aid to charters. But there is still so much more to be done. "Until we focus on getting the best education for the neediest students, we won't really address the systemic problems," says Ora Watson, interim public-schools superintendent. And with only a fraction of the city's 60,000 students expected to return this academic year, almost 100 institutions are likely to remain boarded up, their doors chained, and 4,000 of their teachers indefinitely unemployed.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
The New Orleans public schools desperately need donations to buy school supplies, fund field trips, and replace equipment. For more information, log on to the public schools' Web site at nops.k12.la.us.