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Monday, August 21, 2006

Making a bad situation worse

Lee Celano for The New York Times
A Louisiana Department of Education employee,
right, explaining registration rules to parents on
Friday at Clark High School in New Orleans.

Rough Start for Effort to Remake Faltering New Orleans Schools

Published: August 21, 2006

NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 20 — On Debra Smith’s third attempt to enroll her younger sister in a public high school here last week, patience evaporated. For the student, disappointment turned into tears.

Ms. Smith said the school her sister, now a 10th grader, attended before Hurricane Katrina — one of just five the city is still operating — turned her away because of poor grades. Two other options were full.

“Why am I still sitting here begging to get a child into school?” Ms. Smith asked at a registration center teeming with confused and angry parents. Many saw their schools disappear with the storm, replaced by a small but labyrinthine system of state, city and charter-operated schools, each with its own rules, applications and starting dates.

“Why should I think the schools are going to be any better if they can’t handle the registration process?” she asked. “Where’s the space for these kids?”

For parents throughout the city, the first post-storm back-to-school season is having an inauspicious start. But it is perhaps most chaotic for those relying on a new state effort to rescue dozens of city schools that were a disaster even before Hurricane Katrina. The storm offered one of the worst school districts in the nation an opportunity for rebirth in the Recovery School District, state officials said.

The Recovery District, which was created in 2003, included five schools before the hurricane. But the district really began to take shape when the state took over 107 of the city’s worst-performing schools shortly after the storm. The Louisiana Department of Education had already considered the city school district to be in “academic crisis,” but after the hurricane, the district neared collapse. The state’s goal was to help the schools meet national performance standards and match the state graduation rate, among other things.

“The mission of the R.S.D. is to create a world-class public education system in New Orleans, in which every decision focuses on the best interests of the children,” the state’s promotional literature said.

Those lofty goals are at risk now because of a late start to planning for the school year. Well into the summer, it was still unclear how many schools would be chartered and how many teachers and classrooms would be needed. In addition, more students returned to New Orleans than state officials had expected.

The state began interviewing and hiring the hundreds of teachers needed for its Recovery schools only about a month ago. It has about 60 percent of the teachers it will need on Sept. 7, when 8,000 students are expected for the first day of school.

Compounding the problem, the district, with 17 schools, has only 10 administrative staff members, and they are not yet working in permanent offices. In addition, the district has said that at least one storm-damaged school building will not be ready before classes begin, and others face the same risk.

“It’s going to be a challenging year,” said Siona LaFrance, the district’s communications director. Ms. LaFrance added, though, that the district had just signed a lease for office space and that it would be hiring more staff members. She said the district hoped to avoid recreating the bloated bureaucracy of the old school district.

Still, the shaky start has deflated some of the optimism many residents had when they heard about the state taking over schools that the city had mismanaged over the years. It is particularly worrisome to those who are depending on the schools.

“That’s hurting to your heart when a child says, ‘Mama, I want to go to school,’ and you can’t find one,” said Yvonne Thompson, who is raising a 14-year-old granddaughter who needs special-education classes. Standing outside a registration center, Ms. Thompson added, “I don’t understand what’s going on.”

posted by Steve @ 1:13:00 AM

1:13:00 AM

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