Sunday, November 06, 2005

In New Orleans, Doors Start to Open at Catholic Schools

Maybe a tiny bit of good will come from Katrina...
The public system in New Orleans has long been among the most abysmal in the nation, plagued by bad management, low test scores and corruption. (The Federal Bureau of Investigations and other agencies actually set up an investigative office in the school system headquarters last year.)

Even before the hurricane, the system was all but bankrupt, and the state had forced the school board to hire an outside consultant from New York City to run its financial affairs after the board could not account for $70 million in federal aid. The consultant discovered that the system was in such a shambles that no one knew how many workers it had.

Hurricane Katrina has deepened the disarray. City and state officials have feuded for weeks over control, while schools have remained closed even in relatively unscathed areas of the city. Two public schools are padlocked a few blocks from St. Joan of Arc in the Carrollton neighborhood, though they suffered little if any serious damage.

The collapse of the public system, though, has a silver lining: it is offering reformers an unusual opportunity to reshape the city's schools.

In recent weeks, the school board, which has long been embroiled in conflict, has agreed to turn 20 or so public schools into charter schools, including 13 in the Algiers neighborhood, which was among the least damaged in the city.

Under the plan, the schools would remain in the public system but be largely independent from the board and able to pursue their own educational visions. One school is to based on the Montessori model; others are to be operated in cooperation with local universities. The schools in Algiers are hoping to open by the end of the month.

On Thursday, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said she would ask the Legislature, in its special session beginning Sunday night, to authorize a state takeover of most of the city schools, turning many of them into charter schools and leaving the city board with little authority.

Governor Blanco hailed "the historic opportunity that we have now to start anew."

The state would oversee any New Orleans school performing below the state average; 102 of the 117 schools in the system are in that category, officials said.

The Rev. Torin Sanders, president of the city school board, which is independently elected, had opposed charter schools. But he said on Friday that he welcomed the governor's proposal, though he did not offer outright support. Mr. Sanders cautioned that charter schools were not a "panacea or a magic bullet."

But Mr. Sanders, who attended public schools in the Bronx, also voiced optimism about the system. "Katrina has done more than any of us were able to do in terms of wiping the slate clean," he said.

In New Orleans, Doors Start to Open at Catholic Schools
Published: November 6, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Nov. 5 - In a neighborhood where they once seemed banished, as if in a fairy tale, children returned this week to a Catholic school in a squat brick building. And for a little while, it was possible to forget about those cursed levees and the crumpled houses and the harrowing evacuations and all the rest...

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