New Orleans Parents Shop for Public Schools

Published October 1, 2006

More than 100 parents, some with children in tow, browsed dozens of booths at the New Orleans Arena on August 5 in an exercise only an upheaval such as Hurricane Katrina might have created. They were shopping for public schools, viewing various schools’ offerings as a grocery shopper might inspect melons.

In the wreckage left by Katrina’s wind and water, public education in New Orleans looks entirely different in some ways, one year later.

The old geographic boundaries that once automatically assigned students to particular schools are gone, and the schools have been reorganized in a bewildering new landscape.

There now are three types of schools: those managed by the Orleans Parish School Board–a few; new charter schools managed by independent groups–more; and state-run schools managed by a new Recovery School District–the most.

So on Saturday dozens of schools set up booths in the arena to promote themselves like book publishers at a librarians’ convention.

Wide Variety

Benjamin Franklin High School, a new charter, and McDonogh No. 35 High School, a traditional public school, were there. So were the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School for Science and Technology in the 8th Ward, the Priestley School for Architecture and Construction in Carrollton, and Einstein Charter School in eastern New Orleans–all new charters.

In the city’s confusing new educational world, some schools, such as charter schools in Algiers, [opened] as early as August 7. Other schools [opened] in mid-August, and others after Labor Day.

When the last students are seated in class, about 27,000 students are expected to be enrolled in 56 public schools, compared with about 60,000 in 128 schools before the storm, said Robin Jarvis, acting superintendent of the recovery district.

Educators in all the formats have been trying to help parents navigate the new system. For weeks, they have staged events inviting parents to get involved in choosing schools and registering their children at them.

Whether it was because those efforts already have worked, or because many parents still don’t understand the new educational landscape, only a few hundred showed up for Saturday’s event–instead of the several thousand Orleans Parish School Board member Phyllis Landrieu had thought the event might draw.

They were entertained by the McDonogh 35 marching band and given pep talks by Landrieu, acting Orleans schools Superintendent Darryl Kilbert, and others–all pledging to work cooperatively in the fractured landscape and promising success in the classrooms.

Involved Parents

Meantime, parents at the arena were on a variety of missions.

Some, like Patricia New, who hoped to get her 7-year-old, Donnesha, into second grade at Milestone/SABIS, a charter school, were trying to straighten out paperwork snags.

Pamela Morgan was looking for an alternative to Warren Easton, now a selective-admission charter high school, for her 14-year-old son, Terrance. He preferred Easton, but it appeared to be full. Morgan said it seemed to her the schools advertising themselves at the fair might be a cut above the rest, so she wanted to browse them in search of an opportunity.

Shawn and Shanda Terrell were trying to find a good kindergarten for their 5-year-old, Vaughn. The Terrells live in Algiers, but nearby Alice Harte Elementary appears to be filled, so they came to the open house to look for alternatives.

Terrell said she liked what she saw of Medard H. Nelson Charter School, a school managed by the University of New Orleans that expects to enroll about 300 students.

The people at the Nelson booth couldn’t have been nicer, answering every question with an eagerness that gave her a good feeling, she said. Moreover, “it’s got small classes; it’s diverse.”

Some Anxiety

But there was angst and uncertainty on the floor, too–a reminder that for many families, finding a school for a child is only part of restoring a sense of normalcy after Katrina.

Christine Lyons, a language instructor at Tulane University before the storm, pored over a pamphlet extolling the virtues of the New Orleans Free Elementary School for her son, Zachary.

“I’m shopping,” she said.

The difficulty was that Zachary on Saturday was in Amherst, Massachusetts and hoping to remain there for another year of school, even as his mother ached to find a way to return permanently to New Orleans.

“The schools up there are so good, and the people are kind and so PC it’s unbelievable. But I don’t know. My heart is so with New Orleans,” she said.

This story originally appeared in the August 6 edition of The Times-Picayune and is reprinted with permission.