"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, August 07, 2006

ED and FEMA Vie for Incompetence Award in New Orleans

ED has been working overtime since Katrina last year to make sure that public education is wiped out by the same corrupt and malignant neglect that continues to discourage the return of the black population to New Orleans. This post from June offers some context, but the bottom line is that the wholesale firing of New Orleans teachers and the rush to have charters replace the public schools has left a chaotic mess that would even impress Brownie, one would think.

Here is a troubling sketch by Steve Ritea of the Times-Picayune:

Sunday, August 06, 2006
By Steve Ritea

Moton Charter Elementary School Principal Paulette Bruno sat at home on Wednesday, fielding calls from the parents of her 214 registered students, a group still waiting to hear whether they would have a place to start school this week.

With the Moton building devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the best that state education officials had been able to offer the new charter school was a set of trailers in the largely abandoned Gentilly Woods neighborhood, a far cry from Moton's 9th Ward campus near the former Desire public housing development. Bruno refused the trailers, wanting better for her students, and began eyeing St. Leo the Great, an abandoned but relatively undamaged Catholic school in a more populated part of Gentilly.

But last week, as she waited for state officials to finalize a lease for the school and feared further delays would upend Moton's unique year-round schedule, Bruno was a bundle of nerves. "It seems insurmountable, the things you have to go through," she said. "If a lot of people knew this beforehand, they might have given more thought to whether they wanted to go through this."

By Friday morning, Bruno said she still didn't know what to tell her students.

She isn't alone.

As the first of 57 New Orleans public schools begin opening tomorrow, state officials warn that parents and students are likely to face a messy first day. Many schools still aren't sure which buildings they will be in. A few schools don't know when they will be able to start classes. And dozens of others aren't certain whether the thousands of desks and books they've ordered will arrive in time for the first day.

Meanwhile, down-to-the-wire teacher hiring continues and many schools have yet to select janitorial and food service providers. Several schools won't offer busing for the first few weeks because many of the thousands of students expected have yet to register.

Seat of the pants

Although the resumption of classes should be relatively smooth for students returning to the 25 campuses that reopened last winter, many of the 32 schools preparing to welcome students back for the first time since Katrina are facing a seat-of-the-pants opening that some characterize in no uncertain terms.

"Nightmare" is fast becoming a favorite.

That said, optimism still abounds for what's to come after things settle down.

"The start of school is not the make-or-break decision point of how this goes," said Leslie Jacobs of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. "I have tremendous confidence the schools in New Orleans are going to be better this year. Are they going to be better in August and September? No. I think it's going to take the newly opened schools a couple of weeks or months to get their rhythm. But they will be better."

Recovery School District Superintendent Robin Jarvis said up to a dozen school buildings have run into construction delays, forcing a handful to push their projected opening dates back several weeks.

At Warren Easton Charter High School, the wait for a $100,000 mother board for the school's electrical service has delayed opening day from Aug. 15 to Sept. 7. The International School of Louisiana is also facing delays, as crews rush to repair floor and ceiling damage caused by years of neglect at its new home, the former Andrew Jackson Elementary School. At least three other buildings the Recovery School District was planning to open might have to remain closed for part or all of the coming school year.

"This is my life," Jarvis said.

FEMA, the whipping boy of choice among local officials since Katrina, is largely responsible for the delays, Jarvis said, because most school buildings were woefully underinsured and therefore largely reliant on federal assistance to cover the cost of repairs.

Unforeseen problems

Since November, when the Legislature voted to sweep 107 of 128 public schools into the state-run Recovery School District, officials have collected just $32 million in insurance proceeds and another $55 million of the $354 million pledged by FEMA toward repair of damages the federal agency estimates at $800 million.

Most of the FEMA money, however, can be used only to repair buildings too damaged to reopen in time for this school year, Jarvis said.

So far, Jarvis said, $56.5 million has been spent on repairs to schools opening this year, but many jobs have led to the discovery of unforeseen problems.

On Friday, for example, Recovery School District officials announced that five of the schools that students began registering for on July 10 -- Reed, Williams, Drew, Douglass and Booker T. Washington -- likely will not be opening Sept. 7 because problems at those buildings won't be fixed in time. Although Douglass' opening might be delayed just a week or two, Williams and Washington won't be able to open at all and students will be offered their second-choice schools. Decisions about Reed and Drew have yet to be made.

Several charter school organizations also have been scrambling after learning second-hand that buildings they were planning to use won't be ready in time.

Officials from the New Orleans Charter Schools Foundation, which had been planning to open one of its schools at McDonogh No. 28 Elementary, said a contractor late last week informed them of extensive termite damage. Playground equipment provided through a grant is expected to be delivered any day.

And even though the Recovery School District issued a news release on Monday announcing that McDonogh No. 42 Elementary would be opened by the Treme Charter Schools Association on Sept. 6, Jarvis said Wednesday that termite damage there could render the building unusable. Bernard H. Robertson, the Treme association's treasurer, said he learned of the problem from a reporter who called him Thursday.

Exasperated officials

Recovery School District officials say renovation problems are uncovered almost daily and they're doing their best to keep up, but many charter school officials say they've grown exasperated.

Robertson, whose association will open three schools in September, said if the district can't get their schools ready in time, his group will take the matter into its own hands.

"If we see they're not going to be able to get it done, then we've got to take it upon ourselves to get it done," he said.

A possible solution in many cases, Jarvis said, is for students and teachers to use parts of some schools while other sections are still under renovation.

At Cohen High, where a contractor doing mold remediation accidentally started a fire on the third floor by mixing chemicals improperly, students might be able to use the lower floors for classes, she said.

Two smaller schools could also share a larger building.

McNair Elementary, for example will house two upstart charter schools that each serve just a single grade this year, KIPP Believe College Preparatory and the Priestley School of Architecture and Construction.

But that assumes the building opens in time. It's "going to be a photo finish and come down to the wire," said KIPP Principal Adam Meinig, who held a mandatory summer session in July for 90 of his students at Tulane University. Recovery School District officials, meanwhile, say his school's opening might be delayed several weeks.

More irksome, Meinig said, was an e-mail the school's business manager received Monday night announcing that she needed to attend a training session in Baton Rouge that same week to learn how to use a student information system that will be shared by schools overseen by the Recovery School District. The short notice, he said, forced her to abandon another training conference she was attending.

Behind the eight ball

With his students due to return Aug. 21, Meinig said he also has asked when books, desks and other classroom furniture FEMA bought for the school will be arriving.

"No one knew," he said. "We're a little behind the eight ball on this when we knew way ahead of time things needed to get done. Why are we just answering these questions now?"

Jarvis said she is hopeful desks will arrive in time for their Sept. 7 opening, but offers no guarantees -- nor has she received any.

Meantime, she said, the Recovery School District has hired and placed 200 of the 400 teachers they anticipate needing in the 17 schools scheduled to open. Additional teachers will be hired before Sept. 7, but most likely as substitutes.

Even though the number of school district staff is based on student registration -- about 5,000 students have enrolled so far -- school officials realize that many parents are enrolling their children at more than one school, making first-day attendance nearly impossible to predict.

Because enrollment numbers won't solidify until classes begin, Jarvis said substitutes are the only way to have enough staff for the first day without over-hiring -- and then firing excess teachers.

"I would love to be fully staffed when we open Sept. 7, but in some cases I think we might have to use a sub until we find someone of the right quality or we might have slightly larger classes sizes, temporarily, in some cases," she said.

Jarvis is aiming for a student-teacher ratio of 20-to-1 in elementary schools and 25-to-1 in high schools.

Building renovations aside, Jarvis said some of the schools won't open if too few students turn up. "We won't open a school with just 30 students," she said; those students would be placed elsewhere.

For now, the 57 public schools projected to open in the next four weeks have space for 34,000 students. As of Friday, the Recovery School District planned to open 17 schools with space for 8,000 of those students.

The projections, made by the demography firm GCR and Associates for the state Department of Education, are based on a survey of 366 parents of students who attended public schools before Katrina but have not yet returned to the city. Raphael Rabalais, a senior planner with the firm, said 43 percent of those parents said they planned to return to New Orleans and enroll their children in public schools this year.

With nearly 60,000 public school students in the city before Katrina and 12,500 this past year, Rabalais is expecting the 43 percent return rate to yield an additional crop of slightly more than 30,000 students.

However many students show up, Jarvis promises problems that arise will be solved better and faster than they have been in the past, and state officials are finalizing contingency plans for every glitch they can imagine.

While many of her promises these days come with qualifiers, Jarvis said parents who have become used to stuffing bathroom tissue in their children's backpacks -- a familiar ritual for the first day of public schools in New Orleans -- can take solace in one unequivocal promise: The restrooms will be appropriately stocked.

"There will be no bringing toilet paper," she said.

. . . . . . .

For information about enrolling in RSD or other public schools in New Orleans, call (877) 453-2721.

Steve Ritea can be reached at sritea@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3396.

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