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New year, new school concepts in New Orleans

Katrina's devastation created an opportunity to reconceive a poor system. Charter schools, student input, hope – and controversy – are hallmarks of the one that's emerging.

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On his second day of school last week, seventh-grader Isaiah Simms started his music elective in a room where the shelves were still empty and the air-conditioning unit wasn't running yet to combat the soupy heat.

His sister Iesha had holes in her high school schedule that prompted her mother to shake her head and say, the way only a mother can, "I don't think they were ready."

At least Harriet Simms's children were in school. In the new landscape of public education in New Orleans, even the back-to-school kinks can be Katrina-sized. Some charter schools have pushed back their start dates, while state-operated schools are working up to the last minute to hire enough teachers and pass building inspections before their opening day, Sept. 7.

Amid the swirl of rebuilding, children like Isaiah are stepping forward to say what counts to them: They want to learn on pace with their peers around the country, and they want their environment – their buildings, their teachers, and even their food – to convey respect.

Many students in New Orleans say their schools were ravaged well before the storm, something they saw more clearly after spending months in other schools as evacuees. "There was a sign to wash your hands, but how can you wash your hands when you got no soap and you got rust coming out of the faucets?" says Isaiah of his former elementary school.

He made that point at a press conference last month conducted by a group of 10- to 16-year-olds. It was the culmination of a summer program known as Rethink, short for Kids Rethinking New Orleans' Schools. With the help of community sponsors, about 20 students used art, film, and writing to share their school stories from New Orleans and beyond. Now they are committed to a campaign to make sure students have a voice in the renewal of public education.

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