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Nine years ago, Hurricane Katrina demolished New Orleans. Its public schools were closed and the teachers placed on leave. But now a completely different school system unlike any other in the country has emerged. Nearly 100 percent of the city's schools are independently run, publicly funded charter schools. For school reformers in and outside New Orleans, this is either a promising model or a dangerous experiment. NPR's Claudio Sanchez filed this report from the city as a new school year gets underway.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Today is the first day of school at George Washington Carver Collegiate Academy. Principal Jerel Bryant hovers as school buses drop off kids all dressed in white polo shirts.
JEREL BRYANT: Tuck the shirt in, put - Amani - and put that away.
SANCHEZ: Necklaces, bracelets, watches with the wrong colored band must be kept out of sight. As for the first day's orientation it's a lesson in following the rules
BRYANT: Go ahead and take out your clipboards, put them on your desk in 10, nine - have them straight, right in the center.
SANCHEZ: Principal Bryant says this helps kids and his staff focus on an important question.
BRYANT: How do you keep the neediest kids in school and engaged?
SANCHEZ: Of all the new and different ideas that charter school proponents have thrown at this problem, one overriding philosophy has tied them all together - delivering public education in a totally new way.
KENNETH CAMPBELL: We really have proven that actually, you can run a school system without, you know, a big central administration kind of controlling everything.
SANCHEZ: Kenneth Campbell heads the Black Alliance for Educational Options, which strongly supports charter schools. Campbell says New Orleans is well on its way to becoming the first market-driven system in which schools compete and give parents lots of choices.
CAMPBELL: We believe that if we educate them, if we inform them, if we help them understand what quality looks like for their child, then we'll start to have parents who really can advocate for themselves and be empowered to make great decisions for their children.
SANCHEZ: Sounds good - test scores are up, but 80 percent of the school's charter schools are D and F schools - among the worst in Louisiana. David Cash, a high school teacher in New Orleans, says choice is an illusion. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We overstate the percentage of charter schools that received D or F grades from the state. Only about 20 percent of the charters in New Orleans get that grade. More than half get an A, B or a C. The rest are not graded.]
DAVID CASH: Parents are putting down first, second and third choices - they're not getting them.
SANCHEZ: Cash has lived in New Orleans for 21 years and taught in both charter schools and a traditional public school. Some, like physics teacher Davina Allen, fault the market-driven business model for encouraging competition, rather than collaboration among educators.
DAVINA ALLEN: It really puts a premium on superficial variables. So whether its test scores, etc. - and it sets up a situation where what's most important is how you look, because you're competing for students.
SANCHEZ: Allen was one of hundreds of teachers recruited by Teach For America - young men and women who arrived with high hopes of not just rebuilding, but improving the city schools - a task that even charter supporters like Kenneth Campbell can see is far from complete.
CAMPBELL: I don't think we've proven, yet, that we can educate all kids to a really high level.
SANCHEZ: It's not just because of the quality of schools - it's the concentration of poverty and its impact on children and learning. And yet, poor Black children in New Orleans, for the first time, are outpacing their peers statewide. Campbell says too many people still don't appreciate how extraordinary that is, and how much better schools are today overall, compared to schools before Katrina.
CAMPBELL: They were in, in many ways, an academic wasteland prior to Katrina, and it was just - there was no accountability. Nobody did anything. It was just year, after year, after year. And now I feel like through the changes that have been made, we have a lot of schools that are moving you know, in the right direction - that are providing the type of education that will make a difference in the lives of poor children in New Orleans.
SANCHEZ: Despite this progress, Campbell says reformers, most of them outsiders, haven't always conveyed their ideas in the right way.
CAMPBELL: There is a level of arrogance in the reform community that hurts us, right? I think there needs to be a lot more humbleness.
SANCHEZ: We know better.
CAMPBELL: Yeah, all of you all get out of the way, and let us come in and show you how this needs to be done. And that's offensive to people on some level - absolutely. People want to be helped but they don't want to be controlled.
SANCHEZ: So the question going forward is not are schools better than they were before Katrina? Rather, will they ever be good enough? Claudio Sanchez, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.