School Climate & Safety

Smooth Opening Is Job One in New Orleans

By Lesli A. Maxwell — September 04, 2007 4 min read
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Today is the first day of school for more than 13,000 children enrolled in the Recovery School District, the state-run system that took over most of this city’s public schools in the months after Hurricane Katrina hit two years ago.

It will be a homecoming of sorts for many students, who will be back in classrooms in their native city for the first time since the storm devastated New Orleans and scattered thousands of families across the country. And it will be a test for the new education leaders here, who have promised, at the very least, to avoid last year’s chaotic opening weeks by delivering well-equipped classrooms, ample numbers of teachers, hot lunches, and clean restrooms in the 34 schools the recovery district is running this academic year.

Monite Bell, right, waits her turn to see Monique Preaux, left, the Recovery School District deputy chief of staff, who was helping parents who requested different school placements for their children.

RSD officials have been scrambling for weeks to be ready. One of their biggest challenges—recruiting and hiring teachers—has been conquered.

“We are fully staffed and, in fact, we are at 130 percent,” Paul G. Vallas, the superintendent of the Recovery School District, said last week. “We were able to hire teachers who are more than warm bodies.”

But last Wednesday, just six days before opening day, there were still mini-crises to address and countless questions to answer.

What time would the high schools start? Would an elementary school in New Orleans East—one of seven modular campuses to open this year in the most wrecked neighborhoods in the city—pass the fire marshal’s inspection for occupancy? Were there enough volunteers to hang numbers on classroom doors at another modular campus? Had every teacher hired by the district received his or her class assignments?

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Last week, parents were continuing to line up inside the Recovery School District’s cramped headquarters in the Upper Ninth Ward to register their children—at a clip of 150 or so a day.

Inside the ‘War Room’

Hunkered down in a windowless “war room” at RSD headquarters, a half-dozen consultants and several district employees were balancing multiple variables as they made student assignments to each school: the capacity of the building, the proximity to children’s homes, whether students were new to the RSD or had been enrolled last year, parents’ school preferences, and a mandate to keep elementary class sizes capped at 20 students and high school classes at 25.

Elizabeth Jurgens of the Public Consulting Group, which was hired to help the RSD with enrollment and student-information issues, works on materials in the student-placement "war room" in New Orleans.

Those decisions were being made with skimpy student information. Large whiteboards mounted on walls inside the war room were scrawled with columns of numbers to remind the team which schools could still accommodate students and which ones were already full.

“It’s quite a complex challenge, especially because we are dealing with a situation where we have virtually no student records,” said Jim Flanagan, the leader of a team from the Boston-based Public Consulting Group, which was hired to manage the recovery district’s enrollment and to oversee the assembling of a new student-information system.

Katrina destroyed most of the old school system’s student records. And last year, attempts to implement a new student-information system never got off the ground, Mr. Flanagan said. His team was helping the RSD set up a new system like the one used by most other districts in Louisiana. And it had promised to do so within 60 days, for a process Mr. Flanagan said would usually take at least one year to complete.

Alice Snow-Robinson, center, of a Boston consulting firm, delivers placement and registration information to Darrell Sims, right, and Charles Allen, both Recovery School District accountants. They were part of a team working at the state-run district's headquarters to input student information into a database.

“It really is an unprecedented situation,” he said. “In many cases, we don’t even know for sure which grade a student should be in.”

As much as it could, the team was assigning students to schools based on their parents’ stated preferences—in keeping with the post-Katrina era of citywide open enrollment in RSD-operated schools. But the overriding considerations were proximity and the small class sizes that Mr. Vallas had ordered.

So for most parents who were enrolling their children in the RSD for the first time, only the roughly 20 new schools opening this year were among their choices.

Seeing an Opening

Paul G. Vallas, the superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District, talks to his chief of staff about adding new 6th and 8th grade classrooms at Murray Henderson Elementary School on New Orleans' West Bank.

Out at the school sites, principals were coping with their own last-minute issues.

Mr. Vallas, a veteran urban superintendent who took over the RSD in June, dropped by Murray Henderson Elementary School on the city’s West Bank last Wednesday to check on Beverly Johnson-Jelks, the principal. A longtime principal in New Orleans, Ms. Johnson-Jelks ran Henderson for the RSD last year.

Her biggest wish: Getting locks on Henderson Elementary’s doors so that she would no longer need a 24-hour security presence. Her other priority: finding class assignments for two teachers.

Beverly Johnson-Jelks, the principal at Henderson Elementary, walks with Mr. Vallas as he tours the school the week before the school was scheduled to open to students.

“I’ve got room for another 6th grade and another 8th grade; otherwise, I’m going to lose those two teachers,” she told Mr. Vallas.

“And you can still keep the ratios at 20 to 1?” he asked her before dialing his chief of staff, Kelvin Adams. She assured him that she could.

“Kelvin,” said Mr. Vallas, shouting into his silver Motorola Q cellphone, “we’ve got room for 6th graders and 8th graders at Henderson. Tell the war room.”

Coverage of public education in New Orleans is underwritten by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

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