Two more elementary schools opened in New Orleans last week, ending a monthlong period during which education officials had kept 300 children on a waiting list to be placed in a school.
As residents of the city battered by Hurricane Katrina continue a steady return, opening schools and hiring qualified teachers and staff members have bedeviled education officials.
That four weeks passed—from Jan. 8 to Feb. 5—in which hundreds of students could not attend any of the public schools in Orleans Parish set off a firestorm of public outrage and prompted the filing of two federal lawsuits.
Two days after sending a letter to demand that all of the students be immediately enrolled, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and a local civil rights lawyer, Tracie L. Washington, filed separate lawsuits on behalf of parents whose children were turned away. The filings came a day after school officials promised immediate spots for every student on the waiting list.
The suits allege that the waiting list maintained by the state-run Recovery School District, the largest operator of public schools in post-Katrina New Orleans, broke state and federal laws. The suits also name other education officials with authority over public schools in New Orleans.
“It is a direct violation of federal law to deny homeless children immediate access to a public school, regardless of where they are staying and regardless of where the school is located,” Ms. Washington said. “These officials are obligated to put children in schools, no matter how overcrowded they are.”
Most children in New Orleans are living in trailers or temporary homes, qualifying them as homeless under federal law, Ms. Washington said.
Louisiana also requires all children between the ages of 7 and 17 to attend school—a law that the waiting list was forcing parents to violate, according to the lawsuits.
“What was going on was not only illegal, it was unconscionable,” said Damon T. Hewitt, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Difficulties and Delays
Recovery School District Superintendent Robin Jarvis said in an e-mail last week that the waiting list had been cleared of all elementary-age children when two elementary schools—McDonogh 42 and Rosenwald Elementary—opened on Feb. 5, the first day of the second semester.
Wait-listed high school students, she said, also had been allowed to start attending one of five high schools run by the Recovery School District. A sixth high school is tentatively scheduled to open later this month, she said.
In the e-mail, Ms. Jarvis said construction delays, difficulty hiring staff members, and a surge in new registrations after the holidays led to “capacity issues and a wait list.”
Since the storm nearly 18 months ago, three systems of public schools have emerged. The Recovery School District runs 20 schools with roughly 28,000 students. The Orleans Parish school board operates five schools, four of which have selective admissions policies. And 31 independent charter schools—some overseen by the state, others by the Orleans Parish board—have opened.
“Anecdotally, we have heard from parents who say they tried to enroll their children in charter schools and [Orleans Parish school board]-run schools, but were referred to us because we were still actively registering students,” Ms. Jarvis said.
Roughly 50 of the 300 students who had been on the waiting list were high school students.
One was Kathy Boisseau’s son, a 15-year-old freshman who had not been in school since before Christmas. Ms. Boisseau said she had gone to five high schools in early January after she and her son returned to the city from Memphis. When none would take him, she went to the Recovery School District headquarters, where officials put her son on the waiting list.
“He was out for more than two weeks, and it didn’t matter where I went to sign him up, the answer was, ‘We don’t have room,’ ” said Ms. Boisseau, one of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
On Feb. 5, after waiting four hours in a line at the Recovery School District headquarters, Ms. Boisseau enrolled her son at John McDonogh High School.
“It’s a huge relief, and now I can go back to work,” she said. “I still can’t believe what it took to get our kids in school. It felt like living in a Third World country.”
As families continue to come back to New Orleans, civil rights lawyers and advocates fear a repeat of the waiting list. Mr. Hewitt and Ms. Washington said they will pursue their lawsuits, even though the immediate problem may have been resolved.
“For them to simply say that they have registered those 300 children is insufficient,” said Mr. Hewitt. “There are going to continue to be children returning to the city every day. What is going to happen to them?”
Ms. Jarvis said last week that four to five more schools may open this semester. She also said the public schools run by other entities needed to “meet this challenge hand-in-hand, even if it means increasing student-teacher ratios and adding new classes in their schools.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Under Pressure, State Opens Two Schools in New Orleans