As students have returned to Alice M. Harte Elementary School here over the past month, they’ve found their old school far from the way they left it on the last school day before Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the city.
The building may look much the same as it did on Aug. 26, but half the faces here are new—from principals to teachers to students. The possessions of classmates and teachers who have not returned are bagged and in storage, waiting for them to come back to New Orleans, if and when they do.
Located in the Algiers section on the city’s west bank, which was the first section of the city to be reopened to residents because it was spared the flooding caused by the city’s broken levees, the school is now a part of the recently launched Algiers charter school system, considered a possible model of things to come for the city’s schools.
In November, the Louisiana legislature passed a bill allowing the state to take control of 102 of the 117 public schools in New Orleans, and most of the schools that will be reopened are expected to be charters. As of this week, 17 public schools will have opened in New Orleans, 15 of which are charters.
Last week, the education steering committee of Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s Bring Back New Orleans Commission unanimously endorsed a plan designed to get the city’s schools back on their feet with networks of schools rather than a big bureaucracy. (“New Orleans Panel Rethinks School System,” Jan. 11, 2006.)
The Algiers charters—three K-8 and two high schools that have enrolled some 2,400 students from across the city—could be called a system of schools, rather than a school system, according to Brian Riedlinger, the interim director of the Algiers Charter School Association, the private nonprofit group that holds the charter awarded by the district school board.
Unlike most school systems, where superintendents and school boards make a majority of the decisions, principals in Algiers have control over the hiring and retaining of staff members, and a great deal of control over scheduling and curriculum. Eventually, though not in the first year, they will manage their schools’ budgets.
“[Being principals at charter schools] gives us much more autonomy to make the choices for our students that we think are best for our students,” Mary Laurie, the principal of O. Perry Walker High School, said about herself and her colleagues in Algiers.
A seven-member school board, which originally consisted of the seven members of the New Orleans school board, oversees the Algiers system. By the end of the month, however, a five-person nominating committee of board members and nonmembers is expected to choose replacements for six of the district board members on the Algiers panel.
Three administrators currently work in the charter school association’s central office, a number that Mr. Riedlinger does not expect to increase by much.
Mr. Riedlinger explained that its goal is to create strong and independent schools that grow and flourish on their own. “If I do my job well, conceivably I won’t have a job in five years,” he said.
The Algiers leaders also are relieved to free themselves of what their charter application described as an unwieldy administrative system. “[T]he Orleans Parish school system policies currently consist of over a one-foot-thick set of documents that have not been reviewed for consistency and necessity in the past 20 years,” they wrote.
Administrators, teachers, and parents have long complained about the district’s burdensome and slow-moving bureaucracy, as well as the generally low academic achievement in its schools.
“What we know is that a large district moves like a Titanic,” said Mr. Riedlinger.
By contrast, several Algiers principals and administrators described setting up their system as more like “building a plane in midair.”
The idea of creating a system of charter schools in Algiers was already in the works before Hurricane Katrina, but the opportunity to rebuild the troubled New Orleans district after the storm quickly speeded up the process. Last school year, the New Orleans district enrolled 56,000 students, and the new school year had just begun when Hurricane Katrina hit the city in late August, displacing thousands of students and their families.
Algiers schools officially opened their doors to students on Dec. 14, 3½ half months after Hurricane Katrina, though the system was not yet able to offer a variety of services. Special education classes began Jan. 3, pre-K programs began on Jan. 9, and after-school programs were scheduled to start Jan. 17.
Many details such as bus routes, lunch schedules, and athletics programs either have been worked out over the past month or will continue to be worked out as the school year progresses.
As is the case in most schools in the New Orleans area, every day brings new students. Enrollment gains require new teachers, new classrooms, and new bus lines, and eventually will require new schools.
All of the 13 schools in the Algiers neighborhood are now a part of the charter school association and will be opened as necessary. Only one school, Harte Elementary, has reached capacity so far.
Beryl Williams, the mother of a 1st grader at Harte, is happy that her daughter is enrolled, regardless of the system’s process for opening schools.
“The kids just really need to go to school,” she said.
The New Orleans school board approved the charter status of the Algiers Charter School Association in October, and the association hired Mr. Riedlinger, who is also the president and chief executive officer of the School Leadership Center of Greater New Orleans, to lead the Algiers system in early November. His contract runs through March, and he is not sure what he will do at that point. He is still managing the SLC, which provides leadership training for principals and administrators in the New Orleans area.
“I want to see what the new [Algiers] board looks like and how things play out,” Mr. Riedlinger said. “I like what I’m doing [in Algiers], but I also like my other job.”
Mr. Riedlinger and the board selected the system’s five principals and three assistant principals from a pool of 30 candidates. Though only one principal, John Hiser of Edna Karr Senior High School, was rehired to lead his school, all had previously been principals in New Orleans or nearby districts.
Six hundred people, who ranged from certified teachers to a baker, applied for the roughly 150 teaching positions in the Algiers system. After a 10-minute interview with each applicant, 250 were called back.
The applicants were then asked to write a one-paragraph statement about teaching, which was graded by a college professor, and answer five 8th grade mathematics problems. According to Mr. Riedlinger, 30 of the applicants failed the test.
Catherine Peters, a 12th grade English teacher who has worked at Walker High for 32 years, at first thought the test seemed unnecessary.
“I was looking at it from the point of view that I had been in the system and was certified,” she said.
Nicole Jackson, a 9th grade English teacher at Walker who taught in the New Orleans district before Hurricane Katrina, was also surprised by the test, but acknowledged, as did Ms. Peters, that some criteria had to be used to select teachers for the coveted jobs.
“I don’t think anyone wanted to see anyone unemployed,” Ms. Jackson said. “But they wanted to get the best people in a short amount of time.”
The lack of a teachers’ union in the charter system bothers Ms. Jackson much more than the selection process, she said. Without a union to negotiate for teachers, she said, “once the [charter school association] hands down a decision, that’s the way it is.”
‘Everybody Is Nervous’
Even Henry Shepard, the principal at Harte Elementary School, is uncomfortable with being able to decide who comes and goes at his school.
“I don’t like being the one that picks teachers,” he said. “I think it should be a committee, that I’m part of, [that picks].”
Mr. Shepard added that “getting across the notion that we are different, that we are Alice Harte in name only,” to teachers, parents, students, and the community, has been one of his biggest challenges since taking over in late November.
Many parents, meanwhile, given their history with the New Orleans district, are taking a wait-and-see approach to the charter idea.
“Everybody is just nervous about what’s going to happen,” said Erin Edmonson, whose 3rd grade son attends Harte.
Helene Blank, the mother of a 5th grader at Harte, echoed her sentiments.
“Not knowing all the details involved with charter schools has us concerned,” she said earlier this month, referring to her family. “But from all outward indications at this time, they are willing to work with us, and that’s a little bit of a refreshing element.”
As for the staff and administration of the Algiers Charter School Association, the excitement about the new system is palpable. Despite their determination, Mr. Riedlinger and his staff say they do not expect miracles, but slow, steady, and consistent progress in their schools.
“We have this opportunity, and if we don’t make it work, shame on us,” said Kevin Guitterrez, the curriculum manager for the association.
“The enthusiasm and camaraderie is intoxicating,” said Shannon Sanders, a 6th grade teacher at Harte.
The difference between working for a charter school and working for the New Orleans district, she said, is that “you’re here because you want to be here, and not just here for life.”