Some New Orleans Public Schools Hit By Katrina Open

Carrying a heavy book sack on his shoulders, 12-year-old Jermaine Gibson wasn't complaining a bit about the first day of classes Monday.

"The summer was boring. There was nothing to do. I'm glad to be back," Gibson said as he arrived at William J. Fischer Charter Elementary School on foot with two friends.

Fischer, one of the city's low-performing schools before Hurricane Katrina, was among eight public schools that reopened Monday, giving more than 4,000 students an early start on the school year and advancing a reform movement that blossomed after the storm devastated the city almost a year ago.

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A uniformed sailor from a nearby Navy support station blew "Reveille" on his trumpet near the school entrance as students and parents walked down freshly painted hallways adorned with colorful murals and saw the new computer lab.

More than 40 other public schools are scheduled to open by mid-September for an estimated 30,000 students in what is planned as a rebirth of one of the nation's worst school systems, which had about 60,000 students before the storm.

Classes were fairly small Monday, with only about a dozen or fewer students in each classroom, but Fischer spokesman David Grubb said he expects enrollment to climb in coming weeks.

"Some people just haven't come back yet," he said, of those who have not returned since the hurricane.

Potential problems abound for the school system. On Friday, for instance, state officials announced that one school won't meet its target opening date of Sept. 7 because of flooding caused by recent rainfall. Opening dates for several other schools are in question and state officials have acknowledged difficulties in finding enough teachers.

Understanding who runs each school almost requires a scorecard: A handful remain under the authority of the troubled Orleans Parish School Board. The board has voluntarily allowed some schools to be run as charter schools, which receive public money but operate independently. And it has been relieved of authority over more than 100 schools by the state Department of Education, which is running some of them itself and chartering others.

The various schools and governing entities also mean a variety of registration and starting dates, a source of confusion for parents.

There are no geographic requirements in the revamped public school system. Any student, living anywhere in the city, can register for any school on a first-come, first-served basis or by lottery, placing schools in competition for students and state funding, which is based on attendance.

During a registration seminar Saturday at the New Orleans Arena, Denise Cooper narrowed the choice for her 10-year-old son, Rahsaan, who is entering fifth grade, to two schools: a charter operated by the state or a restricted-admission school still operated by the Orleans Parish School Board.

Cooper wouldn't say whether she thought the new system was an improvement.

"I'm one of those people who wants to see how things work out," she said. "But I hope it will."

Leslie Jacobs, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, acknowledged there were still some problems but said she was thrilled with the transformation in the city's schools.

"This is huge," she said. "What's happening in New Orleans is turning into a national model on choice."

Proponents of the changes in the school say they have helped cut down on bureaucracy and the political fractiousness that plagued the board, and argue it would be hard for public schools here to get any worse.

Before Katrina, there was a long history of squabbling among board members. Mismanagement in the school district's offices resulted in criminal convictions and huge budget deficits. Buildings were in horrible shape, performance on standardized tests was poor and the school system was on the brink of financial collapse.