Charter Schools Rise in New Orleans After Hurricane Katrina

New Orleans is the first major city in the nation with the majority of its students in charter schools.

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Today, the district runs only slightly under its much-reduced capacity, with about 37,000 students. "There is some competition and animosity and a fear that schools are trying to put each other out of business. And that fear is not all false," says Thelma French, an administrator with the Orleans Parish School Board.

As of June 2007, the population of New Orleans was 76.4 percent of its pre-Katrina level, according to the New Orleans Index, which monitors the social and economic recovery of the Gulf Coast. Meanwhile, although combined public- and private-school enrollment reached 78 percent of pre-Katrina lev­els by spring 2009, growth in school enrollment has slowed, in­creasing by only 3,800, compared with 7,513 in the previous year. And in September, only four charters opened, compared with eight the previous year. "In New Orleans, we are pretty much at our saturation point," says Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Char­ter Schools, a New Orleans-based lobbying group. "Now is the time for these charters to perform or be closed down."

For some, it was a struggle just to open. This summer at New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit group that works to launch and support new charter schools, St. Claire Adriaan and Niloy Gangopadhyay were hustling to enroll enough students to launch Success Preparatory Academy. Their budget and model required 224 students, and with just two months to go, the school's co­founders still had little more than the 79 kindergartners and first and second graders they inher­ited from the former Albert Wicker Elementary, a poorly per­forming school being phased out by the state. In the end, they man­aged to sign up more than enough students—237—thanks to relentless and innovative recruiting, which included setting up outside the downtown Wal-Mart for five hours a day for nine weeks in T-shirts that read, "The question is not if your child is going to college but where?"

And the recruiter's need for creativity doesn't necessari­ly end when a child is signed up. During a June visit to the home of Will Etheridge and Virgie Celius, parents of three girls on the roster at George Washington Carver Elementary, where Benjamin E. Mays Preparatory School would take over, Principal Duke Bradley III gave his sales pitch. Etheridge and Celius, raising 10 kids on an income of $500 a week, were happy with promises to put their daughters on the college track and agreed to the strict uniform and parental involvement Mays requires.

But they almost didn't stick with Mays because of confusion over the system. A month after Bradley's visit, landlord woes led Etheridge to pack up his family and move 20 minutes away. He assumed his kids would not be allowed to go to Mays any­more. The school noticed something was amiss when mail to the Etheridge address was returned. "I went over to their house, and they were packed up and nobody was there," Bradley says. He quickly got in touch with Celius, who said her husband happened to be at Mays picking up a report card. "I hurried back to the school and was able to catch him, and I said, 'Don't worry about it, we'll do what we have to do.' "

Other parents simply stumble upon the answer. At the only school left standing by Katrina in Terri Gibson's neighbor­hood in the Lower Ninth Ward—a public one—her storm-traumatized son Zion started misbehaving and failed second grade. She says her prayers were answered when she spotted a poster for Andrew H. Wilson Charter School. It portrayed smiling children and the slogan "Yes, we label our students," along with their future occupations—astronaut, teacher, doc­tor, and president. "It looked like a little cute castle," says Gibson. "I met the principal, I met the teachers, and it was a godsend to me."

That it was serendipity that sent her in Wilson's direction, not a calculated choice, would not be music to the ears of char­ter school leaders. Especially those publicly touting statistics and research in school choice while privately spending con­siderable chunks of their budgets on the voodoo of clever ad­vertising—hoping to snag one more customer.