NEW ORLEANS — The second-graders paraded to the Dumpster in the rear parking lot, where they chucked boxes of old work sheets, notebooks and other detritus into the trash, emptying their school for good.
Benjamin Banneker Elementary closed Wednesday as New Orleans’ Recovery School District permanently shuttered its last five traditional public schools this week.
With the start of the next school year, the Recovery School District will be the first in the country made up completely of public charter schools, a milestone for New Orleans and a grand experiment in urban education for the nation.
It has been two decades since the first public charter school opened in Minnesota, conceived as a laboratory where innovations could be tested before their introduction into public schools. Now, 42 states encourage charters as an alternative to conventional schools, and enrollment has been growing, particularly in cities. In the District of Columbia, for example, 44 percent of the city’s students attend charter schools.
But in New Orleans, under the Recovery School District, the Louisiana state agency that seized control of almost all public schools after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005, the traditional system has been swept away.
The creation of the country’s first all-charter school system has improved education for many children in New Orleans, but it also has severed ties to a community institution, the neighborhood school, and amplified concerns about racial equality and loss of parental control.
An all-charter district signals the dismantling of the central school bureaucracy and a shift of power to dozens of independent school operators, who will assume all the corresponding functions: the authority to hire and fire teachers and administrators, maintain buildings, run buses and provide services to special-needs students.
Of the Recovery School District’s 600 employees, 510 will be out of a job by week’s end. All 33,000 students in the district must apply for a seat at one of the 58 public charter schools, relying on a computerized lottery to determine placement.
Critics of the all-charter New Orleans model say it is undemocratic, because leaders of charter schools are not accountable to voters. They also say the system is challenging for parents, who have to figure out logistics that were not an issue when their children walked to neighborhood schools.
“They don’t answer to anyone,” said Sean Johnson, the dean of students at Banneker, whose father attended the school while growing up in the Black Pearl neighborhood. “The charters have money and want to make more money. They have their own boards, make their own rules, accept who they want and put out who they want to put out.”
Advocates say the all-charter model empowers parents.
“We’ve reinvented how schools run,” said Neerav Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans, which promotes and supports charter schools. He is leaving the organization to try to export the model to other cities. “If I am unhappy with service I’m getting in a school, I can pull my kid out and go to another school tomorrow. I don’t have to wait four years for an election cycle so I can vote for one member of a seven-member board that historically has been corrupt.”
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By most indicators, school quality and academic progress have improved in Katrina’s aftermath, although it’s difficult to make direct comparisons because the student population changed drastically after the hurricane, with thousands of students not returning.
Before the storm, the city’s graduation rate was 54.4 percent. In 2013, the rate for the Recovery School District was 77.6 percent. On average, 57 percent of students performed at grade level in math and reading in 2013, up from 23 percent in 2007, according to the state.
Opinion surveys show support for charter schools but unease about the shuttering of all traditional schools, with just 41 percent of New Orleans residents backing the idea in a poll commissioned by the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University in New Orleans. The changes also have been stirred racial tensions and claims of disenfranchisement.
“This is a depressed community,” said Karran Royal Harper, an activist who has been trying to block the school closings. “People here don’t really feel like they can coalesce and fight this.”
In affected neighborhoods, news that Banneker and the four other traditional schools were closing was greeted with shrugs from residents who have grown inured to upheaval since Katrina.
“It’s bittersweet, but what are you going to do?” asked Myra Jenkins, 31, as she picked up her 5-year-old twin boys from kindergarten at A.P. Tureaud Elementary, a school encircled in barbed wire. Built in 1939, the building’s art deco features are scarred and shattered. Inside, a handmade sign peeling off a door welcomes visitors but misspells the school’s name. The school received a “D” from Louisiana’s A-to-F grading system in 2013.
Some residents were disheartened to learn of its closing. “This don’t make no sense,” said Derrick Williams, 45, who walked his great niece to kindergarten on a recent day. “Me and my sister, the whole family, the whole neighborhood went to that school.”
A few miles away, 486 children attend the sparkling Akili Academy, a K-6 charter school. Akili, a “C” school, occupies the former William Franz Elementary School, in the Upper Ninth Ward, a building that underwent a $24 million restoration and expansion after Katrina. The school has a $250,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation, established by the family that founded Wal-Mart.
“This is the most exciting city in the country for education,” said Kate Mehok, the chief executive officer of Crescent City Schools, which operates Akili. She began her career with Teach for America and was a founding assistant principal at a KIPP charter school in Harlem. “Anytime you allow parents choice about where they can send their kids to school, it can only be good.”
When Katrina struck in 2005, the public schools in New Orleans were considered among the worst in the country. Just before the storm, the elected Orleans Parish School District was bankrupt and couldn’t account for about $71 million in federal money. There were just a few charter schools.
In the tumult after the hurricane, the state seized control of 102 of the city’s 117 schools — the worst performers — and created the appointed Recovery School District to oversee them, while letting the Orleans Parish School Board run the relatively few remaining.
The Recovery School District closed failing traditional schools or turned them over to charter operators, never intending to reconstruct a traditional school system, said Patrick Dobard, the superintendent.
“We’ve had a clear plan in place,” Dobard said. “We’re going to create a new legacy, a new memory. We don’t have to hold onto some of the things in the past that didn’t work.”
The recovery district is spending about $2 billion — much of it federal hurricane recovery money — to refurbish and build schools across the city, which are then leased to charter operators at no cost.
“The difference between now and pre-Katrina is that we’re replacing schools that are not performing well,” Dobard said. “We don’t let children languish in chronically poor performing neighborhood schools. It was a system of haves and have nots. We passed those times in New Orleans and I’m glad we left those behind us.”
After Katrina, the recovery district fired more than 7,000 employees — nearly all of them African American — while the charter schools hired scores of young teachers, many of them white recruits from Teach for America. The fired teachers sued for wrongful termination and won a judgment that could total more than $1 billion.
White students disproportionately attend the best charter schools, while the worst are almost exclusively populated by African American students. Activists in New Orleans joined with others in Detroit and Newark last month to file a federal civil rights complaint, alleging that the city’s best-performing schools have admissions policies that exclude African American children. Those schools are overseen by the separate Orleans Parish School Board, and they don’t participate in OneApp, the city’s centralized school enrollment lottery.
John White, the state’s superintendent of education, agreed that access to the best schools is not equal in New Orleans, but he said the state is prevented by law from interfering with the Orleans Parish School Board’s operations.
“The claim that there’s an imbalance is right on the money,” White said. “The idea that it’s associated with privilege and high outcomes is right on the money.”
Stan Smith, acting superintendent of the Orleans Parish schools, said his district’s charter schools have agreed to participate in the OneApp when their contracts are renewed, in two to 10 years from now.
The city’s conversion to charters promises the best outcome for the most students, White said. “These kinds of interventions are never easy things,” he said. “When you look at overall outcomes, they’ve been positive. Does it have collateral negative effects? Of course. But does it work generally for the better? Yes.”
At Banneker Elementary, Sharell Washington was absorbing the school closing.
“I’m sad. I like this school,” said Sharell, a bright-eyed 8-year-old who does not know where she will attend school in the fall. “I’ve been here since kindergarten, and I know a lot about this school. I have friends here. They always have my back.”