Kids Face Differing Realities In New Orleans Schools

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National Public Radio
By: Larry Abramson
August 24, 2010

For many children of New Orleans, their world was turned upside down five years ago when Katrina swept through the city.

Many had to leave home, and were shunted from one house and one school to another. Those who returned to the city found a school system that was in complete upheaval -- and is still undergoing major changes today.

A Misfit Becomes A Star

Donnell Bailey lives in a cozy little row house on St. Ann Street in New Orleans' Mid-City neighborhood. It is a world of doting women, from his grandmother to his aunt to his mother, Tracy, who is quick to give visitors a tour of the family photos that cover the coffee table.

The air conditioner battles the afternoon heat as Donnell sits down and tells me what happened in August 2005. He was 10 years old then, on a fast track to failure, like many kids in the city's corrupt, low-scoring school system. He was held back after failing a fourth-grade achievement test. Donnell admits he wasn't trying, but neither was the neighborhood school.

"I don't think I ever heard the word 'college' at that school," he says. "I'm being honest!"

All that changed after the storm. Donnell left the city with relatives before Katrina arrived and spent the rest of that school year in Houston. Just by chance, he ended up at a school set up in Houston by a national charter organization known as KIPP.

"When I first went to KIPP in the fifth grade in Houston, the first thing I learned was that I'm going to college in 2013," he says.

At first, Donnell struggled with the school's stern discipline, with the emphasis on achievement. He wrote a lot of apologies for his behavior. He'd act out, apologize, and then do it again. But for some reason, Donnell got himself out of this pattern. He bonded with his teachers and started to get some traction.

A year after Katrina, Donnell's family returned to New Orleans, and he ended up at McDonogh 15, a KIPP-run school in the French Quarter.

Teacher Nicole Cummins remembers that when she first met Donnell, he was pretty funny -- often too funny.

"He didn't quite have a harness on what is appropriate for the classroom," she says.

Donnell grins each time Cummins mentions his sense of humor. The air crackles with his bright, confident laugh.

Donnell realized that his impish sense of humor and his love of wordplay could get him attention without getting him in trouble. The misfit became a star. Donnell was elected class president, the same year that Barack Obama was elected to the White House.

"I just have to say he did take my spot as the country's first African-American president," Donnell wisecracks.

I suggest he could still be the first president from New Orleans, but that's not enough -- Donnell says he plans to be "the nation's first fully black president."

"Obama is half-and-half," he says. "I'm the total package."

A Grandson Whose Issues Are Neglected

Donnell might have succeeded even without Katrina. But it's hard to imagine. The storm led to the takeover of nearly all the city's schools, and it sparked a rush by charter school operators like KIPP.

They brought waves of idealistic young educators like Cummins, who opened new doors to kids like Donnell. But for many other families, Katrina and the new education landscape added new frustrations to old ones.

On the other side of town, Ronald McCoy and his wife, Eniel, are trying to get ink out their grandson's school uniform. She lays his pants on the kitchen counter and scrubs hard with a stain remover.

"He loves to work me," she says, with a mixture of frustration and affection. She and her husband know they will have to replace those pants if they can't get them clean. Kids must wear khakis at the school their grandson, John Baumbach, attends.

John is sitting at the dining room table. He has lived with his grandparents since he was a baby. The family says he has attention deficit disorder. John admits he has a hard time paying attention in school.

"It's just that sometimes I need extra help," John says. "Sometimes it's hard for me to get it. And sometimes I get off-track a lot, because I start tapping. 'Cause I can't stay in one spot, 'cause I start fidgeting."

John talks in a rapid-fire stream, and sure enough he fidgets the entire conversation.

John, 14, is a pretty child, slight with fine features, his hair in neat cornrows. On the wall of the family home, there's a huge portrait of Giani, John's uncle and Ronald's son. Giani was a football star, and the pride and joy of the family. He was shot to death in 2007, a victim of the city's high murder rate.

Ronald McCoy grimaces as he remembers the night he heard the news.

"And it wasn't intended for him," he says. "They was shooting at someone else, and the bullet struck him." He points to another picture: "That's his daughter ... that's the little girl he left behind."

The loss of the uncle he idolized is just one of the challenges John faces. Before the storm, he had behavior problems at the neighborhood school he attended. John evacuated to Morgan City, La., just before the storm, and says he liked his school there.

But when the family returned to New Orleans a year later, Ronald McCoy says John's old neighborhood school was suddenly full of security guards and metal detectors.

"And you go in other neighborhoods besides urban neighborhoods, and you don't go through this," McCoy insists.

This is a common complaint -- that the post-Katrina school system has relied too heavily on security guards and harsh discipline in the relentless quest to boost test scores.

The new school system is supposed to give parents choice -- a menu of charters, magnet schools and traditional public schools.

But Ronald McCoy says that everywhere they turn, his grandson John's issues are neglected. A KIPP charter school, like the one Donnell Bailey attended, recruited them. But they say John never got the individual attention they were promised.

Other parents complain that New Orleans schools have ignored special education issues like John's -- that led to a recent legal complaint by a civil rights group.

Samuel J. Green Charter is John's third school since Katrina. As he begins eighth grade, his future is uncertain.

John takes us into the hall of the school to show us its latest addition: The halls have narrow lines of tape along each side of the hallway. Kids must stay on the tape, even if it doubles the distance to the next classroom.

Ronald McCoy, who inspects schools for an activist group, shakes his head. "This walking the line?" he says. "I have been incarcerated, and that's where I learned about walking behind those lines and staying on the right-hand side of the wall."

Different Post-Katrina Realities

Donnell Bailey is just beginning his second year of high school. He's attending a private school in the suburbs.

Thanks to a strong recommendation from the KIPP school, he got into Metairie Park Country Day School, which helps to cover his tuition costs. He stands in line in the school's beautiful gymnasium, waiting to be issued a locker.

He's clearly comfortable here, chatting with friends, looking forward to his new role: Even though he's brand new to this mostly white private school, he was elected class president.

For Donnell, the post-Katrina reality is very cool, a brand new chapter in a young life. For many other children, it's the same old story.

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