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New Orleans has become the center of an education revolution, where more than 70 percent of students attend a charter school.
The number of students taught in traditional district-run schools is shrinking fast. That's because parents in post-Hurricane Katrina can pick and choose from a smorgasbord of schools with different approaches and cultures.
By many measures, this educational marketplace has improved student achievement. But as this experiment moves ahead, it's led to questions about whether the district is truly open to the most challenging students.
One Family's Story
When Kelly Fisher and her family moved to New Orleans in 2009, they expected her son Noah would need the same kind intensive help that he got at his old school in Indiana. Noah, who's 10, is blind, autistic and has a variety of developmental delays.
For help in finding the right school, they turned to the Recovery School District (RSD), the state-run agency that is the closest thing New Orleans has to a traditional district.
"Because I came from a traditional program, I thought, 'Oh, that's my local special ed coordinator. That's the person who knows what's in the city and can direct me toward the schools that would be best for Noah," Fisher says.
But Kelly and her husband, Bob, say that New Orleans' open choice system left them totally on their own when it came to finding a school for Noah. In theory, New Orleans parents can choose from any school, whether it's a charter or one run directly by the RSD. But most schools are charters, and the best charters are full.
So the Fishers ended up on waiting lists. Bob Fisher says that the central district seemed powerless. "The director was just scrambling around, making phone calls. Actually, he says, at one point he remembers she ran out in the hallway, grabbed someone and said, 'Hey, do you have an opening at your school?'"
The Fishers say they kept looking for a school that could help Noah. Finally, they ended up at Lafayette Academy, a charter school. Lafayette is housed in a former district school building not far from where the family lives, in the Mid-City neighborhood.
At Lafayette, the Fishers say, Noah has the help he needs: He has a full-time aide named Daniel Thomas.
The Fishers suspect that other schools simply did not want to spend the money needed to hire an aide and were not interested in accommodating Noah. Lafayette Principal Mickey Landry admits that it is challenging for any school to cover the costs of special ed resources.
"The state tops out its financing for special needs students at about $18,000 a year. But some students cost us significantly more than that — sometimes as much as $40,000," Landry says.
A Class-Action Suit
Landry says that through clever budgeting, he simply found a way to give Noah the support he needs. According to many parents, other schools do not work as hard to follow the law, which says all schools must be open to all students. The Fishers have joined a class-action lawsuit, charging that the New Orleans school system excludes special-needs students.
Eden Heilman, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, is suing the Louisiana Department of Education, which set up the post-Hurricane Katrina school system. "The state kind of abandoned their responsibilities to students with disabilities in New Orleans," Heilman says.
Superintendent John White admits that there have been problems. But he insists that things are improving. White, who just took over as superintendent for the RSD a few months ago, points out that test scores for special education have improved dramatically since Katrina, and that these children were terribly neglected before the storm. But, he admits, those scores are still much lower than they should be. White says it can be tough for his agency to oversee a system of independent schools.
He is putting a series of reforms in place that are supposed to show whether some schools are experiencing high turnover because they are turning students away. He's also implementing a systemwide application process so parents don't have to search for an open spot among the city's schools.
'Be A Part Of This With Us'
Many educators in New Orleans say that the parents' complaints ignore the other side of this unique education system: the creativity that charters have brought.
At the KIPP New Orleans Leadership Primary School in the city's French Quarter, the special ed enrollment is about 9 percent, similar to the city average. KIPP has posted some of the most impressive gains in the city. The school says its mission includes kids like Benjamin Camp, who's 8.
Benjamin is sweet, but he has had behavior problems for years and was recently diagnosed with autism. His grandmother, Carmella Camp, says some nursery schools turned Benjamin away as too challenging. But this charter school never suggested he go elsewhere.
"Never, never, never, ever! Still haven't heard it," Camp says.
But KIPP has also faced charges that it pushes some students out. The school has a firm discipline policy that can be tough for some students to follow. Families must agree to a "commitment to excellence," which includes getting their kids to school on time and becoming part of the education process.
Rhonda Aluise, executive director of KIPP New Orleans, insists this approach doesn't exclude anyone. "So there is not this requirement, or, 'If you come to KIPP you must do this.' This is, 'Here's our vision for what a school can do. Come be a part of this with us," Aluise says.
Still, this is a promise that traditional public schools seldom require.
Beyond New Orleans
The stories of the 10 families in this suit raise questions that go well beyond New Orleans.
Detroit is using New Orleans as a model for reform. That system has moved to citywide school choice and hopes to open dozens of charters. Many Detroit teachers have reacted like Ivy Bailey, who spoke to NPR this summer.
"As a public institution, we take any and every child. We know children learn at different levels. But charter schools, they can pick who they can take," Bailey says.
Whatever happens with the New Orleans lawsuit, charter groups will have to wrestle with a continuing perception they are not open to all.