Thursday, July 19, 2012

Nightmares in New Orleans: When the Children Suffer the Failures of Administration, Or, On the Current State of the Orleans Parish Recovery School District (RSD)

In March of this year, I concluded that it was time to make a very big decision, one I had been contemplating for more than a decade: a move to New Orleans. I waffled on it for a while, uncertain whether it would be beneficial for my children, or for my businesses. Weighing the benefits against the drawbacks, I finally decided that ultimately, this would be a good move to make--in the best interests of family, business, and as regarded cultural enrichment and activities. Our previous town did not have much to offer in terms of culture or things to do, and the county is the poorest per capita in its state. The fact that my company had just reduced everyone's salaries by 20% and my rent had increased also helped my decision. I had a tax return coming in soon--I had the confirmed date when it would arrive--and when the time was right, anticipating the flow of funds, I made the move.

The move itself was fraught with difficulty over the course of about 3 weeks, which is ultimately neither here nor there in regards to this post. The tax return did not come after all--or at all. Working around that difficulty was more harrowing than should be explored here. Suffice to say that, after settling in, things calmed down, began to flow, and a certain and welcome order and harmony began to thread through our lives. Save for one crucial area: getting my daughter, an eighth grader, enrolled in school in New Orleans.

In our home state, as I believe is the case in most states, children are assigned to a school based on their residence. I was not aware if school assignment was done any other way. Why would it be? Before moving, I researched middle schools and K-8 schools near to where we would be living. As it turns out, there are no schools on our side of the river within our parish (Orleans) that include 8th grade, which my daughter was in when we moved. So she would likely attend school on the other side of the river. While not an ideal situation, I didn't balk at the idea. I understood that many schools post-Katrina had consolidated and that some had closed their doors indefinitely.

The day after we arrived in New Orleans, our things still in storage awaiting the influx of funds that would allow us to transport them here, I gathered my daughter's withdrawal paperwork from her old school, and took it to the school nearest our new home that accommodated the 8th grade. This school informed me that they were a charter school, and had no places open so late in the year, but that she could apply to a charter school the following year. They handed me an application, but offered no further information.

I still need to enroll her in school, I said. How do I do that? I was given a phone number to call, and happy to have a place to start, my daughter and I walked back to the car, where I would call the number, obtain the necessary information, and visit to the school or office to register her. I was excited, as was she; the move had been difficult for both of us and was still not over, our things still waiting in Florida; school represented not only a necessity, but also a source of much-needed stabilization that would place her back into a sort of routine.

Let me pause a moment to explain something. New Orleans has what is called the RSD, or the Recovery School District. This system was implemented to transform struggling schools into achieving schools, and resulted in the creation of a great many charter schools. My son, in elementary school in New Orleans, attends one such charter school, an arts academy. His father has lived in New Orleans for a few years, and so I sent him ahead of my daughter and I to get enrolled earlier in the year. He seemed to have entered as a new student without much trouble. The passion for developing young minds is evident in the principal and teachers, and I could not be happier with the quality of his education or the enriching and diverse curriculum.

Back at the car, I dialed the number I was given. The line was busy. I dialed again. Still busy. Again. And again. Why would it be constantly busy? I would try again later. In the meantime, I called other schools, which I found on my cell phone. Most were charter, and therefore not options for my daughter so late in the year. Where should I start? I tried the RSD number several more times, but with no luck. I searched again for a school locator, which would have been helpful were she in elementary or high school, or were I searching for a private school. I fruitlessly tried the RSD number again. Reaching a sort of minor desperation, I called a local elementary school that appeared to be not a charter school, but a public school. Someone answered. We're new to the area, I explained. Where do I start? This time, I was directed to call an RSD parent center.

The Recovery School District, or RSD, was formed in 2005 following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. I learned that L.B. Landry High School, which housed one of several parent centers in Orleans Parish, was a 54 million dollar initiative funded by FEMA (read more about it here). The building is a modern, environmentally friendly, concrete fortress. It looks like an expensive prison.

As it turned out, I would need to apply at one of the RSD parent centers to enroll my daughter in school. L.B. Landry High School was near to our residence. Super, I thought. I had finally cracked the code on enrolling my daughter in school in New Orleans. I called and, because there was no answer, left a detailed message and awaited a return call. Unfortunately, I did not get a return call until the following week. The man on the other end explained that his office would be working to assign my daughter to a school, and that it might take a few days, but that he would get back to me. Ah, I thought, so they assign the children across the parish, according to availability. Interestingly, I also discovered that the potentially problematic situation of transportation is resolved by bus companies, who are hired to transport children all over the parish.

When the call that I was waiting for finally came, I was--at long last--driving the rental truck loaded with our belongings, traveling through Florida, and headed toward Louisiana. I struggled to hear the voice on the line over the noise of the truck. The man's voice asked me to stop by the center within the next few hours to complete the application. It would be a time crunch, and I explained our situation, but if I took the truck straight to him, we would just make it. I was worried we would run out of gas, and I risked not stopping on the way to fill up, because we were so short on time. We made it. Several hours later, I was maneuvering the unwieldy vehicle over the numerous and widespread potholes that every Louisianan knows as part of the native terrain, and sidled up in front of the school. Later, having completed the packet, I felt like I was finally getting somewhere. Now I would just wait for her to be assigned to a school with an opening.

But, as it turned out, my daughter would not be assigned to a school until three weeks after I made that initial contact with the parent center. That was three weeks of lost education for her. But she's not alone. One of her eventual classmates waited 5 weeks before being assigned to her school.

Finally, when the assignment came, it was to a school across the river, about a half hour to 45 minutes away, depending on traffic. In that school, I began the application process all over again. Why are you enrolling her now, I was asked, as if it was somehow inconvenient or unacceptable to enroll a child at any time other than the summer or the beginning of the year. It has to do with my work, I explained, thinking it was nobody's business and that their only concern should be getting her enrolled in classes. Then there was some confusion, not surprisingly, between the school and the parent center, who had lost the paperwork we'd filled out earlier. We had to complete another form, which I happily did. Incidentally, the paperwork was located the following day.

Refusing to be disheartened, and mostly relieved that my daughter was finally in school, I coached her as much as I could for the state testing that was to take place the week she enrolled. She passed with flying colors, which meant that she passed the 8th grade. I hadn't doubted her for a moment, and she had conscientiously kept her grades up after a particularly difficult bout with ADD which affected every area of her life. I was proud of her, because she had worked through it, with a lot of coaching from me and the gradual implementation of positive habits, as regarded both study and personal well-being.

The school year continued, and she began to settle into the routine. But wait. Two report card periods had passed, and she still had not received a single report card. I visited the school. What was going on? Where were her grades? It was by then 10 weeks post-enrollment and apparently the school was still waiting on the parent center to process her school records. I was assured she would be mailed the final year's report card. However, it is currently almost the end of July, and she still has not received the report card that her peers received at the end of May.

But wait--there's more. As part of the annual enrollment process, every student turns in what is known as the OneApp. This application allows the parent to select the school of choice for their child and ensures a place for the child the upcoming year, even though the school of choice cannot always feasibly be granted. This is the charter school assignment program. The night my daughter brought home her OneApp for the following year, I carefully researched every school, reading through their websites and looking at their school ratings. After several hours of careful consideration, I selected three schools and sent my daughter to school with the application, which she turned in the day following its distribution. The students were to hear on their assigned school the week before the end of school.

The penultimate week of her eighth grade year came and went, and still, there was no word on her assigned school. I wrote e-mails, I called and left messages (because nobody ever answers the phone). Several weeks went by before I heard back from anyone. Administrative personnel returned my call about a week after I left the message. We've sent the message to your e-mail address, the person on the other line swore. You should have received an automated message notifying you of your child's school assignment. Really, I said. I didn't receive anything. What e-mail address did you send it to, I asked. The person read off the e-mail address, and, lo and behold, my e-mail address was incorrect in the system. Ah. that explained so much. On my insistence, my e-mail address was corrected, as was my last name in the system, which was incorrectly spelled. I was assured that I would receive the e-mail assignment in about four weeks.

Four weeks passed, and I received an e-mail, assigning my daughter to...the eighth grade. The eighth grade, which she had already passed. I responded to the e-mail, which incorrectly listed our residential address, but of course, a wrong address took lower priority than the gaping error of making her repeat a grade she had already assed due to a clerical error. I typed out a response. My daughter passed the eighth grade, I said, and please correct our address. Receiving no response the following day, and very much "over" leaving messages in the black holes of voice mailboxes that went unchecked for God knew how long, I decided to pay the parent center a visit.

As it turned out, my daughter was listed twice in the system. I asked why, but was never given an answer. I don't think anyone knew--or at least, that would be my educated guess, based on my experience with such administrative personnel. In one parallel universe of their mysterious system, she was listed as an eighth grade student, and in the other, as a student entering ninth grade. No one seemed to understand why. No one seemed willing or able, upon my suggestion, to consolidate the two.

We mailed her school assignment letter to your address, they said. What address did you send that to, I asked, and was the assignment made for the eighth grade or the ninth grade? They rattled off the incorrect address, confirming my suspicions. Do you know who lives at that address, they asked me. No, I don't, I said, and I'm not sure if that address even exists. You might try looking, they said, and see if you can get the letter. Can you correct my address in the system, I asked? Can you tell me now what school she is assigned to? Shouldn't it be in your system? Can you re-send the letter to the correct address? Such questions utterly baffling them, as none were answered. We'll give you a call in a few days, they said. She is in the system, they confirmed, as if this were enough, as if I should then trust what they told me, as if they had so far proven their competence to perform in their current positions, and as if this would be resolved if I only waited for their follow-up.

It is now almost the end of July and I have left messages, made phone calls, and fully intend to march on the parent center tomorrow. I will be a tree-hugger, refusing to leave until satisfactory resolutions are made. I will be a picketer, a protester, because that is the extreme to which I am now driven by the absolute and complete failure of this system, which upholds some and allows others to fall through the cracks. I will be forced to arrive in a loud display of arguments and insistence; I will be forced to fight for the right for my daughter's fair education. And all that I will be asking is for her to be placed in the correct grade, to be placed in a school at all.

To me, the RSD had held up a large sign reading, Welcome to New Orleans. Welcome to the post-Katrina mindset that will never be, not truly, post-Katrina, never really past Katrina. Never really over it, never truly recovered. For you can take a multi-million dollar system and place within it an administration of absolute incompetence, and still, all you end up with is failure. Every system, after all, is only as strong as its weakest link.

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