NEW ORLEANS—The slimy mildew clinging to classroom walls for years, the termite-eaten floors, the paint peeling from school ceilings — Hurricane Katrina washed all that way.
The storm that destroyed much of this city also devastated the New Orleans public schools.
But that wasn't all bad.
The system, regarded as one of the worst in America, had been rotting for decades: Buildings were neglected. Kids weren't learning. Millions of dollars were squandered or stolen.
Now, six months after Katrina, only a small number of schools has reopened so far, but many people see the storm's destruction as a unique opportunity to rebuild a system that had no place to go but up.
"This is the silver lining in the dark cloud of Katrina," said Sajan George, a turnaround expert who began working at the schools before the storm. "We would not have been able to start with an almost clean slate if Katrina had not happened. So it really does represent an incredible opportunity.
"You don't have to spend time fixing the old broken system," George added. "You've got to spend time building and developing a performing system from scratch."
But how does a school system reinvent itself in a city when money is scarce and misery plentiful?
That's what some educators are proposing with a plan that calls for a major shakeup: Schools would be grouped in clusters run by managers. Students would have choices about where they'd attend. And most money and hiring decisions would shift from the superintendent's office to the principals, who are considered more attuned to their schools' needs.
"We have to have a whole new mind-set about how we approach public education," said Scott Cowen, president of Tulane University and head of a mayoral committee that developed the plan. "If we can get our heads around true transformation, we can turn it around."
But change won't come easily.
There's a long history of squabbling among board members, scandal and academic failure. And that was before Katrina. Now there arenewheadaches: Thousands of teachers have no jobs. Parents are frustrated with the slow pace of school reopenings. And insiders are openly skeptical of plans for the future.
"I don't think you turn around a failing system by changing the structure of the system," said Ora Watson, interim superintendent of the New Orleans public schools.
Watson also feels not everyone is being heard.
"Some people are being left out of the conversation," she said. "I'm talking about poor people, people who populated the schools, the African American community."
She's not alone in her beliefs.
"There're people who would like to socially engineer the system," declared Brenda Mitchell, president of the United Teachers of New Orleans. "They're not interested in bringing the poor people back."
The Bring New Orleans Back Education Committee that developed the plan said it consulted a diverse group of more than 1,500 people from New Orleans, including teachers, parents and students, along with experts around the nation and is committed to creating top-quality schools in every neighborhood.
The Orleans Parish school board has endorsed the plan; the mayor and governor haven't officially weighed in on it.
Everyone here has long been aware of the need to mend this broken system. The schools were so mismanaged that budgets hadn't been balanced in five years, teachers often received inaccurate paychecks and corruption was endemic.
The atmosphere sometimes seemed so lax that Watson, the interim superintendent, said when she'd ask why something wasn't being done, she was told: "Chill out. That's just New Orleans."
— The Associated Press