By Lolis Eric Elie
Public education in New Orleans has gone from bad to complicated. Before the federal levee failures, the city’s public schools were among the worst in a nation filled with bad urban school districts. Since Hurricane Katrina, the school system has become the nation’s foremost laboratory for charter school education. For parents, that means a complex array of choices.
Charter schools have been part of the New Orleans school landscape for more than a decade - initially in very small numbers but, following Hurricane Katrina, the numbers have ballooned exponentially. Currently the overwhelming majority of public schools in New Orleans are charter schools. These schools operate under the oversight of one of three entities: the Orleans Parish School Board, which ran the city’s public schools prior to the levee failures; the Recovery School District, the entity created to administer and remediate "failing schools”; or the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which has chartered a few statewide schools. The New Orleans charter landscape features many styles of charter schools — some are part of national charter school organizations, others are locally-grown; some are part of networks or clusters of schools and others are stand-alone operations. By law, all charter schools in Louisiana must be operated by non-profit entities with locally-created oversight boards (meaning, they have legal standing in Louisiana, meet in Louisiana, etc.).
We are portraying three charter schools this season. Sofia Bernette (India Ennenga) is at Lusher Charter School. Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) is teaching at Theophile Jones Elie Elementary School and his girlfriend, Desiree (Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc), is working at Homer A. Plessy School. Only Lusher is a real school; the others are our creations.
Lusher, one of the state’s best schools, public or private, is chartered by the Orleans Parish School Board. It took over Alcee Fortier Senior High School after Hurricane Katrina. We alluded to that event in Season 1. Academically, things are going well there, on television and in life. But Sofia’s marijuana smoking hints at the fact that drug abuse is a problem for at least some kids at even the best schools.
Named for the 19th century civil rights leader, the Homer A. Plessy school is doing so well that Desiree asks the principal for help in getting a kid admitted. Things are not so enviable at Elie. There, the kids don’t even have band instruments and seem to misbehave the minute the band teachers walk out of the room.
Charter school advocates claim they have the statistics to prove that public schools in New Orleans are improving dramatically. However, critics of the reforms claim that the numbers have been manipulated to give a picture that is more rosy than the reality.