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Still-Closed School Sparks Protest

As other New Orleans campuses reopen, one in the Lower 9th Ward remains idle. Many at the rally say race and class bias are to blame.

September 07, 2006|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — With several New Orleans schools scheduled to reopen today, scores of parents, children, educators and community activists gathered Wednesday to protest the continued closure of another one: Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science & Technology in the Lower 9th Ward, which has remained unfit for occupation since Hurricane Katrina.

Race and class discrimination, they said, were at the core of why school officials had failed to ensure that educational facilities in certain neighborhoods could make their scheduled debut this week.

"There is a sense of urgency to getting you in school. We know that. That's why we're here today," King school Principal Doris R. Hicks told her pupils, who were perched on the steps at their temporary home, the former Colton Middle School. School officials said they hoped King would be able to reopen at its original site in January.

The Colton campus, which suffered years of neglect before the storm, is in a neighborhood a mile or so from the Lower 9th Ward. It was supposed to be ready to open for King students and faculty Aug. 17. That date was pushed back to Wednesday, but school administrators said that electrical repairs were still needed, meaning classes would not start until Monday.

"It's about black folks and poor folks," said Charles Steele Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, one of several civil rights groups that supported Wednesday's rally.

"This is by design and hoping to discourage our children," said the Rev. Byron Clay, a local activist. "Predominately white schools were in far worse shape ... but they are ready."

Robin Jarvis, superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District, which after Katrina took control of 107 academically failing campuses among Orleans Parish's 128 public schools, dismissed the notion that race played a role in deciding which ones would reopen on time.

"The majority of the children in our schools are African American," Jarvis said.

Many middle-class and white parents shifted their children from New Orleans' notoriously underperforming public school system to private facilities years ago.

"I agree that having a school in the Lower 9th Ward is critical to that community, but ... safety is the critical issue," Jarvis said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency initially prevented Martin Luther King from reopening because of the building's low water pressure. But Jarvis said other problems existed, such as a faulty air-conditioning system. Requests for bids from contractors to do repairs at the school would move forward shortly, Jarvis said.

New Orleans Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who joined Wednesday's rally, said she was outraged that King was certified as a charter school in March, "but here we [are] in September with no building."

"They should have been working around the clock since March" to have the school ready, Willard-Lewis said.

Incomplete renovations have delayed the reopening of several Recovery district schools, Jarvis said, and most of the problems -- broken windows, malfunctioning fire alarms, damaged floors -- aren't related to Katrina.

"Just about every building has some level of repair that needs to be done," Jarvis said. The Recovery School District plans to open 17 campuses this fall. Also, 31 independently run charter schools are scheduled to open, along with five schools operated by Orleans Parish.

So far, 8,300 students have registered to attend Recovery schools this year, but the system is about 180 teachers short of its goal of 500, Jarvis said.

Community activists and parents who gathered Wednesday said their commitment was to the 600-plus students who had enrolled at Martin Luther King, and to the qualified educators who were ready to go to work.

"My kids need an education, or they're gonna be behind the rest of the kids," said Arlene Barriere, 47. Her 7-year-old was expecting to enter the first grade Wednesday. "Because we're in the Lower 9th Ward, they don't give a damn about us."

"It's a predominately black school, in a black, low-income area," Pamela Woods, 40, said. She has three children, ages 7, 10 and 11, enrolled at King. "If they can reopen the Superdome, then they can open [our] school."

Teachers at the rally handed out green folders with the week's homework assignments to the students, along with brown paper-bag lunches.

Civil rights leaders said they would continue to demonstrate until King reopened at its original site.

"You build communities around schools," Steele said. "You close down a community when you close down a school."


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