NEW ORLEANS — When Tyra Newell got a call asking her to lead a training program for principals in New Orleans as part of an effort to overhaul the city's troubled public schools, the 31-year-old native had been away from the city for 14 years, most recently in Chicago, where she was the public school system's budget director.
The opportunity to return, she said, "was like a dream come true. I knew this was a tangible way to give back to the city that had given so much to me."
Newell was visiting her parents in New Orleans when they were forced to evacuate because of Hurricane Katrina. The storm destroyed their home, and the family became exiles in Mississippi, Baton Rouge and Houston.
Newell eventually -- and reluctantly -- made her way back to Chicago. She felt torn about returning to her life and job because things in Chicago were "business as usual" -- while her hometown was in turmoil.
As managing director of New Leaders for New Schools in New Orleans, Newell will lead a drive to attract principals to a public school system that was gravely deficient before Katrina, with shoddy buildings, high dropout rates and poor test scores.
She said about 10% of fourth-graders were at or above proficiency levels in math and English.
The state took over 107 of Orleans Parish's 128 schools before the storm. Eighteen months after Katrina, 56 public schools are open, 30 of them as charter schools. But mismanagement and a lack of qualified teachers continue to plague the system.
Last week, Democrats in the House introduced legislation that would give a $5,000 bonus to teachers who committed to teach in New Orleans schools and stayed for at least three years. The proposal also would provide a $500 housing subsidy and relocation costs. The money is part of a proposed $250-million five-year recovery package for the hurricane-ravaged school system.
The program that Newell will lead is supported by $4 million in corporate, business and philanthropic donations and $1 million from the Louisiana government.
"Unfortunately, or fortunately, Katrina created this unique opportunity to almost rebuild a school system from scratch," said Newell, a graduate of Ursuline Academy, a Catholic girls school in New Orleans, and Howard University and Stanford University, where she earned her master's in business administration.
New Leaders for New Schools is hoping to find 10 prospective principals by March 20, and expects to recruit 40 over the next three years.
The first 10 will start a yearlong fellowship in June in which they will work under a mentor principal and receive an assistant principal's salary.
The philosophy of New Leaders for New Schools is that all children can learn, and the program is interested in people who agree, Newell said.
Barbara MacPhee, who is retiring as principal of a New Orleans science and math charter high school and joining New Leaders for New Schools as a consultant, brings a veteran's perspective to the problems of the city's schools.
"There was very little wrong with the kids," said MacPhee, 66. "It's the system of education."
Anthony Recasner, principal of Samuel J. Green Charter School in New Orleans, said many teachers had given up on their students, and principals lacked autonomy, support, training and the professional development to create innovative programs.
MacPhee said many school leaders took it for granted that being promoted to principal meant just "staying in the principal pool long enough."
"The district had really lost its way," Recasner said. "There was a tremendous sense of hopelessness. It had become pretty desperate circumstances."
In return for their fellowships, the people selected as principals are expected to make a commitment of at least three years to New Orleans schools.
Jon Schnur, chief executive and co-founder of New Leaders for New Schools, said principals would select, manage and develop their teaching staffs.
He said an effective principal typically hired good teachers and drove the teaching strategy and culture at his or her school. He cited schools that had seen significant improvements in test results since coming under the leadership of a principal trained in the program.
For example, Dodge Renaissance Academy was among the lowest-performing schools in Chicago a few years ago, Schnur said. But from 2004 to 2006, the school doubled its math scores and boosted its reading scores by 27%.
Educators say the principal training program is not a panacea for New Orleans public schools, but they hope it will have an effect.
"All the research points to the leadership of a school to really provide the opportunity for change," Recasner said.
"So New Leaders has a big job in New Orleans."