Dispersed and Unequal

New Orleans children are abandoned again, this time in Baton Rouge schools

Mrs. Sherry Brock, East Baton Rouge Middle School Principal of the Year for 2005–2006, is a Delta Burke–style dynamo in bright colors and oversize beads. She has outfitted her spacious office at Westdale Middle School with a lush floral carpet, silk and fresh flowers, and large leather chairs, so that the institutional white cinder-block walls and fluorescent lighting will fade. She is forever picking up the phone to summon a member of her staff, then rushing to one of her two office doors to call them even quicker. "Listen, baby, I talk very fast," she says to me. "Valerie! What's my total number of Katrina enrollees right now?—thank you, baby. Put 80, because I can assure you by next week there will be 85." That's out of her total sixth, seventh, and eighth grade enrollment of around 950.

In the two weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, as Baton Rouge swelled with evacuees, Mrs. Brock hired five new teachers and redid all of her class schedules. She personally greeted each new Katrina student—she describes them as "dazed" and "scared to death"—and made sure they had the uniforms and supplies they needed. "We have been unindated with offers of help," she says, from her own students' parents and from across the country. She speaks highly of the schools superintendent, Charlotte Placide, whom she calls "such a good leader," and who is using her financial background to make sure every extra hurricane expense is accounted for, with later federal and state reimbursement in mind.

"My students, they never worry about things not working," she says, leaning back in her chair. "Because it never does not work here. I can say that because I've been the principal 30 years. I've got the best administrative staff in the parish—not just in the parish, anywhere. I'll put them up against anybody," she says. "This was no hill for a climber. It's easy to do 'cause we know what to do."

Michael Bowden, 11, Genaro Gutierrez, 16, Joel Bowden, 13, and Marshan Bowden, 15, chill outside the River Center shelter in September.
photo: Anya Kamenetz
Michael Bowden, 11, Genaro Gutierrez, 16, Joel Bowden, 13, and Marshan Bowden, 15, chill outside the River Center shelter in September.

Westdale just happens to be located across the road from the main school board office on South Foster Drive, and the media visit so often that the students signed blanket publicity releases long before the storm. Mrs. Brock introduces three students—two white, one black—who say how happy they are to welcome the Katrina kids to their school. "To me, they're so brave," says Emily Wright, who has long auburn hair and clutches a purse with a picture of kittens on it. "They fit in so well. They're so nice. They have so many amazing stories. It's made me feel so blessed. We have a new girl on our cheerleading squad. The first thing we did was give her a big hug. She has so many new cheers to teach us."

I attended East Baton Rouge Parish public schools from kindergarten through ninth grade, so I came back with a skeptical eye. Still, any visitor might naturally conclude that this district is doing very well by the thousands of children Katrina deposited on its doorstep, in a drama that brought America's class and race problems to the front page. The sad truth is, the school system these students came from was so bad—wracked by allegations of corruption, its management entrusted to out-of-town consultants, its performance the lowest-ranked in the low-ranked state—that many concluded the kids would be better off anywhere else at all. "A lot of [schools] we never should have had open," Jimmy Fahrenholtz, himself a member of the Orleans Parish School Board, told the San Jose Mercury News in mid September. "I wanted to tear this system apart two years ago. God answered my prayers."

Maybe so. "I feel optimistic for these kids from the Orleans Parish School System," said Robin Delamatre, a 25-year veteran New Orleans educator. "These poor children may come from a failing system to a school system that will really support them."

But across town from Westdale, a very different story is unfolding. It turns out that while scrambling to accommodate its new students, East Baton Rouge Parish administrators have made choices that to some extent reproduce the savage inequalities found in the students' home districts and across the United States.

The former Scotlandville Middle School is located between Southern University and the airport, at the northwest edge of a city that has been sprawling south and east. It's in a mostly black neighborhood, where chain-link fences surround tiny bungalows with old couches on the porch. The school was closed last year and the building scheduled for demolition, until the district superintendent decided to create two new schools to house some of the kids displaced by Katrina. The new Scotlandville school has approximately 800 students, all displaced; the vast majority of the faculty and staff also come from Orleans and surrounding parishes. The "attendance zone" for Scotlandville Middle includes the children residing in the River Center, the city's largest shelter, eight and a half miles away.

The sign on the building reads, "SCOTLANDVILLE S HOO." None of the students trooping between classes are wearing uniforms. In the front office, the Formica counter is chipped, showing green and orange layers underneath. There are water stains on the acoustic-tile ceiling, the computers look several years old, and the only decoration in the room is a pair of posters printed by the school and bearing the legends "appreciate DIVERSITY" and "learn TOLERANCE." The principal, Ms. Clara Joseph, strides out of the back room with her straightened hair hanging limply and a look of exhaustion on her face. "What do you need? I hate to be rude, and I'm not being rude, but it is very busy here. I am running," she says, before taking the phone from her assistant. "I'm not going to be at no principals' meeting!" she shouts. "My school is not even running! You tell Charlotte"—meaning Superintendent Placide—"that if she wants to meet she can come here. Who's going to run the school while I'm gone? It's no way. And the master schedule's not even done, we don't have all the children in class, they have dummy schedules. They're talking about coming in here to do a renovation—there's no room in the classrooms now! It's no way I can come to a meeting."

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