NEW ORLEANS — The second-graders paraded to the Dumpster in the rear parking lot, where they chucked boxes of old work sheets, notebooks and other detritus into the trash, emptying their school for good.
Benjamin Banneker Elementary closed Wednesday as New Orleans’ Recovery School District permanently shuttered its last five traditional public schools this week.
With the start of the next school year, the Recovery School District will be the first in the country made up completely of public charter schools, a milestone for New Orleans and a grand experiment in urban education for the nation.
It has been two decades since the first public charter school opened in Minnesota, conceived as a laboratory where innovations could be tested before their introduction into public schools. Now, 42 states encourage charters as an alternative to conventional schools, and enrollment has been growing, particularly in cities. In the District of Columbia, for example, 44 percent of the city’s students attend charter schools.
But in New Orleans, under the Recovery School District, the Louisiana state agency that seized control of almost all public schools after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005, the traditional system has been swept away.
The creation of the country’s first all-charter school system has improved education for many children in New Orleans, but it also has severed ties to a community institution, the neighborhood school, and amplified concerns about racial equality and loss of parental control.
An all-charter district signals the dismantling of the central school bureaucracy and a shift of power to dozens of independent school operators, who will assume all the corresponding functions: the authority to hire and fire teachers and administrators, maintain buildings, run buses and provide services to special-needs students.
Of the Recovery School District’s 600 employees, 510 will be out of a job by week’s end. All 33,000 students in the district must apply for a seat at one of the 58 public charter schools, relying on a computerized lottery to determine placement.
Critics of the all-charter New Orleans model say it is undemocratic, because leaders of charter schools are not accountable to voters. They also say the system is challenging for parents, who have to figure out logistics that were not an issue when their children walked to neighborhood schools.
“They don’t answer to anyone,” said Sean Johnson, the dean of students at Banneker, whose father attended the school while growing up in the Black Pearl neighborhood. “The charters have money and want to make more money. They have their own boards, make their own rules, accept who they want and put out who they want to put out.”
Advocates say the all-charter model empowers parents.
“We’ve reinvented how schools run,” said Neerav Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans, which promotes and supports charter schools. He is leaving the organization to try to export the model to other cities. “If I am unhappy with service I’m getting in a school, I can pull my kid out and go to another school tomorrow. I don’t have to wait four years for an election cycle so I can vote for one member of a seven-member board that historically has been corrupt.”
By most indicators, school quality and academic progress have improved in Katrina’s aftermath, although it’s difficult to make direct comparisons because the student population changed drastically after the hurricane, with thousands of students not returning.
Before the storm, the city’s graduation rate was 54.4 percent. In 2013, the rate for the Recovery School District was 77.6 percent. On average, 57 percent of students performed at grade level in math and reading in 2013, up from 23 percent in 2007, according to the state.
Opinion surveys show support for charter schools but unease about the shuttering of all traditional schools, with just 41 percent of New Orleans residents backing the idea in a poll commissioned by the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University in New Orleans. The changes also have been stirred racial tensions and claims of disenfranchisement.
“This is a depressed community,” said Karran Royal Harper, an activist who has been trying to block the school closings. “People here don’t really feel like they can coalesce and fight this.”