NEW ORLEANS — It’s back to school time every fall all across America: you pack their lunches and send the kids off to school. Unless you live here.
Two years after Katrina tore through the mouth of the Mississippi, a New Orleans parent, after running an obstacle course that can take many months, is only sometimes able to place his or her child in a school.
As the Category 5 hurricane bore down, Gwen Kimbal, 47, cried as she loaded her car with clothing, her two children and a grandchild. She cried because she had to leave her mother, who had kidney disease, back at the hospital.
“I looked at my babies when I got in that car and I said to myself, ‘No Superdome for them,’ and I drove north for 10 hours, stopping only when the traffic didn’t let me move,” she said.
Stacking things against you
For a few months Gwen’s young son Michael attended school in Little Rock. She decided to bring the family back to New Orleans because her skills as a painter and carpenter landed her a job and a small house in the Gentilly neighborhood. I talked to her there Oct. 18, shortly after she got home from work.
Chaos and privatization
Only five of the public schools open in the city are part of the New Orleans Public School System. In September 2006, each of the principals told Gwen that her son would have to remain home for anywhere from six months to a year.
“What kind of civilized society tells a working mother that there is no place for her child in a public school and that she could just as well keep him home?” Gwen asked.
There are 24 charter schools in the city, some federally funded and others run by private contractors. Gwen tried every single one. All had waiting lists, one with 300 names. It took from October 2006 through January 2007 to complete her fruitless search of the charter school system.
Finally, she decided to look into the 25 schools that are part of the “Recovery School District,” schools run by the state of Louisiana. She got Michael into one of them in March.
“I cry again every night because I see a future for my beautiful baby, my Michael, as a smart, strong healthy African American man and this system, placing no priority on education, sees his future in a prison cell,” Gwen said.