Badly wanted: Teachers for ailing New Orleans

L.E. Rabouin High School principal Kevin George talks about the difficulty of acquiring and retaining teachers at the Louisiana Recovery School District school in New Orleans on Jan. 12.
L.E. Rabouin High School principal Kevin George talks about the difficulty of acquiring and retaining teachers at the Louisiana Recovery School District school in New Orleans on Jan. 12.Cheryl Gerber / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wanted: Idealistic teachers looking for a Peace Corps-style adventure in a city in distress.

Some of New Orleans’ most desperate, run-down schools are beset with a severe shortage of teachers, and they are struggling mightily to attract candidates by appealing to their sense of adventure and desire to make a difference. Education officials are even offering to help new teachers find housing.

“There’s been an incredible outpouring of sympathy toward New Orleans. We feel we’re trying to say, ‘Here’s a clear path to go down if you want to act on that emotion,”’ said Matthew Candler, chief executive of the nonprofit New Schools for New Orleans, which is trying to recruit teachers.

The school system in New Orleans was in desperate condition even before Hurricane Katrina struck 17 months ago, with crumbling buildings, low test scores and high dropout rates.

‘Recruiting is a challenge’
After the storm, some of the worst of the worst public schools were put under state control, and those are the ones finding it particularly hard to attract teachers. The 19 schools in the state-run Recovery School District have 8,580 students and about 540 teachers, or about 50 fewer than they need — a shortage so severe that about 300 students who want to enroll have been put on a waiting list.

“Recruiting is a challenge,” said Kevin George, principal of Rabouin High School in downtown New Orleans. “The housing market is terrible. The area has a poor image due to the violence. ... And then there’s just coming into a place that historically had just a terrible track record of education.”

In hopes of finding at least 150 new teachers for the state-run district in the 2007-08 school year, when more schools are expected to open, education officials are trying to recruit candidates at job fairs, on the Web or through newspaper ads that show the raised hands of students and read plaintively: “We need you ... so do they.”

Schools help to find housing
The Recovery School District is also working with a real estate agent to help candidates find affordable housing. In addition, it plans to collaborate with Teach for America, which pairs college graduates with a school-in-need for two years.

Norman Smith III, recruited to Rabouin High, said he wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids wary of authority and uncertain of their potential. It has been tough at times, he said.

“I wasn’t used to proving myself to kids. But before you teach kids, they have to trust you,” said Smith, an English teacher who writes lessons in dusty chalk in his stuffy, second-floor classroom while wearing a pinstriped suit and cufflinks.

“I think the kids are starting to realize, ‘I can learn,”’ he said. “They’re looking at the reality, which is, they have something to believe in: themselves.”

Qualifications an issue
The state-run district is faced not only with a shortage of teachers, but with a shortage of well-qualified teachers. The district requires prospective teachers to pass a basic skills exam. But over the past two months, half the test-takers have failed. About one-third of the district’s teachers are not certified.

In a reorganization that followed Katrina, the New Orleans school board got to keep a few of the city’s best-performing public schools, while those that did relatively poorly academically went to the state or to private groups that turned them into charter schools.

In all, 55 public schools are now open in the city, with about 27,400 students, or less than half the pre-Katrina enrollment. But a group that monitors the charter schools said it was unaware of any widespread teaching vacancies among the charters. And the superintendent of the Orleans Parish schools recently reported only one teaching vacancy.

Many of the schools inherited by the state were run down even before Katrina, plagued by leaky roofs, lead paint or poor heating systems. Many of the students are indifferent to learning or are far behind, with some freshmen unable to read and some teenagers disappearing for days.

Some have been arrested for fighting with each other or beating up security guards. Some schools lack classroom supplies.

A study in disarray
“This is inexcusable,” said Brenda Mitchell, president of the United Teachers of New Orleans. “The persons being hurt the most are the children of the city of New Orleans. I am appalled.”

At Rabouin High, which has about 600 students, the halls echo with the shouts of teenagers who should be in class. Doors lack knobs or, in the case of a girls’ bathroom, don’t close completely. Students have to pass through a metal detector to get inside, and guards patrol the halls.

About half of Rabouin’s 34 teachers are first-year educators or new to Louisiana. Some, like David Sneed, 46, commute an hour or more to work each day. The principal said he praises his teachers constantly for fear some will leave.

Sneed, a first-year teacher and former restaurant manager, said he is committed to Rabouin for at least four years.

“The future of our state lies in the education of our students,” he said. “I don’t want to leave. You’d have to pry me out.”