Twelve years ago, Pierre A. Capdau Middle School became a symbol of all that was considered wrong with New Orleans’ scandal-scarred school system and a test case in how to solve its problems.
Voters throughout Louisiana had, months earlier, approved a constitutional amendment allowing the state to take over schools deemed to be failing. Capdau was the first to be taken over and placed in what was then the new Recovery School District.
Now, Capdau is on the road to returning to the Orleans Parish School Board fold, albeit much later than many would have liked, and under a much different system of management.
In 2004, the state made Capdau a charter school, a public school that receives public money but run with great autonomy under a charter granted to an independent organization. The education college at the University of New Orleans began running Capdau, which now is part of the New Beginnings Schools Foundation charter organization.
Back in 2004, the idea was that the state would take over the worst of the worst schools, in New Orleans or elsewhere, turn them around and return them to local governance in as little as five years.
But a lot has happened since 2004. Compounding the perennial poor performance of most New Orleans public schools was the realization of system corruption that included a former president of the school board who pleaded guilty in 2007 to taking more than $100,000 in bribes.
Federal investigations would result in close to two dozen guilty pleas or convictions in connection with school system corruption. And those investigations would play out against the backdrop of destruction caused by levee failures following Hurricane Katrina.
That catastrophic flooding of 2005 set the stage for a wider-scale takeover by the RSD of all but a handful of schools from the local school board, and the eventual chartering of all those schools.
Slow but measurable improvement has resulted at many schools. So has pain and resentment — among teachers and school workers who were unceremoniously let go after the storm diminished the city’s population and among people in communities that lost control of local schools that had been symbols of neighborhood identity.
There also is lingering confusion caused by a patchwork of governance involving the local board, the RSD and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Even as some schools improved enough to be eligible to return to Orleans Parish School Board control, they resisted. Last year, the state said 36 schools met the criteria to return to the local board. Only one did.
Now, Capdau is joining a handful of others making the move this year.
“The timing is appropriate,” said Sametta Brown, CEO of New Beginnings Schools Foundation, the charter organization for Capdau.
Until last year, the local board couldn’t agree on a permanent superintendent. The deadlock was broken last year when Henderson Lewis took the position.
“The appointment of Superintendent Lewis is showing the public that Orleans Parish is becoming stable,” Brown said.
Some things won’t change. Capdau will remain a charter. New Beginnings will remain in charge of operations of the school. But it will be up to the Orleans Parish School Board to oversee New Beginnings’ performance and progress and decide, when the time comes, whether to renew its charter.
Brown acknowledged the dissatisfaction many in New Orleans feel when they want to take concerns to a locally elected board, rather than a state education board that usually meets in Baton Rouge.
For Capdau parents, the physical distance and political insulation is about to diminish.
Kevin McGill is an Associated Press reporter in New Orleans.