There were more than 600 entries for the lottery even though the prize appeared dubious: the right to attend what is, on paper, one of the worst of the city's bad public schools.
But the state has seized control of Pierre A. Capdau School from the fractious Orleans Parish School Board and turned it over to the University of New Orleans. Now, hope for improvement is as palpable as the smell of fresh paint and the clatter of ladders and scaffolding that greeted recent visitors.
In effect, James Meza Jr., dean of the UNO education college, has become the new superintendent of Capdau; UNO becomes the employer of Capdau's teachers and staff and its new principal, Shannon L. Verrett, recently hired after a stint at a public school in neighboring Jefferson Parish.
It is a move born of statewide frustration. Louisiana voters last year approved a constitutional amendment allowing the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to take over schools that have repeatedly failed to meet accountability standards adopted in the late 1990s. Although statewide in scope, the amendment was clearly aimed at New Orleans, home to most of the state's worst schools.
"I think everybody realized that something had to be done," Walter Lee, northwest Louisiana's representative on the state board, said in a recent interview.
The amendment was potentially grand in scale -- more than a dozen schools were eligible for takeover. But the state education board never planned to take over any schools itself. The idea was for private entities -- such as universities -- to take over failing schools. In the end, UNO was the only one willing and the university wanted only one school, Capdau, near the UNO campus.
Now, Meza hopes to make Capdau a model.
Meza and Verrett have what amounts to a clean slate: Teachers who taught at Capdau can apply to teach there this year, but they have no job guarantees. Many have transferred to other schools, according to Brenda Mitchell, head of the local teacher union.
This means reform efforts at Capdau can immediately be focused on the children, Meza said.
"We're going to be reforming the child's education first. We're going to assess every child and then drive instruction around the child; build programs around the needs of the first grade, of the second grade with individual needs identified; organize the class day not for a system but around the needs of these children," Meza said.
Taking over also involves fundraising for improvements to the deteriorating school building. The $1.6 million in state money that would ordinarily go to the school board to educate the 264 students who will attend Capdau this fall will go to UNO but the restrictions are the same: it can be used for instruction only, not building improvements.
A $250,000 donation from Hibernia Bank was being used for electrical work, painting and other improvements. Meza is hoping for more such donations to make physical improvements, including playground equipment and an elevator to make the school accessible to disabled students.
Despite the widespread optimism over Capdau's rebirth, there is already a downside to the Capdau story: the number of students and schools on the outside looking in.
Mary Strother, who had hoped to get her granddaughter enrolled at Capdau, sat forlornly at the recent lottery after the girl's number did not come up.
"It's really tough because so many [other schools] are unacceptable," she said.
And state education board member Lee does not see the Capdau model working for other foundering schools, particularly rural schools, anytime soon.
"Right this minute, I don't see a good answer," he said. "Unless a university in north Louisiana is willing to do what UNO is doing with a school that is farther away."