Christina Simmons, all smiles and flashing, smart eyes, is a rare spark. Not because of her 3.8 grade-point average and high test scores, though those certainly set her apart in one of the nation's worst-performing public school districts. Not because she actually likes going to class.
Christina Simmons, 15, is a rarity because she is here, at all, waiting and waiting for someone to teach her. Two and a half months after Hurricane Katrina, while a lurching recovery lurches along, no public schools are open and nearly an entire generation of New Orleans public school students -- students who populated the renowned, high-stepping marching bands that wow crowds during Carnival season -- has vanished. Administrators, like frustrated detectives, are struggling to find them, paying for public service ads in far-flung cities and papering evacuee centers with fliers.
A school system that served 55,000 students before Katrina's assault on this city has registered only 4,400 for the oft-delayed reopening of five schools in the little-damaged Algiers neighborhood, now scheduled for Dec. 14. Classes are planned for eight days before breaking for the winter holidays. The rest are out there somewhere, scattershot across the country, their returns to this city uncertain at best, unlikely at worst.
"The seeds are dispersed in the wind," said Caroline Thibodaux, a school nurse, who is now unemployed and not sure whether she'll ever get her job back.
The schools may be the best barometer of the health of New Orleans's recovery, and the prognosis is not good. Although some private and parochial schools have reopened, the locked doors at the city's 117 public schools -- schools that were overwhelmingly attended by black students and overwhelmingly poor -- stand as testimony to the economic and racial divide of a recovery effort sliding into its toughest hours, the daunting challenge of coaxing tens of thousands of residents back to a city that cannot house or educate them.
The few public school employees still on the payroll after a system-wide furlough -- 40 or so administrators -- are now pretzeled into kid-size computer desks at an elementary school. Messages -- from the sad, the frustrated and the confused -- blink onto their screens by the minute. The mother of an honors student enrolled in another school district, but hoping to get back to New Orleans, reports that "her teacher has stated to the class that if he has to take in another Katrina student he is going to scream." A dropout, struggling with grammar and spelling, looks for a chance to start anew: "i use to go to jhon ehert and i drop ouy and now i wont to go back to school."
Certainly, the parents and students -- tens of thousands of them -- who haven't surfaced can be excused. Only the most persistent -- only the Christina Simmonses -- are here. Simmons and her mother, a coil of energy named Athena Simmons, have made seven trips to New Orleans from Dallas, each spurred by an official proclamation or a rumor or both that schools were reopening. Each time, they went back disappointed, Christina Simmons folded again into the passenger seat with a book -- "Boss Lady" by Omar Tyree on the most recent trips. School board meetings were canceled at the last minute, lawsuits have been filed to stop just-approved charter schools from opening without more community input, everything seems to have conspired to keep Christina Simmons from getting back to her goal of accumulating a school transcript that would make her a shoo-in for admission to a top-flight college.
"It's not our fault," said Athena Simmons, who bought an SUV to deal with the rigors of a seven-to-eight-hour drive she has completed seven times. "We were prepared to start."
Frustrated almost to tears, exhausted by the road, Athena Simmons gave up and rented an apartment on the West Bank of New Orleans -- a big step down from the comforts of her home across the river in the ruined Lakeview neighborhood. She also gave up on a high-paying job offer in Dallas, all because Christina Simmons loves the Edna Karr magnet school she once attended and couldn't imagine studying anywhere else. The tug of home was that strong for the Simmonses, but many of their friends -- now in contact by rapid-fire text messages -- are less resolute.
"The numbers coming back would be much larger if schools were open," Simmons said. "People would want to come back, but everything is so uncertain."
Between 30 and 40 percent of New Orleans schools -- many of them crumbling, sadly beautiful art deco hulks even before the storm -- will probably have to be bulldozed, said Sajan George, a managing director of the private firm hired by the state to oversee the school system's finances this spring. The school system probably will have more than $1 billion in insurance claims, he said.
The school system is in such disarray that to assess damage, workers have had to break into some schools, smashing windows or drilling through doors, because no one with keys -- not a principal or teacher or janitor -- can be found.
"It's a whole lot of ugly," said Thibodaux, the nurse.
The uncertainty is compounded by the fractured leadership of the schools and a history of troubles, including the recent indictments of about a dozen employees. Mayor C. Ray Nagin tried, and failed, before the storm to take control of the city's most troubled schools from the elected school board. But still, the school board -- riven by squabbling and lacking the confidence of the community -- is almost irrelevant. It has no control over money and probably will lose its tenuous hold on academic affairs because Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) succeeded in persuading the legislature, which is meeting in special session to address hurricane recovery, to approve an ambitious state takeover of nearly the entire school system. Lawmakers applauded when Blanco announced the plan during her session opening speech, declaring: "If we really expect a rebirth in the city of New Orleans, a quality public school system is essential."
"The scale of this is unprecedented," George said of the takeover plan. The plan would give the state control of 104 schools, out of the 117 in the city, that ranked below the state average on a compilation of tests.
Of course, many of the schools will cease to exist because they are ruined or will be closed for years for repairs. The enrollment figures are low throughout the city, in dry neighborhoods and wet ones, but are worst in the most damaged parts of town. Two students from soggy A.P. Tureaud Elementary School, for instance, have enrolled for the start of classes, which will be conducted across the river in the Algiers neighborhood. The school once had nearly 300 students. There are four students enrolled from Louis Armstrong Elementary -- a Lower Ninth Ward landmark that had 430 students and was the first school in the city to integrate. There are two from Sylvanie Williams Elementary, which had a pre-storm enrollment of more than 300.
The sign out front of Armstrong Elementary says "Welcome students," but the month on the sign is August. The steps are blocked by yellow police tape. It says "Do not cross."