First New Orleans public school since Katrina to reopen

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) – After two years of trying, Ronald Coleman was at last delivering his children Monday to one of New Orleans’ best public schools – thanks in large part to a catastrophe.

“It took Hurricane Katrina to get my children in a good public school in Orleans Parish,” Coleman said as he and his wife escorted their son and daughter into Benjamin Franklin Elementary.

On Monday, Franklin Elementary became the first regular public school in New Orleans to reopen since Katrina devastated the city on Aug. 29.

Before the storm, Franklin was a magnet school with selective enrollment for children with an aptitude for math and science. But now, Franklin is open to anyone in the city who wants to attend.

Welcome signs hung over the door and in the hallways as students began trickling into the three-story brick building in the Uptown section that was largely spared by the storm. The building has a capacity of 550, but only 210 students were registered and only about 120 showed up.

For the students, the day opened with a breakfast of granola bars, canned peaches and fruit juice in the cafeteria, where Sabina Puri, a teacher in the school’s gifted program, had a tearful reunion with first-grader Michael Bankston. She had taught him in kindergarten last year (he was reading at third-grade level) and she had not heard from since his family evacuated.

“He started crying and I started crying,” Puri said, wiping away a tear as she sat next to Michael.

Some private schools in New Orleans began reopening in October, but no public schools had opened, with the exception of two charter schools that are outside the local board’s control.

Franklin’s opening was both a hopeful sign for the city’s recovery and a sign of the difficult road ahead in re-populating the city.

At least 10 public schools are expected to open in the coming weeks. Only about 4,000 to 5,000 students are expected to come back during the current school year, out of a pre-Katrina public school enrollment of close to 60,000.

One hurdle is the housing shortage. Puri and second-grade teacher Ava Price both were left homeless after Katrina. Puri is staying with friends, while her husband and children remain in Texas. Price is staying with an aunt.

Franklin is among only about a dozen schools still under control of the Orleans Parish School Board. Most of the others were taken over by the state recently because of years of mismanagement, waste and corruption.

Coleman considered the public schools in New Orleans so bad that he sent his son and daughter to private schools while he tried to get them into Franklin.

Just over a week ago, the Colemans returned from Atlanta, where they had evacuated, and easily enrolled Gerron, 7, and Gobrielle, 8, in Franklin.

“It was a dream come true,” their father said.