NEW ORLEANS - At John McDonogh Senior High School, the auditorium is missing ceiling tiles and its walls have water stains. The kitchen isn't working, so hot lunches are brought in from outside. In one classroom, a teacher carefully painted over her graffiti-marred walls.
A few miles away, the abandoned Louis Armstrong Elementary School stands as a reminder of what was. In a classroom of mud-crusted furniture and mold-covered walls, the date printed neatly on the blackboard is still visible: Aug. 25, 2005, days before Hurricane Katrina struck the city and changed life here forever.
When Philadelphia schools chief Paul Vallas takes over as head of the city's Recovery School District on July 1, he will inherit the functioning McDonogh and the devastated Armstrong. He will take on the overcrowding complaints at some schools, the lack of resources at others. He will tackle the herculean task of getting schools built and ready for students before the 2007 school year begins.
"This isn't patchwork. This is creating a new school system from the ground up," Vallas said Friday, shortly after being named to head the district. "No one had ever had that opportunity. I want to be a part of it."
He is leaving a district with 270 public schools, 56 charter schools, and an enrollment of 200,000. By contrast, his new district has 39 schools - 22 traditional public and 17 charter - and a current enrollment below 20,000.
In size, at least, the Recovery District is much smaller. Its problems, however, are anything but that.
Even before the storm, New Orleans schools struggled with issues shared by other urban school districts: crumbling buildings, an inability to retain and attract strong staff, lack of parental involvement, low test scores, violence.
Katrina only made things worse, to a degree unseen in U.S. public school history:
The flooding damaged almost all of the infrastructure, leaving some buildings beyond repair and dangerous.
Qualified teachers are reluctant to move to a city that lacks basic amenities but has high housing costs.
Parents are living and working out of state.
Academic standards have become secondary to the basics of food, clothing and shelter.
Emotionally scarred students need more than basic guidance counseling.
While Vallas found success in Chicago and Philadelphia, the problems there were nothing like what he will face in New Orleans, said Brian Riedlinger, president of the Algiers Charter Schools Association.
"The schools before Katrina were terrible. I don't think you'll have any argument with that. If we can make a difference here right now - I won't say Katrina was worth it, but at least something good will have come out of it."
Even the very basic question of "Who's in charge?" is muddied in New Orleans. The city schools have multiple masters.
There's the Recovery District, 107 low-performing schools cobbled together and put under state control after the storm. There's the Orleans Parish School Board, which oversees 17 schools. Charters are growing, and the parochial and private system still attracts half the student population.
"My concern for anyone coming in," said Cheryllyn Branche, principal of an elementary school that falls under the Recovery District's authority, "would be Louisiana politics. . . . The politics here are seeped in not what's best for children, but what's best for personal concerns and agendas. My concern is children will again be victims while our system is undermined."
Vallas has been adept at playing the political game in Chicago and Philadelphia, but New Orleans is a whole new challenge. He will be an outsider in this city, where people ask, "Where'd you go to school?" - and mean high school. Residents say it's more like a small town, especially now that half the 450,000 pre-storm residents have yet to return.
Even State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek acknowledged that some people might write off Vallas as an interloper before he even got started.
"We are parochial. We tend to reject outsiders, and we reject white people, and we reject experimenters," said Pastorek, who is white, referring to past superintendents when he announced Vallas' appointment.
But Pastorek said people should give Vallas a chance. He is coming not as "another occupier" but as someone who believes in the city, its children and its schools, almost as if his destiny is somehow tied to theirs.
"Most folks think it's hopeless. Plenty of people give me plenty of reasons why it can't be done," Pastorek said. "Paul is not a fool. He knows it can be done."
In the last decade, New Orleanians have seen about a dozen different school chiefs, said Phyllis Landrieu, president of the Orleans Parish School Board. People are jaded. Vallas must win them over, as he did supporters in Chicago and Philadelphia, she said.
"His challenge will be getting involved in the community so he gets to know it and involving the community in some of the decision making so people get to know him."
The hard-charging Vallas also will have to adjust to a culture with a "laissez faire" attitude, Riedlinger said. Locals move slower and are more accepting of the status quo even when it's subpar, he said.
"It's a difficult place to get things done," he said.
One of the first things Vallas will need to do is find teachers and rooms for the additional 9,000 to 13,000 children returning to district schools.
That will be his biggest challenge, at least at first, said outgoing superintendent Robin Jarvis. Just finding reliable construction help is difficult.
"We really are completely rehabilitating a city all at one time," she said.
The district's new construction is in addition to ongoing rehabilitation and repair.
"A lot of our buildings before Katrina were basically neglected and not kept to pristine standards," John McDonogh principal Donald Jackson said. "Post-Katrina, the buildings were returned to pre-Katrina standards, which wasn't saying much."
Vallas has said he enjoys a challenge. He took the helm in Philadelphia in July 2002, just after a state takeover, as the district began the nation's largest experiment in the privatization of public schools. For years, he enjoyed popular and political support, a platform that became less stable in recent months amid an increase in school violence and the discovery of a $73 million deficit.
But perhaps most importantly, Vallas is credited with bringing hope to a struggling district, creating excitement about the Philadelphia schools.
It's something he hopes to repeat in New Orleans.
Said Vallas, "I'm up to it."