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A Guide to Success 

The future of New Orleans lies in large part in the education of our children, and every child has the right to an education that will prepare them for a promising future. Hurricane Katrina devastated the New Orleans Public School system, damaging classrooms, scattering students and teachers and leaving the system in disarray. Its recovery, however, has given the city an unprecedented opportunity to change the paradigm of public education in New Orleans and the community has responded by setting up charter schools, rethinking what public education can be and opening up choices for students.

All the changes have caused confusion and frustration as parents scramble to enroll their children in a school system they no longer recognize. Many are unaware that they now have more choices about which school their children can attend, a change from the old system of going to whichever school was in your district. To help families navigate this changing landscape and make the most of the improvements, a coalition of community groups has published New Orleans Parents' Guide to Public Schools.

"There was an absolute black hole in the landscape of education," says Sarah Usdin of New Schools for New Orleans. "Nowhere was there all the information combined into one place, and we recognized a need to fill that black hole and empower the community [with] information of what was out there. The more accessible that information, the better it is for everybody."

The Parent's Guide is a step-by-step handbook for selecting the right school for your child. It tells you which documents you will need for enrollment and how to replace any that you've lost. More important, it serves as a tutorial on how to match your child to the best educational environment for him or her by presenting thought-provoking questions parents should ask themselves and their child about what makes school an enriching experience, whether it has to do with extracurricular activities, before- and after-school child care or other factors. It also gives a step-by-step model for how to read a school information page. There is one for every school in the city. It also outlines questions to ask school officials and even provides a work sheet and space to take notes when you tour schools.

"This guide gives them the opportunity to raise the level of understanding of families about what quality education can look like, and also to advocate for more quality schools," says Aesha Rasheed of the New Orleans Network and editor of the handbook. Parents who are more affluent and have more resources have always been able to find the schools that will provide their children with the best education, often in the private school sector. Parents with children in public schools also should be able to demand the same quality for their children, Rasheed says.

The book includes a list of all 69 public schools open in New Orleans as well as a map that shows where they are, followed by information pages on each school that shows the address, a photograph of the building, the grades it serves, its mission statement, the size of the student population, how to register, whether there are special requirements for enrollment, the type of transportation provided, what health and child care services are available, any special programs and extracurricular activities.

The ultimate goal of the handbook is to provide families with all the information they need about public schools in a format that is digestible and easy to understand. "If you don't know what to ask for and to demand, you are more apt to accept what is offered," says Rasheed. "We haven't engaged in a public discourse about having quality public education in New Orleans in some time."

Agenda for Children, New Schools for New Orleans, New Orleans Network, Operation Reach Inc. and the Urban League of New Orleans collaborated to publish the 95-page handbook, which will be available to parents on Friday, June 8. Parents can pick up the handbook at any open public school, public libraries and a host of community organizations. A complete list of locations will be available online at starting Friday. Families who are still displaced in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Memphis and Oklahoma City can pick up handbooks at Urban League affiliates in those cities.

The handbook was published in cooperation with New Orleans Public Schools, the Recovery School District and Louisiana Department of Education and all the information was verified by the schools. Because the education landscape in New Orleans is constantly changing, however, the group plans to update the published handbook as needed, and constant updates will be available on the Web site.

The community groups also plan to hold teaching focus groups with parents and local leaders in an effort to make future handbooks more useful and complete.

"Empowering all of our families is a critical step for us to redesign public education in New Orleans," Usdin says. "We're focused on student achievement and academic outcomes. We have an opportunity to push us in that direction. We're redefining what the expectations of public education are ... and making sure our students get the best education they can.

"We believe it is one of the most fundamental things we can do for New Orleans and its recovery."

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