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Empty schools reflect slow pace of New Orleans recovery

NEW ORLEANS -- Christina Simmons, all smiles and flashing smart eyes, is a rare spark. It isn't because of her 3.8 grade-point average and high test scores, though those certainly set her apart in one of the country's worst-performing public school districts. And it isn't because she actually likes going to class.

Christina, 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 the recovery effort 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.

Now, they're 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, now scheduled for Dec. 14, of five schools in the little-damaged Algiers neighborhood. Classes are planned for eight days before breaking for the holidays. The rest of the students are out there somewhere, their returns uncertain at best, unlikely at worst.

''The seeds are dispersed in the wind," said school nurse Caroline Thibodaux, now unemployed.

The schools may be the best barometer of the health of New Orleans' 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 40 or so administrators, the few public school employees who are still on the payroll after a systemwide furlough, are now crowded into kid-size computer desks at an elementary school. Messages -- from the sad, the frustrated, and the confused -- blink onto their screens. The mother of an honors student enrolled in another school district says: ''Her teacher has stated to the class that if he has to take in another Katrina student he is going to scream."

Certainly, the tens of thousands of parents and students who haven't surfaced can be excused. Only the most persistent -- only the Christina Simmonses -- are here.

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 can be found. And, in the end, many of the schools will cease to exist because they will be closed for years for repairs.

Enrollment figures are low citywide, in dry neighborhoods and wet ones, but are worst in the most damaged parts of town.

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