RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
School has kicked off for many students around the country, including in New Orleans. And for the first time, the district is entirely made up of charter schools. The move away from traditional public schools and towards charters started in 2005 when the state took over after Hurricane Katrina. Jess Clark of member station WWNO has been taking a look at the consequences.
JESS CLARK, BYLINE: On a clear, August morning, fourth-grader Alongkorn Lafargue hops in the back seat of his father's car. He's wearing his school uniform - neatly ironed khakis and a bright blue polo shirt. It's embroidered with the logo of his new charter school, IDEA Oscar Dunn.
How are you feeling this morning?
ALONGKORN LAFARGUE: Good.
CLARK: Good. Are you excited to go to school?
Alongkorn says he likes this new school but won't say more. He's a quiet kid. His father, Alex Lafargue, says even he's had trouble getting his son to talk about his new school.
ALEX LAFARGUE: He was anxious. And I think his third week there now, he's starting to open up.
CLARK: The reason Alongkorn is going to a new charter school is because the district closed his old one, method H Nelson charter school. And Lafargue is very upset about the closure.
ALEX LAFARGUE: Orleans Parish School Board surely has not allowed me the choice to let him stay with family, to let him stay in the neighborhood, to let him stay within an enriched environment that he is pulled from since pre-K.
CLARK: But district officials have a different opinion about the environment at Nelson. Amanda Aiken is senior chief of NOLA Public Schools. She says Nelson's performance was unacceptable, noting that just 10% of students tested at grade level in recent years.
AMANDA AIKEN: We have to hold the line somewhere. That is the job that we have is to make those tough decisions but to take in all of the data we have and say this school is not preparing kids to be successful. What is our next step here?
CLARK: In New Orleans, that next step is often closure or handing the school to another charter group. This is a key piece of the strategy. Each spring, a handful of schools that fail to meet the mark close or change hands. And each fall, a new group of schools opens. According to Tulane University researcher Douglas Harris, this strategy has worked. His research shows students who go through a closure see an initial dip in test scores. But two years later, they're doing better than students who stayed in F-rated schools. Harris' newest study suggests the rise in overall test scores is directly tied to school closure and takeover.
DOUGLAS HARRIS: Close or take over the school, open another one, close and take over a school, open another one. You keep doing that. If you're doing it well, then those opening schools are better than the ones that you're closing and taking over, then that's going to lead to improvement in the city over time. And it did.
CLARK: Research from Tulane shows that before Hurricane Katrina, just 6% of New Orleans students tested at the, quote-unquote, "mastery level." By 2016, more than 30% were at mastery. Since then, scores have been stagnant or even declining. But Harris says closures and takeovers are still having an overall positive impact. Everyone isn't sold on this idea however.
ASHANA BIGARD: The way our system behaves is insane. It's like the opposite of common sense.
CLARK: Ashana Bigard is a parent and activist who helps students and families navigate New Orleans schools. She says the district's constant churn and burn of schools is destabilizing for students and their families.
BIGARD: Children do not need to be constantly upheaved, their education disrupted, their friendships.
CLARK: Bigard points to research showing that one of the most important things students need to thrive is stability, including stable relationships with teachers. Bigard wants the district to stop closing schools. Instead, when a school is failing, Bigard says the district should intervene.
BIGARD: Let's find out why they're failing.
CLARK: But even if the district does know why a charter school is failing, state law prevents many types of intervention. Since Hurricane Katrina, state and local officials have redefined the role of New Orleans school district, saying charter schools should mostly govern themselves. NOLA Public Schools sees its main role as deciding when to open new charter schools and when to shut them down or turn them over to new management.
ALEX LAFARGUE: OK, bud.
CLARK: Twenty minutes after Lafargue and his son leave their house, they arrive at IDEA Oscar Dunn. It's in an old building that's seen a number of schools come and go. Lafargue walks Alongkorn up to the front and sends him through the foggy glass doors. Overhead, a big metal marquee reads simply, elementary school. The letters from an old name have been pulled off, and there's a blank space.
ALEX LAFARGUE: Have a good day, buddy.
CLARK: Lafargue thinks Alongkorn will be OK. He says he sees little signs his son wants to be at school. Today, he caught him checking his hairstyle. After waving goodbye, Lafargue continues around to the cafeteria for a breakfast meet-and-greet with the principal.
ALEX LAFARGUE: Good morning. Good morning.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good morning. Grab yourself a pastry, a cup of coffee.
CLARK: Lafargue is beginning to build his new school community at IDEA Oscar Dunn. And Harris' research suggests that if the school performs like other IDEA charter schools, Alongkorn may do better academically here than Nelson. But Lafargue is not over the closure. Activist Ashana Bigard has begun organizing parents to file a lawsuit calling for a moratorium on school closures and new charter school openings. Lafargue was one of the first parents to sign on. For NPR News, I'm Jess Clark in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.