School in Shambles

Steve Ritea, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Oct. 22

After a tour of duty in Iraq, Army Sgt. John Hanson knew to expect the worst when he was called to duty after Hurricane Katrina. But he had no idea that the most difficult mission of his career would have little to do with the devastation wrought by the storm.

His mission: clean O. Perry Walker High School.

From the erupting toilet in the boys’ bathroom to the whiskey bottles hidden under piles of trash in the custodian’s office, Hanson said, “I didn’t think kids were going here, based on the condition of this school.”

As about 250 guardsmen work to clean and straighten up 23 relatively undamaged schools across the district, most of which officials hope to open in the months ahead, a good deal of the work soldiers are doing at some schools is maintenance and cleanup that needed to be done before the storm, often the result of years of neglect.

“This certainly displays lots of inadequacies and issues in these schools,” said Bill Roberti, the Orleans Parish public school district’s chief restructuring officer installed by turnaround firm Alvarez & Marsal. “We have to call the question on how some of these schools were being operated pre-Katrina.”

At Walker, which started classes along with the rest of the district 11 days before the storm, Hanson said his men loaded up and hauled off seven 30-yard long Dumpsters containing broken furniture and other trash. All of it, he said, was in the school before the storm.

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Down a hall lined with lockers bolted shut, beneath a stretch of exposed fluorescent bulbs that buzzed overhead, Hanson led the way to the school’s drama room, where a student who visited the school last week told him she had a geometry class.

Before guardsmen arrived three weeks ago, the room’s stage was a mess of boxes, books and abandoned computer equipment, with the area around desks littered by much of the same. Friday, the room was organized with military precision: books in neat piles and computers and keyboards neatly stacked in a corner.

About 75 open boxes of student records that littered a hallway behind the drama room have been carefully organized off to the side of the room.

That mess can perhaps be explained by what Hanson and his men found in the head custodian’s office: several bottles of Seagram’s 7 whiskey and a number of used condoms.

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During a tour of the boys’ bathroom, where many of the toilets lack separating stalls, Hanson warned visitors to “stand back” from the line of bowls.

When he flushed, it was clear that his warning was well-heeded, as water shot six feet from the bowl.

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