Rebuild. Rebirth. Renew.

By Naomi Dillon and Kathleen Vail

When she saw her school on CNN, Mary Haynes-Smith allowed herself one good cry and a moment of despair. Then she started developing plans to reopen Bradley Elementary, which was sitting in eight feet of water following Hurricane Katrina’s devastating wrath.

Months later, the principal had contacted staff members scattered across the country. They agreed to meet at the school the day after Christmas to start the cleanup. And then reality set in. Bradley, like many public schools in New Orleans, would not reopen soon -- if at all.

When Katrina’s storm surge overwhelmed the city’s levees, the floodwater laid waste to entire neighborhoods and schools already ravaged by poverty, corruption, and neglect.

But out of the wreckage -- classrooms reeking from the muck and mold, desks crushed to kindling, floorboards warped like ocean waves -- rises an unparalleled opportunity: the rebirth of one of the most troubled urban school districts in the United States.

The prospect of starting over and doing it right is one of the few things buoying spirits in the flood-ravaged city. It is a great experiment, one that could reverse the fortunes of New Orleans or leave another generation of students mired in a bureaucracy known for poor money management, political tug-of-wars, and a culture of chicanery.

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