March 19, 2021

Luis Mirón: Whatever Happened to Culturally Engaged Schools: A Lament

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Dr. Luis Mirón is the former dean of College of Social Sciences at Loyola University. Here he offers more lessons from the charter takeover of New Orleans. He gives the charter revolution credit for some achievements, but he questions what has been lost in the bargain in community engagement and local culture, and points out some lessons to be heeded beyond NOLA.

In 2008, one of the principal architects of the (now) all-charter school system, then superintendent of the Recovery School District (RSD) Paul Vallas, told a symposium of educators that the state was looking for a mix of schools to reform the putative failing schools in New Orleans. It was unlikely that Vallas had understood how he vastly underestimated the degree to which charter school proponents would succeed. Today, New Orleans stands as the only school system in the country that consists of all charter schools. While this “only in New Orleans” phenomenon is distinctive, and even a source of pride to many who were fed up with the shenanigans of the old governing board, the unintended consequences of this extreme makeover of public education in the city is hurting its cultural traditions, the decades of legacies of “standing on the shoulders” of mostly black artists, musicians, writers, painters—and yes—teachers. It’s too early to tell, even after more than fifteen years after the Great Flood, if the legacy of radical school reform in New Orleans will heal the wounds suffered in the black and brown communities as a result of dismantling many of the culturally-rich neighborhood schools. An equally plausible scenario depicts a radical makeover that may worsen these post traumatic wounds, making them more vulnerable to infection.


It’s instructive to briefly summarize how the schools arrived at a place where they stand out as the only school district in the country that forces families to choose from a one-size-fits all system of charter schools, a potpourri of curricula. In the main the customized curricula evolved from the imaginations of national neo-liberal reform institutions, whose ideology embedded an ethos that largely blamed school failure (Read: urban school districts) on teachers’ unions, and allegedly corrupt elected school boards. The narrative was that “old-school” superintendents rose to the top ranks of the recalcitrant bureaucracy by bowing to the entrenched reform-resistant professionals. Many of these national organizations are well-known locally, Teach for America, The Gates Foundation, Bloomberg, and the Walton Foundation, among others.


The optics of this revolution in education do not look good—most of the principal architects in the takeover of our local public schools are white. There’s a widely-held position in the teachers’ union (UTNO) and among scores of the laid-off black teachers in New Orleans after Katrina that the move to charters was racist, the attacks against the mostly-black school board racially motivated.


Arguably, all of these former players have accomplished their number one goal–to create a system of public schools, rather than a public school system. The distinction is that the former operates independently, under the oversight of its own governing board, and gives the principal wide latitude to hire and fire teachers and offer a diverse, “customized” curricula. The latter provided a central administration, a governing board that oversaw all of the schools, and with few exceptions for example, magnet schools and “free schools” in the 70s, prescribed tight formulas for school personnel.


For creating this new system, New Orleans should commend the charter school community: Student achievement has risen, high school graduation rates have increased, and college admissions are on the rise. Lastly, they have categorically demonstrated, I believe, that when it comes to school performance, students should not “be limited by the zip code” of their home addresses.


Over time, these achievements may come at a high cost: By removing schools from their longstanding sites, the damage incurred by the communities that once hosted neighborhood schools could outweigh the gains in student performance over the long term.


Many neighborhood schools once enjoyed a strong role in promoting the creative arts (music, writing and visual arts in particular) and in so doing helped preserve the cultural traditions that African-Americans, Latinos/Hispanics, and Asian Americans fostered. The history of the system of (mostly neighborhood) schools in New Orleans is one laced with high- quality arts, cultural, and recreational programs, both during the school day, and in after-school programs that most of the neighborhood schools offered during the 80s and early 90s to any parents that needed after school care and could afford the very modest fees. A within-school art curriculum functioned at McDonough 15, where the clay artist Lucienne Carmichael built her 50-50 black/white globally recognized “lighthouse school”—from scratch. The enrollment consisted of largely underperforming students living in or near the French Quarter. Outstanding sports teams performed at Fortier High, which now houses the Lusher campus. There existed high quality curriculum in literature and language arts at Nicholls High School, a school in Bywater, which served working class and lower middle class students. McDonough 42, an elementary school, served the Treme neighborhood with its cultural mission as the “Guardian of the Groove” that nourished black children in Treme.


Granted, many of these schools operated when the demographics in the city were markedly different. Bywater, where Nicholls offered academically challenging creative writing courses, initially housing the nationally recognized “Students at the Center” before morphing into Douglass Charter School, was largely a working class neighborhood in the Upper 9th ward, yet to become a product of gentrification. The old Fortier High School on Freret (now Lusher High) also had a significant white population, and McMain attracted students from nearby Broadmoor, a middle class neighborhood abutting Nashville and Napoleon. Nonetheless, these community-responsive, student-centered schools, were hallmarks of learning that creatively responded to the children in their neighborhoods and the cultures of the local communities that embedded the schools. And exceptional principals and teachers guided them, educators like John Smith at Fortier and creative writing instructors like Jim Randels at McMain, who co-founded the Students at the Center writing program, first implementing the program at Nicholls High. (Note: McMain was an “open-admission” school when Jim and his co-founder the poet Kalumu ya Salam taught). Roslyn Smith, a former assistant superintendent chaired the initial Treme Charter School governing board, which continued the cultural traditions of the neighborhood school McDonough 42 which preceded it.


As a result of the dissolution of neighborhood schools–the take-a-bus-ride to charters—children and older students may have lost contact with their communities. They may experience a sense of anomie. Anecdotal evidence indicates that black and brown children, and their families, may feel alienated, from their schools. Current students and alumni of Lusher Elementary School (which now occupies the old Fortier building) find evidence of systemic racism, most notably in the apparent refusal of its governing board, the head of school, and the CEO to rename the elementary schoo. Its historical benefactor, Robert Mills Lusher, was a slave owner.


This “system of schools” is behind the eight ball: The nationwide movement of Black Lives Matter has sparked a call for digging deep into the historical factors of systemic racism, the current protocols and practices of law enforcement, such as the use of “chokeholds” by police that threaten black lives, and a tone-death sensibility that shuts down—institutionally —the voices of oppressed minorities in their calls for freedom of expression, and the recognition of their humanity. Not to push this point too far, the recent display of insurrection at our nation’s Capitol by white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, and white nationalists, nostalgic for better days when their privilege status reigned supreme, is sufficient reason, alone, to pause the rhetoric of “let no student be limited by a zip code.” By continuing to shut down each and every charter school that fails to meet performance standards set by the state for (yet another) charter operator, head of school, and perhaps, even an altogether different cast of teachers, the opportunity to repair the cultural damage done becomes more remote.


So, what’s to be done? A beginning step would be for New Orleans school leaders to rethink the “one size fits all” of the charter system of loosely-governed public schools. Start with strategic experiments with a few soon-to-be closed schools and design neighborhood schools with a vision to help anchor, and sustain the culture of, their local neighborhoods. To be sure the new school district has supported an interspersed, select number of arts-integration programs at charter schools such as Homer A. Plessy Community School, as well as after-school arts and cultural programs at FirstLine Live Oak in the Irish Channel, but these have come in fits and starts).


Rather than closing “failing” schools, the Orleans Parish School Board and superintendent should create educational spaces where students and their families and neighbors can nurture their own cultural and racial identities. Teachers and school leaders and students rooted in their local communities, should engage in creative teaching and learning activities of their own making. We all owe this to the New Orleans community writ large.

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