“So, how did you do in school Tete; did you pass?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what did you have on your final report card?”
“A’s and B’s.”
“I’m sure you passed with those grades Tete, are you ready for the 4th grade?”
“What about you two Gabriel and Taylor?”
“Yes we passed, and we’re ready for summer!”
“And you Shawn?”
“I passed, and I did ok in school. I had a 3.2 GPA. I would have done better if my teachers were there more often.”
Those words, that statement, and the tone of that 14-year-old young girl voice still resonate with me today as if I just had the conversation minutes ago. This was a family discussion that we had while driving to our family vacation this year. A time that should be joyful in a teenager’s life especially during summer, yet so many of our young people are contemplating what happens next in their life as it pertains to their education. What is around the corner or lies next in this chapter of my life? For a young lady in her freshman year of high school to have to ponder thoughts of having done a better job in school if the adults in her life were there on a more consistent basis is to me the most appalling and disrespectful thing that a school district could do to the students they are entrusted to educate. These are the byproducts of a school takeover.
Sadly, this is only the tip of the iceberg for many of our young adults as they navigate their high school years in an attempt to present the best snapshot of themselves to universities, career path programs or military recruiters.
Shawn says that at the beginning of the school year she had most of her teachers, but by midyear, many of them started to dwindle. In an in depth conversation with her, she expressed the lack of mutual respect from faculty and students. There were too many back and forth verbal spats that would show blatant disrespect from students and a total lack of professionalism in response from teachers as well, and there was no consistent form of discipline established by the school administration.
“Words can’t explain – horrible. Leaky roofs, holes in the floor, window units that have to be turned off because they leak in the room and some just don’t work.” Shawn’s description of the high school that she will hold memories of for the rest of her life was truly gripping. These conditions they expect our children to concentrate and retain information in are horrendous. The OPSB and Superintendent Henderson Lewis should be held accountable for such buildings in major disrepair. Additionally, as her freshman year progressed, Shawn had to deal with the inconsistency from her teachers, an act which is usually a byproduct of a school that is in limbo. Meaning the district is trying to decide what is going to happen with the school the following school year. This chain of events usually keeps parents, students, and school staff in a state of being held, hostage.
“We would hear teachers gossiping about the school being taken over, but when we would ask what is happening with the school or what would happen next year we would never get a straight answer – just the run around and incomplete thoughts,” uttered Shawn. “To not know is unsettling but I still have to do my best and hope for better to come.”
Finally, after many closed door meetings, public meetings, an outcry from alumni and the other bureaucracy that goes on at OPSB an announcement was made and Eleanor McMain Secondary School was awarded to InspireNola charter management group.
“We were finally told who was going to get the school, and they did come and talk to us, and it sounds good, yet we will see and seeing is believing. I am still hoping for the best, and I will do my best and do my part.”
Shawn’s voice is a symbol, and her optimism is a beacon for many of our young adults nationwide. Her voice resonates and represents the commitment from so many of these young adults who are treading water in this vast system we call education. Honestly, they don’t have time to wait on us to figure it out. They are unwavering and dedicated in their pursuit of education, holistic life lessons, and trials which will make them stronger and better.
Can we please meet the Shawns of our communities, our cities and of our nation with the same vigor, optimism, and dedication that they are bringing to the table? Their future depends on it!
“Any closure or takeover would not happen until next summer. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education usually votes on charter renewal in December.”
“[What] we are trying to do is increase the graduation rate and increase the standards. That makes a difference.”
Three Years Later, No Significant Performance Improvements? What Can We Learn from the State’s Voucher Program
If you’re like most parents, you simply want the best for your child(ren). And whatever it takes to attain it, you are likely willing to do. For a parent whose child(ren) attends a public school in New Orleans, making the decision (or allowing the city’s centralized enrollment process One-App to make it for you) on which school your child attends can be as nerve-wrecking as it is empowering; but either way, it’s a decision that can be a strong determinant of how successful your child is in his/her future.
Following the results of a three-year study that identifies the academic outcomes (specifically English and math performance) of student recipients of the state’s private school vouchers provides through Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP), parents can now know more about the impact of making the switch from public to private school settings.
Given that most often a negative narrative is associated with public education within the country and in New Orleans specifically, I would imagine parents of students attending a failing public school would jump on the chance to have their child enrolled in a private school setting, likely with the assumption their child would receive an educational opportunity that is much greater in comparison, but according to the report, “Overall, participating in the LSP had no statistically significant impact on student English/Language Arts (E/LA) or math scores after using an LSP scholarship for three years.” Three years later, the recipients would be on the same performance levels as their peers who remained enrolled in public school.
Initially, upon reading the summaries of the study, I wanted to acknowledge what my expectations would be as a parent who decided to make the switch and I concluded I would expect my child’s performance to excel – period. The reality is that playing the “catch up” game is probably a lot more difficult than we like to think. In addition to low-income, an additional requirement for admission is that the student attends a low performing school, as described in greater detail by the Education Research Alliance. “The Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP) is a statewide initiative offering publicly funded vouchers to enroll in local private schools to students in low-performing schools with family income no greater than 250 percent of the poverty line.”
For a child, becoming acclimated to a different school culture, identifying where one lies academically in comparison to the previously enrolled students, and considering the different economic backgrounds is probably a lot more challenging than we would like to think.
Even more interesting is the difference in costs between both sectors, public and private, as the report goes on to state, “Average tuition at participating private schools range from $2,966 to $8,999, with a median cost of $4,925, compared to an average total minimum foundation program per pupil amount of $8,500 for Louisiana public schools in the 2012-13 school year.” For practical purposes, if my son was eligible for admission into the voucher program during his fourth grade school year, by the end of his sixth grade school year, based on the data, his English and math performance levels should be equivalent to the comparison group of students who were not accepted into the voucher program. Rather than the state fund his public school education at $25,500 for those three academic years, it would fund approximately, $14,775 – a $10,725 difference. Think about this dollar amount for the approximate 7,100 students enrolled in the state’s voucher program.
So what should we take away from these results?
Well the fact there is even a gateway made available to funnel students from one system to another, is a clear indicator things are not right with the system itself. It’s kind of equivalent to a landlord allowing its tenants to relocate from an outdated unit to a better operable and fancier one. The difference with the property is the money it will take to repair the older units will be recouped in rent. Where is the recoup for our children who remain enrolled in the failing schools? Everyone can’t receive a voucher to make the switch to potentially receive a different experience.
Furthermore, if less money is being spent to potentially produce similar academic outcomes, then perhaps a tighter focus should be made on what resources the public dollars are being utilized to support systems (including academics, discipline practices, and teacher qualifications, etc.) because while impoverished communities are accompanied with an array of challenges, our state, and its students cannot continue to afford to do less, with more.
Click here to read the Education Research Alliance’s full report.
Each and every day we can scroll timelines, visit social media sites or peruse the internet and find a myriad of stories about charter schools. You don’t have to look far to find the good, the bad or the ugly. My recent experiences have taught me parents really don’t have the time, resources or information to make an informed decision on whether their child should attend a charter or traditional school; they just want a good school for their child. The bulk of information out there could scare many parents away and in many cases, there is a lack of information. This is evident when you Google, “What is a charter school?” The many articles that come up simply explaining the charter school dynamic leave parents mystified. I also contend most of these articles are cookie cutter approaches to explain something that wasn’t and isn’t suppose to fit in a box or one’s own explanation or theory about what a charter school is.
School choice, which most charter proponents champion and a right that I wholeheartedly believe in, is about choosing the best school to fit your child’s learning ability; it should work for you and your family. A particular school may be perfectly situated for one student and family while it may not work at all for another.
A generic article simply spewing out basic PowerPoint information about, “What is a charter school?” is antiquated and probably shouldn’t be used from here on out. Instead, I believe that a constantly updated real-time version of what your charter school offers a better picture of what a charter school can be. They all should have great autonomy which gives each one their own uniqueness in the world of education.
The only way to truly know what a charter school is would be to enlist the experiences, thoughts, and stories of those people who are living the charter life on a daily basis. As a father, uncle and cousin of NOLA students, I believe parents and other organizations need to roll up our sleeves and become deeply embedded in the business of joining the educators and administrators who we are allowing to be part of our children’s lives. The majority of our children attend charter schools, but every charter school is not all equal. We cannot give a blanket stamp of approval just because it is a charter school; we have to be involved to understand.
I contend that there are numerous stories in the world of education dealing with charter schools and school choice.The narrative should always come back full circle to families. Because there are still families who don’t have a thorough understanding of what charters are and what they mean to them. I also have to take to the mountain top and echo to us as adults who are involved in this work of making education better that at the end of the day it is solely about our most precious resources, our kids.
I am calling for a ramping up of the education reform ground game. Blogging, meetings, emails, and phone conferences are ok, but nothing beats a personal visit. Nothing is like making your way to ground zero and getting the story from those who are personally affected. I am not talking about going to an area and talking to the individuals or groups who you think know about education or is the voice of education in that area, but doing your due diligence and finding those true accounts that may make us happy or just might make us sad and entice us to do a greater work. Then, and only then, will this reform of education take flight, spread its proverbial wings and soar giving us the great and constant gains that we know are attainable.
Let me begin by stating that I am a strong proponent for having more teachers that are representative and reflective of the population that it serves. I believe race match is a significant and valuable contributor to student performance and success.
Translation: black teachers + black kids = potentially more support and opportunities.
But in the city of New Orleans, this is not our reality. Until school talent search teams employ recruitment methods that better address the issue of limited black teaching staff, this will be our reality for some time.
The NOLA public school system has had its struggles and discussions were in place to revamp the district, but when Katrina happened in 2005, the revamp was expedited. NOLA students needed schools and charters became the answer. In the process, teachers were fired or displaced. This made charter schools both the hero and the villain at the same time.
Personally, as a black staff member of a NOLA charter school, the conversations on charter schools and non-black teachers is one of nuance. One of the reasons I wanted to work in a school within my city was because I didn’t see many staff members that looked like me during my school visits as a Mental Health Professional and I was concerned; I was confused about this. From the complaints I would often hear from parents and community members, so were they.
The nuance, however, comes into play for me because while I stand firm that a stronger black presence is necessary within the city’s schools, I can honestly appreciate the contributions of a lot of my white colleagues. I know they have good intentions and they offer support comparable to their black counterparts. But for many of our families, this is not good enough. Unfortunately, for a lot of our transplant teaching professionals, a lot of negative experiences (harsh discipline practices, high turnover, etc.) and cultural differences have made the generalization of white teachers in the city’s public schools an unfavorable one.
As stated in an article from The Hechinger Report focused on the city’s loss of black educators:
Pre-Katrina New Orleans schools were a bit of an anomaly. In 2003, just 15 percent of teachers in large urban districts across the country were black. But in New Orleans, teaching was largely a job done by black women: 71 percent of teachers were black and 78 percent were women. The demographics of the city’s teacher workforce have changed drastically since: By 2014, black teachers comprised a little less than half of the city’s teacher corps.
From my perception, a lot of the city’s population that was part of the school system before Katrina simply miss the ties between their schools, teachers, and the communities where they lived. There’s a disconnect and a lost legacy between a lot of schools and communities and race compounds this disconnect.
A recent (2017) study conducted by Johns Hopkins University concluded that low-income black students who have at least one black teacher in elementary school are significantly more likely to graduate high school and consider attending college.
Assistant Professor Nicholas Papageorge added:
We’re seeing spending just one year with a teacher of the same race can move the dial on one of the most frustratingly persistent gaps in educational attainment — that of low-income black boys. It not only moves the dial, it moves the dial in a powerful way.”
The conclusion of this research is common sense to me, but I understand that data is needed to implement systemic change – or at least start the dialogue for it. This data also serves as a stark reminder that such an experience and opportunity may not present itself to the approximate 87% of African American students enrolled in the New Orleans’ charter schools. This is especially concerning given that the Louisiana Department of Education also reports the percentage of New Orleans students who are economically disadvantaged is greater today than before Hurricane Katrina (92% of enrollment at RSD charter schools, 86% at OPSB direct-run schools, and 59% at OPSB charter schools). Knowing what is versus what our students need according to research is the work and responsibility of school leaders and networks. If we know what inputs will produce more favorable outcomes, skirting around this issue is dangerous.
But for now, if it isn’t a young, 22 year old from the midwest that relocates to the city to teach your child, then who will? The fact is we don’t have enough black educators within our city’s schools and because of organizations like Teach for America, New Orleans has become the place to be for new teachers looking to find out if they have what it takes “to disrupt inequality and understand the systemic problems that need solving.”
And as stated in a publication from Education Week following the Johns Hopkins study, “What’s at stake now is how education reformers choose to respond…We must make the recruiting and retaining of black teachers a top priority.” But, until we see the changes(and we know it will take some time), school leaders owe it to everyone to ensure that its teaching staff is both well prepared before and well supported throughout their time working with students and their families. Not just academically prepared, but culturally prepared. Because what good is great content, if the speaker can’t connect with its’ audience?
As my son enters Pre-K and will have a non-black teacher (whom I adored during our first meeting) as his first introduction to school, I know, we as parents need to increase our presence within our children’s learning and school environments to challenge practices and systems that perpetuate the failure our educational system has seen for generations. Rather than sit in the negative and pessimistic mindsets that have plagued us about the shifts in our teaching culture, our increased collaboration with schools will allow us to be able to witness and communicate more appreciation and support for the white teachers and staff that demonstrate to our children the love they would want for their own. Because despite the negative generalizations that exist, valuable and nurturing white teachers do exist too.
Working in education in this city, I’ve begun to realize that Shantell Lee and the countless other New Orleanians who have succeeded are really something to be celebrated. Not because they are some sort of an anomaly, but because they are not an anomaly. Despite so many structural barriers that work against her and others like her, Shantell has risen to success—and not just success defined by the normal social markers of education and money. She is also successful in the ways we often take for granted: in her kindness, compassion, and willingness to serve the community.
I first met Shantell in the classroom. We were both students in the University of New Orleans’s master’s program taking a non-fiction course. At that time, I noticed she was smart and friendly, but I was too absorbed in my own studies and focused on laying down roots in New Orleans to get to know her. Then, about a year ago, we began sitting in education policy meetings together. Although I still didn’t know her very well, I had a clearer picture of who she is simply because I know New Orleans a bit better. I began to see her in a new light. I saw how important her story is to the educational narrative of New Orleans. We spend so much time speaking about statistics, quantifying success or failure, or debating policy that we sometimes lose sight of the spirited people around us doing the hard work.
Recently, I asked Shantell to talk about her education journey.
There was not a whole lot that surprised me about her story because I’ve made it my job to be familiar with both the data and the people’s stories around me since moving to New Orleans. I didn’t have to be surprised to be impressed and inspired. Shantell was the kid we all hoped to have in our lives and who teachers wanted in the classroom, the kid who despite poverty and despair that was engaged and driven in the classroom.
She attended elementary school in New Orleans, but in middle school, her parents transferred her to Jefferson Parish, where all of her classmates were white. Shantell experienced culture shock, but she learned to adapt and to “code-shift” in her new environment. She was also grateful for the support she received. In the 8th grade, one of her teachers asked her to work on the school newspaper because she was excelling in her English classes and enjoyed writing. “She saw something in me before I saw it in myself,” Shantell said. The teacher talked to her about college and gave her encouragement. Before this, she hadn’t really thought about college.
“My parents didn’t really have time to focus on my education. They were always working. My older sister was a lot different than me. She attended New Orleans Public Schools and I used to ask her why she didn’t bring books to school. No one was checking my report card or talking about college. No one knew how to get into college or about scholarships.”
When she did apply to college, she applied only to Dillard because she was interested in an HBCU and they had accepted her before she got around to finishing an application to Xavier. She was also pregnant her senior year in high school. She went to school half day and worked part-time at a local grocery store.
But for her, the real challenge was the first year of college. “It was HELL,” she told me. “There was just a lot happening. I had a baby. I was still working nearly full time. My mother passed away and I was on academic probation by the end of the 2nd semester.”
She relayed this to me fairly casually, but I was still amazed. I couldn’t imagine those kinds of struggles my freshman year. I had gotten so stressed out by my statistics exam, I’d started having tension headaches. Shantell’s story put it all in perspective. At every step in her education, she had to overcome the heaviest burdens and the biggest of challenges to achieve the same level of success as most students. Thankfully, Shantell had support in the form of a professor who helped her secure internships and encouraged her to obtain her Master’s degree.
At Dillard, Shantell also saw the difference between her skills and the students from Orleans Parish. “Some of those students didn’t know how to write a paper. In Jefferson Parish, I was writing five-page papers all the time my senior year. I saw there was a different standard. We knew how to write and do research.”
In hindsight, she was grateful for the opportunities she’d been given and wondered how it would have been different if she had gone to Orleans Parish schools. “There was a school newspaper, so I was able to have that ah-ha moment with that teacher in the 8th grade. And that doesn’t exist in Orleans Parish. Even if there was a teacher who saw my potential, there wouldn’t have been a track to put me on. And classroom sizes are very different. A teacher probably wouldn’t have even had the time to see that I was good.”
Shantell has a lot of knowledge about education, not just from her own experience, but she also has been working in the education field for the past few years. In her current position, she helps parents with One-App, which is the school enrollment system in New Orleans. She also helps run after-school programs. Asked what she thinks about schools today, she doesn’t hesitate.
“It’s very, very scary. Our kids in the afterschool program don’t know how to do the work. If it was just one, that’d be different. But it’s the entire fifth-grade group. And I ask them, ‘Well, where are your notes?’ and they tell me they aren’t allowed to take notes. They don’t have textbooks and no notes to reference either. How are they supposed to succeed?”
She also shared some of her thoughts on education reform. First and foremost, she wants parents to be empowered to send their children to the right school. When it came to her daughter going to kindergarten, she had an excel sheet and wouldn’t even consider the worst performing schools.
“I want them to do research and stop sending their babies to horrible schools. I want them to ask questions; be involved.” This is why she sometimes sends parents home with their own homework assignments while helping them with One-App. She explains to them that there is more to a school than a letter grade. She asks them questions about medications because perhaps their child needs a school with an on-site clinic or a nurse. Or does the school have a zero-tolerance policy? “Because that might not work if your baby is anxious,” she says.
She also questions the turnover of teachers. “Passion and compassion can’t be taught. When only half of the teachers are coming back, that creates inconsistency in the school, in the child’s life.”
I can tell she cares very deeply about the children she works with, but she didn’t actually expect to be doing this work. She laughs. “People always told me I’d end up in education. I always said no. I told them it doesn’t pay and I need money.” She imagined she would go on to get her Ph.D. and teach literature at the university level, but working as a graduate assistant and seeing how the dynamics of racism, classism, and sexism operate in academia, she began to change her mind. She had also applied for an internship in literacy that was supposed to be with adults but ended up as a program for kids. She loved it. She loved talking to kids about their lives and hearing their perspectives. This is when her ideas about her career path really began to shift. She saw the harsh reality children were facing and knew she could provide hope through her own experiences.
“Some of those kids aren’t thinking about college because no one has told them about it. They need someone to say, ‘You’re good at this.’ They think you need money. But I tell them my family was poor-poor, and I still made it.”
At the end of the interview, I asked Shantell what she would say to herself as a child and what would she tell the imaginary self that went through Orleans Parish schools. She thought about it for a moment before answering both.
“You are as smart as you think you are. And you can do whatever. It’s important to tell my teens that. They aren’t told that enough.”
I nodded. I gave her a hug and left from the meeting full of hope. Shantell’s story is certainly a story that makes it seem possible.
There’s so much I didn’t know growing up. There were things my mom didn’t know and therefore couldn’t teach me. Things my teachers may have known, but couldn’t tell me because they’d potentially lose their jobs. For some reason, I thought growing up black and poor meant I had been through something that would, in turn, make me GREAT – make me successful. I wanted to be the opposite of my upbringing, but adversity with no insight or depth can be a dangerous thing.
And now, as an adult, and with a greater frame of reference, I now question and think differently about holidays; they just aren’t the same to me anymore. For most New Orleans families, I believe it’s in our nature to long for opportunities to celebrate. With so many citywide events and festivals that invite people from all over the country, it’s ingrained in us. It’s our culture. But for me, this July 4th seems different. A strange feeling passes when I get that “Happy 4th of July!” text message. I don’t respond. Even seeing the American flag waving, or the idea of dressing my son in a t-shirt of its liking feels questionable. While I enjoy the great food, time spent with family and friends, and the happiness that radiates from those who are free from their jobs on this day, I can’t help but sulk in the struggle of my people and our ongoing fight for liberty and justice, the hallmarks of this country’s human rights.
I mean, I don’t want to be an extremist and sweat out my hair by wearing black leather to the family barbecue, but I do think it is important to acknowledge that this is a holiday met with unsettling feelings for many blacks in America. The uneasy race relations and strife that linger within our country at this very moment don’t make it any better. A lot of feelings that resonated then, still resonate now as I reflect on Frederick Douglass’ depiction of his experiences during his speech “The Meaning of Fourth of July for the Negro” on July 5, 1852:
Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
Conceivably, as a maturing black woman who is more conscious than I’ve ever been, the mother of a black male, and one who stands in front of a generation of black high school students each day as a professional, I’ve succumbed to drowning in my own thoughts and feelings of inequality and inequity, and the feeling for me is a real one, a haunting one, but nevertheless, a real one. The conflicting messages I witness about this July 4th only add to my racing thoughts.
Is this really a day worth celebrating?
Should I celebrate?
Should we celebrate?
And celebrate what exactly?
We surely can’t celebrate our brothers, sons, and fathers being murdered by white officers with no one being held accountable. We can’t celebrate blacks making up only 13.3% of the country’s population yet 37.7% of the country’s prison population. Nor can we celebrate black and brown students being shuffled through an educational system that has failed us since we were first allowed to enter its doors. These harsh facts leave no room for celebration.
So for now, let’s celebrate ourselves.
Celebrate our families.
Celebrate our communities.
And not just on July 4th, but every day forward. All the while, never forgetting how far we have to go, but remaining hopeful that what we’ve endured gives us the strength to keep fighting.
To read Frederick Douglass’ speech in its entirety, click here.