The Second Line Blog

Beating the Odds

Troy Simons is a New Orleans success story. Mr. Simons overcame incredible adversity to graduate from Sci Academy in New Orleans. He is currently in graduate school at Yale University.
“When I saw myself going the wrong way, and I saw my friend dying. I realized that I was gonna die and I had to make a decision.”
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When Something Isn’t Right With Your Children’s School, How Do You Fix It?

There is a beauty in the realization that something isn’t right with education in your community. Also, I have never been one to shine light on a situation without engaging and offering a solution. For many of us in the New Orleans community, the post-Katrina education environment has acted as a catalyst to catapult many of us into larger roles within our community. The door to these roles was opened by parenthood and we walked through the door to fight for the best for our children as advocates. I have always been active in my children’s lives from extracurricular activities to education, but two years ago in early 2015 an incident that occurred at my daughter’s school has changed my thoughts and actions toward the educational outcomes for every child in New Orleans.  

It was the all too familiar occurrence in our city – close a school doors completely or to give it to another CMO (Charter Management Operator). This situation has riddled the children of our city with displacement, uncertainty, and inconsistencies. This charter surge in New Orleans has clearly hurt their development. We, as parents of Andrew H. Wilson, were thrust into a situation that would affect our children’s future, so we decided we would be an intricate part of this process that was about to change our children’s education. Little did we know it would have bigger implications on education in our city as a whole.

There is a saying that “power concedes nothing without a demand” and we began the process of demanding to be involved in this school transfer process. No parents had ever attempted to be part of the decision process surrounding a school takeover, but we were determined. We came together on our own after work and came up with a game plan. I personally believe the success of our mission was enhanced because of how we did it. We were adamant and unrelenting yet professional and mannerable in our request to be involved and we stayed informed about decisions surrounding the transfer process. The Wilson Parents wanted in.

Needless to say, we got in, but bragging rights weren’t warranted yet; the real work was about to begin. What it did was change the face and structure of decision making in public education throughout our city for every child and family. It also established a blueprint for a dynamic, school, parent and community partnership. Wilson parents were successful in choosing the operator we felt had the best overall fit to move the school forward. That operator was InspireNola charter schools.  From the start, a partnership blossomed and the solutions started to flow from both sides of the aisle.

The nonchalant culture of the school needed to change and it was changed with students and parents involvement in the process. The adults in the building who didn’t necessarily have our children’s best interest at heart were gone from the building which made way for teachers who were vested in our children’s ability and future. The community partnerships were reevaluated and commitment from those stakeholders who helped the students and families of Wilson were reestablished. The school building was painted, floor shined, new landscaping and walls adorned with positive reinforcement because we all know image is everything and the better the appearance the better the success level.

A solid foundation was formed between home and school. A commitment to rapidly and aggressively changing the education levels of our children was pushed. After school tutoring, Saturday class and summer school employed. When I tell you it paid off, I mean it paid off. In the first year of the transfer, Andrew’s H. Wilson improved its letter grade from an F to a C. Our children also improved their Leap test scores by 29 points. In addition to those amazing gains, an organization (who many said wouldn’t want to touch turnaround work) brought their winning formula and began a journey down a road of providing high-quality education to more students. Also, the parents of Andrew H. Wilson established a precedent for parents showing up and positively showing out for their kids; we were an advocating dream team. The Parent Advocators have since partnered with RSD (Recovery School District), OPSB (Orleans Parish School Board) and have helped parents like those of McDonough 42 and many more establish their voice when speaking out for their children.  Together we will face many problems, but together is where we will find the solutions.

Five ways teachers can improve their relationships with their students’ parents

By David McGuire

It doesn’t matter if you are in your first year as a teacher or your twentieth year of teaching; there is nothing more important than the relationship with your students’ parents. Having a good relationship with parents is essential to ensuring students are receiving the best education. Throughout the long school year, there will be times when the parent and the teacher are not always on the same page, but that does not mean they cannot work together. Here are five ways teachers can improve the relationship:

 1.Begin early

  The first two weeks of the school year are essential to the relationship between teachers and parents. The beginning of the school year is a great time to start the relationship on the right foot. As a teacher, it is important to make that initial contact to start the relationship. During that initial conversation, it is best practice for the teacher to ask questions about the student. This shows parents the teacher values their opinion and wants expert advice on how best to educate their child(ren). Many parents may feel intimated by the school setting, but if the teacher makes early contact, it will ease some of the worries about the school.

  2. Encourage the parental involvement

 A parent’s contribution to the school community is huge. Many parents have unique skills that can be used to support the school community. Parents are great volunteers on field trips or school events. Parents also are great at creating and spearheading programs within the school. As a teacher, it is important when you speak to parents to listen closely.  During those conversations, you not only learn about the student, but you also learn about the parents. During the conversation, your parents may come up with ideas that can benefit you as a teacher.

 3. Communicate often and vary the communication

As a teacher, it is important that after making initial contact that you continue the contact. Parent contact is not always about calling them on the phone. Make an effort that if parents pick their child up, you stop and have a conversation face to face. One of the best ways to build that relationship is to communicate weekly in a newsletter. Parents will appreciate when they are kept informed about what is going on in the classroom and in the school.

4. Give positive reports

No parent wants always wants to hear how their student is not doing well. The quickest way to become isolated from your students’ parents is to be the teacher that always calls when the student is in trouble. I am not saying you should not call when the student is in trouble, but be sure to mix in some positive reports in those communications. Parents need to know that when the teacher calls it can be either positive or negative.

5. Smile

There is nothing more contagious and welcoming than a smile. If you truly want to create a great relationship and partnership with your students’ parents just simply smile when you see them. That smile from the teacher to the parent can be all that’s needed to have a great relationship.

Celebrating a Win as the State Rolls Out Changes from ESSA

Some exciting changes are happening in the Louisiana Department of Education as the state begins to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  In particular, as a policy advocate for students of color, I am celebrating some key changes that will impact students of color and which parents should know about.  A number of New Orleans community advocates, including myself, have spent the last year and a half advocating for these changes.

This past week the Education Dept. (LDOE) launched a new online interactive tool. The new website, http://www.louisianaschools.com, is a result of ESSA, a federal education civil rights law which passed in the last months of Obama’s term.  ESSA called for greater data transparency as well as increased supports to historically disadvantaged schools. In many ways, the law sought to revive the original intent of education civil rights laws from the 1960s.  After its passage, LDOE sought input from a number of New Orleans advocacy groups in creating a draft plan to submit to the federal education department outlining how it would implement the law locally. Advocacy groups, including but not limited to the Urban League, Southern Poverty Law Center, Louisiana Federation for Children, Stand for Children, and my organization, Equity in All Places, pushed the department on a number of issues related to disadvantaged students. As a result, it has been called one of the strongest plans in the nation.

Now, we are beginning to see the payoff of those months of advocacy. In particular, we fought for accountability for schools with high discipline rates and/or schools who were not properly serving certain groups of students, such as racial/ethnic groups, ESL, and students with disabilities. Now, using the online interactive tool, parents can view important information regarding the academic performance of each individual school specific to a “breakdown by student group” and “discipline and attendance.”

While the information itself is not new, what is new is that our advocacy organizations will no longer have to fight the department to receive the data, take months to sift through and analyze the data, and then work to make it accessible to parents. It is now directly accessible. Moreover, the website includes side-by-side comparisons of each school to the state and national average. For example, a parent can look at their child’s school’s attendance rates and discipline rates for Black or Hispanic students in particular and compare them to the state and national average. While the school’s overall attendance rate for all students might be fine, disparities will be more apparent.

Additionally, LDOE is using specific language to warn parents when a school is not serving particular groups of students by using labels. These labels were a point of lengthy discussion between advocacy groups and LDOE. We wanted to call attention to the challenges faced by certain groups of students, but we also recognized the need to ensure that the language did not blame the students.  If a school has a group of students who are underperforming or if the school has chronic issues with student behavior, the labels “urgent intervention needed” or “urgent intervention required” will now appear on a school report card. It will read “needed” on the school’s report card when the performance of one or more student groups is a “D” or “F” for one year.  It will read “required” when performance of one or more subgroups is an “F” for two consecutive years or the school’s out of school suspension rate is more than two times the national average for three consecutive years (greater than 5.2% for elementary/ middle schools, and greater than 20.2% for combination/high schools).

In our school choice system, it is important to be able to publicly identify struggling schools in order to incentivize change. Parents will be able to more clearly see if a school is right for their specific child and child’s needs. For example, a school may have an overall ‘A’ performance, but the label “urgent intervention required” for students with disabilities or in the area of discipline for Black students will help alert a parent to the possibility that a school might not be the right fit.  Additionally, “Comprehensive Intervention Required” will also be reserved for schools who:

  • Earned a D, F or equivalent rating for each of the past 3 consecutive school years
  • Are new schools and earned a “D, F, or equivalent rating for each of their first 2 years of operation
  • Earned a graduation rate less than 67 percent in the most recent school year
  • Labeled as “Urgent Intervention Required” for 3 consecutive years for the same subgroup or for excessive out of school suspension.

Most important to know is that there will be funding support directed at fixing these challenges available to the schools.

While I’m feeling quite hopeful about these changes and the direction LDOE is taking, I’m also cautious.  School administrators and districts are waging a quiet war on these changes. Ahead of October’s State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting, the Advocate reported that “the issue dominated a meeting of the superintendent’s council…which followed weeks of private talks among state Superintendent of Education John White, local superintendents, BESE members, and civil rights groups.” The Advocate Editorial Board has also recently since weighed in. They acknowledged the district’s concerns the new report cards are making them look bad, which makes it harder to pass funding measures for education. But they also concluded that a “report card is not for the benefit of officials, but to provide an insight for parents and taxpayers into the quality of education.” Either way, I’m following the public discourse and am ready to step in to defend the new policies if necessary. Moreover, these changes are exciting, and I’m looking forward to not only watching but also continuing to participate in the process as the Every Student Succeeds Act is implemented over the next couple of years.  

Millions for Teacher Training

Thirteen million dollars was awarded by the Department of Education to ensure proper training for teachers in New Orleans.  The money will provide training and hopefully bolster teachers’ desire to remain in New Orleans after college graduation.
“The money is going to teacher preparation programs at Xavier and Loyola Universities, as well as nonprofits that certify teachers, including Teach For America – Greater New OrleansteachNOLA, and the Relay Graduate School of Education.”

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BLACK MALE EDUCATOR OF NEW ORLEANS FEATURING: JOHNNIE VANBUREN

Johnnie VanBuren II represents the epitome of what it means to give back to the place that shaped who you are.  As an alum of Marion Abramson Sr. High School, Johnnie made it his business to return to the very place that he attributes to providing him with the discipline and character that has made him the man he is today.  And although the school name is different today, Johnnie continues to work hard to give the students of the now Abramson Sci Academy the same feeling of pride that he once had on the same grounds.  Through his gift and love of music, Johnnie has managed to not only launch a quality band program within the classroom, but he has also orchestrated a marching band/unit that is up to par with other reputable marching bands within the city.  Doing all this in just one school year, Johnnie has much to share with others who are looking to impact schools and education through the arts, specifically the art of music.

Where did your love for music begin?

My love for music actually started as a way to get out of class.  In 3rd grade, I was offered the opportunity to miss class to go to music class. I started out on the violin and played it for one year. When I went to Edward Livingston Middle School, my friend asked me to join the band. I was clueless about what to play. Mr. Dickerson showed me all the instruments, and the instrument that caught my eye was the saxophone. For some reason, I loved the way the saxophone looked and decided to learn how to play it during my 8th-grade year at Livingston Middle School.

When I went on to Abramson for high school, my skills on sax began to flourish and the better I became, the more serious my conversations became about music.  In addition to school, church also was a place that allowed me to take an interest in music.  And as a result, I began to play the drum set in church at about 14 years old.

What are some of the ways you believe being a part of Marion Abramson’s band groomed you into who you are today?

Being in Abe’s band taught me to never give up. I’ve taken a lot of things I learned then and applied them not only to my music but into my everyday life.  Mr. Foy, who was my high school band director, refused to let us settle for less. His expectations were so high for us and he never settled for mediocrity. One of our mottos at the time was, “ No excuses. No mercy.”Today, I can honestly say that if it weren’t for Mr. Foy’s stern approach with band and musicianship, I would not be where I’m at today.

Johnnie VanBuren pictured with former Marion Abramson band director, Mr. Foy

As a black male educator, how important is it for you to be in the position that you are today, working so closely with many male students?

I think that is very important because a lot of students don’t have positive male figures at home.  As for me, my dad wasn’t the only one who influenced my life to become the man I am today.  If I, as a black male educator, don’t step up and try to be a great male figure for our students, then the system will repeat itself over and over again. I just want to be an example for our students to see that it doesn’t matter where you come from; you can make it and be somebody.

What are some of the difficulties you have run into (if any) being a black male educator?

I think some of the challenges come into play when you see yourself in a lot of these kids and want so desperately to give that tough love that is known to active fathers. It kills me to see young black males be disrespectful, whether it’s them cursing and using foul language or just not stepping up to the plate to hold the door open for a woman or simply saying thank you.  I notice that some young men become defensive when older men try to teach and tell them better, especially if there are not many positive males in their lives. So attempts to correct negative behaviors and teach differently are sometimes met with resistance because they feel threatened and don’t always know how to receive love from another male.  But my only mission is to challenge them to be good men.

Having come into ASA and completely turned around its music culture in just a short amount of time, how do you balance your personal and professional lives with giving so much to the school and its students?

Last year when I took this job, I knew it meant putting in a lot of time in order for it to become a great program. That meant I had to sacrifice a lot of things and time to reach the goal that I set out at the beginning of the year. In the beginning, it was very hard because I have three young boys of my own. At times, I felt like I was putting them aside, which I thought was wrong. My oldest boy, who is three years old, definitely took it the hardest. So to make the best of the situation, I would sometimes bring him to my band practices. He really enjoyed being around his father and also loves to be around music, so it’s the best of both worlds for both him and me. So I try my hardest to let my sons be involved with ASA’s band as much as I possibly can.

What advice would you give to our young men who are having difficulty with being pulled between school and the streets?

Leave the streets alone!!! Period!  Statistics show that most African American young men that affiliate themselves with the streets end up either dead or in jail. Young men that die between the ages of 15-20 really haven’t even experienced life yet and it’s so unfair.  This is why I always encourage young men to get involved with something positive (extra-curriculars at school, church, etc.) that can help you pull away from the streets.  Stop being lazy and get yourself involved in something, find more meaning in your lives.   Music DEFINITELY saved me from the streets.

Years from now, what do you want your legacy to be?  How will former students describe and refer to Mr. Vanburen?

I want my students to feel like I made a difference.  No matter how much they may hate how tough I am on them in the moment, as adults, I want them to look back on their lives and say I had the same impact on them as Mr. Foy had on me.  I want my students to become:  leaders, good citizens, good wives and good husbands. Although I am a musician and I teach music, the life skills (discipline, confidence, work ethic, etc.) taught me, in addition to learning and playing music, what is most important.  I just want to be responsible for having a hand in molding good people.

 

Early Childhood Education for a better New Orleans. Are you on board Madame Mayor to invest in early childhood education?

When votes were cast in the New Orleans Mayoral primary election and the runoff was set, I could not have been more excited and proud. The runoff on November 18, 2017 will be between two women giving New Orleans its first woman to be elected mayor in its almost 300 hundred year history. Since the results of the primary election, I have seen many reactions to this historic accomplishment. The overwhelming sentiment is this is the worst election New Orleans has ever seen.  People are disappointed these women are the best candidates New Orleans has to offer. I must say, that I, in no way, shape or form agree with that sentiment.

I have been excited and elated dreaming of what this historic election has to offer. First, I can imagine what every little girl in our city and surrounding areas will gain from seeing a woman in charge of such a powerful city. Young girls and women will be able to experience the possibilities of obtaining a key position in city decision making.

Secondly, it is yet again another chance for our city to embrace another beginning. In 2018, New Orleans will be celebrating its tricentennial – 300 years of evolution and significance in this world. New Orleans has played such an instrumental part in the development of this nation and I couldn’t imagine a better way to celebrate such a grand event than by putting a woman in charge of leading this great city into the right direction.

Lastly and definitely most important in my mind is education; it is what I’m so passionate about. I truly couldn’t dream of a better leader to hand control of my city to than an African-American woman. I just happen to know a few African-American women and I know they are nurturers by design. They possess so much compassion in their hearts and they have hearts of gold with loving souls. That’s exactly what we are going to need to turn this great city around. That turnaround has to happen with investments in the people of New Orleans and one investment I believe should be in the forefront is allocating municipal funds into the development of more early childhood seats at qualified providers throughout our city.

Let me make something completely clear. I am talking about quality state approved early childhood seats that will aid in the development of our children prior to kindergarten. There is evidence shown that children benefit from instructional learning in their early years. The development of better emotional, social and physical skills is generally enhanced with access to early childhood education. I am talking about a long-term investment into our future, an investment that will payoff now and later. Now, it would free up parents to be able to go to work knowing their child is in a worthy program and it will also develop parent involvement early on in a child’s life. Later, I believe it will develop a better citizenry, one with social skills to deal with the problems of today. Problem-solving in a manner that doesn’t involve violence, but solutions through dialogue and conversation. I believe early access to early childhood education will lead to a future advancement of our workforce along with developing a strong group of entrepreneurs in our city.

Overall, it may be said that several of our local and state leaders have similar sentiments about access to early childhood education. In a guest column article to The Advocate, Gen. Russel Honoré expressed his thoughts and support for early childhood education access, “A local government’s budget is often a blueprint of priorities. It is little wonder that New Orleans struggles with violent crime and economic opportunity when we consider the fact that less than 3 percent of the City of New Orleans municipal budget goes to serving families and children.”

OPSB School Board member Ethan Ashley penned an open letter to both mayoral candidates asking for increased support across the board at the municipal level for investing in our kids which includes early childhood education access. Making this significant statement as well, “Our future is directly tied to our children and whether we acknowledge it or not, everything that we do is intended to enhance their development.”

Just recently the New Orleans City Council following the direction of its Council Members-At-Large held a news conference dedicating $750,000 to invest in early childhood education. It is something that is unprecedented but the council members identify the importance in investing in its citizens, “This is about us putting our most vulnerable folks on the best track of success that we possibly can,” Councilman Jason Williams said.

So now that the stage is set and the writing is on the wall I would look to the greatest creation ever (woman) to seal the deal with that nurturing spirit, compassionate heart, and loving soul. Would you be on board and in agreement to invest in our most precious resource? What say, you Madame Mayor?

New Orleans’ Young Designers

Students attending Paul Habans Charter School were given the chance of a lifetime to design the school’s playground.  Students worked directly with an architectural firm, Spackman Mossop Michaels, to design the green playground and their ideas were welcomed by the firm.
The students made an aspirational list of what they wanted to see and visualized their ideal play space on paper. Once the class finalized its list and drawings, Spackman Mossop Michaels materialized those concepts into a unique play station.

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