The Second Line Blog

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An Interview with Douglas Butler Jr

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New Orleans native, Douglas Butler Jr., has spent the last 8+ years working tirelessly to give back to all students and families with whom he comes into contact.  Serving as both a math instructor and dance coach at L.B. Landry- O.P. Walker College and Career Preparatory High School, Butler believes strongly in the strength and power of community and has been focused on ways to empower himself to continue to transform lives through education.  One way Butler looks to himself to do this is by furthering his own education as he teaches, thus demonstrating what discipline, hard work and consistency really look like.  Butler anticipates receiving his Ph.D in 2020.

Why are you so passionate about the work you do?

I’ve always loved school. I loved school as a child and I love it even more now. When I was in primary school, I acted as if I were the teacher, helping others in my class and ensuring that all my classmates were able to work we were given. Throughout my high school summer breaks, I would run my family’s daycare. My passion for teaching permeated throughout my summer experience when I would teach my younger relatives daily. My passion for learning and exposing young people to enriched experiences has now manifested into a career that I find both rewarding and relational. Fostering positive relationships has allowed me to grow young people both academically and socially, a responsibility that I don’t take lightly.  

Are you concerned about the shortage of Black male educators our community? If so, what action steps do you think need to happen to increase their presence?

It’s no secret that there’s a shortage of African American male teachers in our schools.  My greatest concern is not that we don’t have adequate teachers; it’s the fact that African American males aren’t being seen as relevant in all of our communities. One thing to note is that African American male teachers serve as role models for all students across diverse lines. When there is an African American teacher in place, it shows that the African American male can hold a place of power within our ever evolving society. I believe that this is important for all races and classes of people because the lack of African American male teacher challenges us to recognize forms of oppression and systemic issues that prevent, restrict, and annex African American teachers to be relevant additions to our education system.

Do you find that there’s pressure with being a black male educator?  If so, how do you address this?

Pressure as a black male in general is a problem. I notice that black educators in general are always under scrutiny. The challenge to be great is the challenge to function within a flawed system that views black educators as inadequate; inadequate through the lens of academics, but adequate through the lens of discipline. It seems as if the “powers” that are in control of our educational system view us as a disciplinarian versus a scholar. The two are equally important, however, when folks view us as “keepers” of African American students, it diminishes our role. Sometimes pressure for me means making those folks aware of their unconscious expectations around my role. Pressure from an academic role is to adhere to the many changes that occur within state mandates. Pressure from a community standpoint comes for the need to replace a sometimes absent male role model, which presents all types of challenges. One challenge is ensuring that my students understand that while I can also be Uncle Doug, my job title is Mr. Butler.

Do you feel supported within your role as a black male educator?

It’s hard to answer this question because I feel that the system should provide another degree of support in general. From my role solely as a black male educator, I think that there could be more support around finding a mental balance of the issues that we are plagued with daily. Sometimes I wonder how many more times will I have to bear the news of one of my students being killed or murdered or incarcerated. When I first started this work my expectations were much like a banking model; I expected to get back what I put in. But I learned quickly that that is  not always the case. That mindset has changed drastically, and now I recognize that the work of education, especially in an urban setting is much like a stock market. There are some losses, and mostly there are  some gains, but you go into the situation knowing there’s a level of inherent risk. Conversely, I’m not sure if the analogy is always represented in the context of what happens daily as when things seems to not be going well one can remove their investment and cut their losses; that’s not true with students. There’s no cutting your losses and there’s no reinvesting. I guess my expectation around support is that support is provided in a holistic way that embodies not just instructional growth but the capacity of building teachers to accept both the losses and gains.

What are some of the challenges you see our youth and their families up against?

One main challenge I see is education from a systemic perspective. The hardest challenge is to educate parents about their children’s education when they don’t have a point of reference to compare the experiences that I’m trying to provide as a teacher.  

Despite the challenges that may come along with educating our NOLA youth, what keeps you going?

The belief in change. While it’s a slow process, change is happening, and mostly for the better. I think we are all going into education with the ideal that our youth are more than capable to rise to the occasion. The progress of this keeps me going .

Years from now, as both educator and coach, what do you want your legacy to be?

I want children to remember a teacher who was both compassionate and stern. I want children to remember a teacher who both believed and cared. I want children to remember that anything is possible, and the challenge that many of them face is themselves. Once that realization is made, young people can navigate through other barriers that prevent them from excelling.

What We Learned about School Discipline in 2016

photo credit: The Atlantic

 

School discipline represents more than just a strategy to deal with misbehaving children. It is also a measure of the compassion we have for the most troubled children.  As we review the highlights of Louisiana’s school discipline news in the past year we can reflect upon what we have learned.

In January 2016, we kicked off the year with a column by Jarvis DeBerry that proposed a shift in the way schools and lawmakers look at children and their misbehavior.  DeBerry commented on a report that demonstrated how many New Orleans children are have been exposed to trauma. A survey of 1,200 New Orleans children 10 to 16 years old showed 54 percent of them have lost somebody close to murder.  About 40 percent have seen somebody shot, stabbed or beaten, 38 percent have witnessed domestic violence, and 18 percent have seen a person murdered. The article’s takeaway was that children are “sad, not bad.”

Yet, during the spring legislative session, we were reminded that schools continue to ignore the causes of children’s behavior and opt for punishment in lieu of support.  The Louisiana Weekly published an article in May: “Louisiana school suspension rates soar above national average.” Louisiana school children are suspended at rates 130% higher than the national average, with elementary children experiencing suspension at 200% higher rates. The article reported on two house bills (HB 833 and 372) introduced in the 2016 session that presented opportunities to address the issue.  Unfortunately, both bills failed as a result of powerful opposition by school boards, superintendents and teachers who did not want to give up their decision-making autonomy.

However, over the summer, a couple of local heroes brought attention to school discipline issues and gave us hope. One article highlighted the story of Andrew Jones, an honors student and “standout athlete” who was blocked from participating in his graduation ceremony because of the Tangipahoa Parish’s policy on facial hair. He instead held his celebration at the African-American Heritage Museum, and his case gave rise to questions about racial bias and how schools reward and punish children. Additionally, Troi Bechet, an actress, singer, social worker, and founder of the Center for Restorative Approaches was featured in an article that explained how her organization is intervening in the school-to-prison pipeline. She explained that training young people and their teachers to talk out problems instead of resorting to suspension or expulsion can prevent students from dropping out.

In the fall, we saw the discussion about who gets suspended from public schools carry over into a new 24-member state panel, the Advisory Council on Student Behavior. The council is tasked with studying issues of school discipline and seclusion and restraint and making recommendations to the legislature. In particular, one of the meetings focused on the high rate of suspensions of elementary students, and the Advocate released an editorial calling on lawmakers to “Take a close look at early-age school suspensions.”

However, we were also reminded how far we still have to go, as the issue of corporal punishment has once again been raised. One news outlet reported that parents seemed mostly in support of the practice, despite a call by the Obama administration to end corporal punishment and reports of significant racial disparities.  

At the end of 2016, it is clear that we need to continue the dialogue about school discipline. However, the fact that the issue has made headlines numerous times throughout the year speaks to the possibility of change.  We can see signs of hope in the actions of our students, teachers, and community leaders, so that we might believe DeBerry’s sentiments will someday become the prevailing approach to discipline. Most recently, in an article about one school’s trauma-informed pilot program, a teacher was quoted: “I do respond differently. I attempt a more compassionate approach to understand the behavior and then guide the student to other more appropriate responses.”  Change is slow, but perhaps the discourse of 2016 has signaled a shift in the way we think about discipline.

Are School Closures Really the Best Solution for Our Kids?

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As a parent, if you believed your child to be enrolled in a failing school, would you withdraw them?

And if you did, using the city’s One-App process, how likely would it be that you would be lucky enough to get your child enrolled within your preferred school? A better school?

I have been asking myself these questions since learning that two New Orleans schools, Algiers Technology Academy and Gentilly Terrace Elementary School, are preparing for closure at the end of the 2016-17 school year.  Students and parents alike will now be left to figure out the next steps to ensure enrollment into new schools.  

The emotional toll closures such as these take on students, families, and school staff leaves me wondering if and how we can avoid these painful pitfalls in the future.

We must first be honest and acknowledge that we have some really bad schools in the city of New Orleans. And we are not unique in that; every city in America is struggling with the same problem. So the question becomes how and why are schools allowed to repeatedly demonstrate poor performance while serving our kids?  Neither of the aforementioned schools has earned higher than a D performance rate since 2014 and they are far from the only ones with this repeated pattern of poor performance.

 

SCHOOL 2016 PERFORMANCE GRADE 2015 PERFORMANCE GRADE 2014 PERFORMANCE GRADE
Algiers Technology Academy F D D
Gentilly Terrace Elementary School D D D

*Obtained from Louisiana Department of Education

There are too many D and F schools to list but the number is way too large. And perhaps most concerning is that all of the city’s accelerated high schools received F ratings as well.

The Louisiana Department of Education uses an assortment of assessments to get a snapshot of each school’s performance rating and states the following:

Since 1999, the state has issued School Performance Scores for public schools, which are based on student achievement data. To clearly communicate the quality of school performance to families and the public, Louisiana adopted letter grades (A-F). All schools with sufficient data receive school performance scores.

Is School Closure the Best Solution?

Danielle Dreilinger with the Times Picayune writesIf you’re going to close a school, you had better have a better place for students to go.”  

Dreilinger goes on to write the following in a different piece during the same week:

The Tulane researchers generally endorses the closures and chartering despite the disruption they caused for families. However, they found the strategy worked because the decisions typically targeted very low-performing schools — schools that earned an F on the state report card — and students attended better schools afterwards.

On the surface, it makes great sense that students from chronically failing schools would benefit from leaving those schools to make a fresh start with greater opportunities at a higher performing school.

But, what exactly happens when these students are now placed into new and assumingly more successful learning environments?

And are they given the tools and supports required to keep up with the higher expectations?

Or, are they unfortunately unable to play catch up, thus maintaining low academic-performance and in turn, negatively impacting the performance rating of the new schools?

I understand why people want to give schools failing schools a chance to improve; but at what cost? And on what timeline? While we work to rewrite the narrative of New Orleans Public Schools, we must do what is in the best interest of the children who need to learn now, today.  

Many millions of dollars are allocated to education each year, but if strong academic performance and improvement are the priorities, then our communities are being short-changed. Much like the culture that existed pre-Katrina, some of our schools have become synonymous with failure, and contrary to their mission, are only maintaining the city’s cycle of poverty and poor outcomes for the students they “serve.”

For a full-review of Louisiana Schools’ 2016 Performance Scores, click here

This 9 Year Old Has Electric Power

Matilda Saulnier, a 9 year old dreamer, leader and future powerhouse in science and technology is part of a local nonprofit called Electric Girls. Electric Girls was designed to help young girls learn the fundamentals in programming and electronics.

It makes me feel independent. It makes me feel strong, she said.  Girls just need to know that you can.

TOPS cut, time to scramble…

Will Sentell, of the Advocate writes about how thousands of students are reaching out to their parents for assistance as well as applying for loans and even applying for jobs due to state budget cuts. TOPS, which was once “politically untouchable assistance ” has been cut down. Now students are expected to come up with about 60% of their tuition on their own.

 

“TOPS is supposed to pay for tuition for students who earn a 2.5 grade-point average in high school, including required courses, and at least a 20 on the ACT, a test of college readiness. ”

Read more: After TOPS cuts, 50,000 students across state now scrambling to cover tuition gap with loans, jobs, scholarships

The Final 5

Danielle Dreilinger of the Times Picayune writes about how the last 5 OPSB schools have shown interest in becoming charter schools.

“We welcome the opportunity to empower our network school leaders and their school communities to determine the best path forward and access to the same financial resources and operational autonomy as other schools in our city enjoy,” Lewis said in a statement. “I have full confidence in the leadership of our schools to make informed, student-centered decisions.”

Nothing has been finalized yet. The remaining 5 have until January 27th to submit a final notice of intent.

 

College Dreams Dim Amidst Fears of Cuts to TOPS Program

 

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Our students can’t afford to lose out on financial assistance for college because the state has a budget problem. The hope of a bright future is a huge deal for teens during their high school years and the ability to pay for higher education is a big piece of that. It’s no surprise, then, that worry has gripped students and parents alike, as well as educators, since hearing about a potential reduction to the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS program.  

The Cowen Institute released a recent report, The Future of TOPS, which focuses on the risks that would accompany the loss of this financial assistance for Louisiana students.

Due to a state budget crisis, state legislators are currently debating dramatic changes to the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) Scholarship program. TOPS is the main scholarship program for Louisiana students who attend in-state, post-secondary institutions. If some or all of these changes are passed into law, a significant number of students would lose access to TOPS, both in New Orleans and statewide.

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Understandably,  someone has to take a loss in order to make up for the state’s financial deficit. But at the expense of the kids just about to graduate? That seems unwise and reason for all of us to explore alternative ways to make cuts.   

I was fortunate enough to be a recipient of TOPS as a college student and in hindsight, I admit I probably didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have. I never worried about losing it so I wasn’t forced to reckon with how much I needed it. My opportunities as a professional woman of color exist in no small part because of the assistance I received to further my education.  

I had big plans to make my mother proud, make a better life for myself, and be happy.

As an 18 year old preparing to graduate from Warren Easton Sr. Fundamental High School (now Warren Easton Charter High School), I saw college as my way out.  Without it, I felt convinced that I would end up repeating the cycle of reliance on government assistance and low-paying jobs that my mom had experienced. I refused to let that happen.  

Like many of the students with whom I work today, crime and poverty were the norm in my neighborhood too. I wanted a new normal for myself, just as I want that for ‘my kids’ at school.  But for a lot of them, college seems like a far and an abstract concept, and hearing of the potential loss of financial help may just make the hope of higher education seem that much more out of reach. Changes to the TOPS program would be a huge hit to New Orleans students in particular.  

The report goes on to explain:  

The proposed changes would have similarly severe consequences for New Orleans’ students. If the ACT requirement was increased to 21, 23 percent fewer city students would be eligible for the Opportunity Award. Additionally, the change would disproportionately affect African-American students: in New Orleans, 32 percent fewer African-American students would be eligible compared to 16 percent of Caucasian students.

The GPA change would have a greater impact in New Orleans than statewide, with a 28 percent reduction in student eligibility. Raising the GPA requirement would greatly impact city students across all ethnic lines: 33 percent fewer Caucasian students and 26 percent fewer African-American students would be eligible. Private school students in New Orleans would be more adversely affected by the change than public school students, with 30 percent and 26 percent losing eligibility, respectively. The increase would reduce eligibility nearly equally across all income stratifications.

Through my lens as a former TOPS recipient and current school counselor, this is a frightening possibility.  Preparation for college already feels to so many students and their parents like it is meant for other people — those who are wealthy or athletic scholarship worthy–but not for them. Navigating the new world of tuition, fees, housing is intimidating; doing it without the aid you expected is downright overwhelming. And demoralizing.  

College preparation is the cornerstone of most high schools. We must do whatever we can to  ensure that a decrease in TOPS funding is an absolute last resort in addressing the state’s budget crisis.

If you’d like to learn more or join the fight to protect TOPS for future students, I encourage you to do the following:

  1. Click here to read the full report from the Cowen Institute,
  2. Contact your local legislator to share concerns of TOPS being protected.
  3. Use hashtag #protectTOPS on social media to spread awareness.

Big win for Two New Orleans HBCUs

Danielle Dreilinger of the Times Picayune writes about two local HBCUs — Dillard University and Xavier University — winning the College Pathways Pilot Project. The project is developed to strengthen the relationship between businesses and universities to help graduates transition into the workforce.

“This is transformational for Dillard,” said Carretta Cooke, director of the university’s career development center. “For the first time, a program will connect our academic affairs and career services to business stakeholders to enhance career readiness and placement in this increasingly competitive job market.”

Read more: 2 New Orleans HBCUs win $2.25 million in career grants