Becoming joint cultural architects with the families of New Orleans

My local friends always introduce me to people as their “friend from California” who “works in education”. As soon as the introduction is made, it’s usually followed by a very nostalgic and detailed loving story describing schools as cultural hubs. Schools that were loved and esteemed by the community, schools that convened families at rival football games like “35” vs. Warren Easton or at events like the St. Mary’s annual talent show. Such schools produced respected leaders in the city like Father Tony of Our Lady Star of the Sea and Judge Gray. These stories help reinforce the idea that schools aren’t just places young people go to learn, but – much like the church – often serve as the heart and soul of the community. Inherent to its genetic makeup as a cultural institution, the school connects generations; and as a common denominator in and between families, builds a collective identity that transcends space and time.

In New Orleans, the question, “Where did you go to school?” tells you what legacy someone comes out of, and historically, schools in New Orleans have been effective in creating a deep sense of identity and pride among students which tends to radiate throughout the school and community. The concept of a community school, however, has been highly scrutinized under the post Katrina decentralized school system, but why?

Whenever I meet or engage with graduates of schools like Karr, McDonogh 35 or St. Augustine, I’m reminded of the role schools play in cultivating a sense of cultural and community pride – a concept few schools in New Orleans are designed or equipped to instill. The need for children to have strong connections to their communities couldn’t be more imperative following the mass displacement of families and communities brought on by Katrina, however, schools struggle with intentionally embracing their role as cultural institutions. As the cultural capital of school has shifted to become more metrics-driven, the value placed on the non-academic needs of the child has become less of a priority. However, Dr. Brian Turner, who is a Professor of Psychology at Xavier (and a Newman and Southern University graduate) and whose research focuses on cultural competency and mental health, explains that schools must help develop the capacity of children to identify and manage their resources. And specifically in New Orleans many of the resources children carry with them are grounded in culture and social capital. Schools must also demonstrate both the competency and willingness to build genuine relationships with parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles, play cousins, pastors, coaches, barbers, and last but certainly not least, the student. Though charter schools have been consistent with their message about preparing children to be college-bound and offer parents an alternative, the general sentiment is that academic rigor alone misses the mark in terms of what’s needed to educate black children and children of color in New Orleans.

As education reformers who focus so much attention on innovation I often find that we miss opportunities to strengthen our work by maintaining what was effectively working in the schools we are helping turn around. Moving forward how will students respond to the question, “Where did you go to school?” and will we have missed the opportunity to leverage the cultural value of these schools? Our role as reformers involves asking students what they like and want to see in their school and building a rapport with their families to keep us connected to their everyday experiences. It’s no surprise that by fostering a culture that resonates with students enhances their overall engagement. Families in New Orleans have already demonstrated a deep commitment to schools in the city and their willingness to continue to do so is very present. Becoming joint cultural architects with the families of this city makes us winners. The stakes are too high, we need to win.

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