Here’s What I Want to See in the #Next10: Schools That Live in the Reality of the Children We Hope to Educate

I was asked a question, a very good question the other day. The question was “What do you want to see in the next 10 years regarding education in New Orleans?”

The answer is very simple yet very complex. What I need to see is a foundation that listens to the people who are actually impacted.

I want to see schools that are modern with up-to-date pools, gyms with up-to-date equipment, laboratories, technology labs, robotics labs, woodshops, electricians classes, Mason Taylor’s fashion and design classes, and media classes with everything stocked to deal with production to set design.

What I want is to see people from my city employed, citizens who look like the children that they are educating—thus making it more believable for young people to think that they can get an education and obtain jobs. It is very hard, very very hard to believe that college education is the key when you see college-level educated sisters, brothers and neighbors unable to receive employment in the city where they were born and raised.

Young people are learning what you’re teaching them, but they are also learning that racism and disenfranchisement is the way of modern development.

I want to see schools with critical multicultural pedagogy. I want to see schools understand the impact of racism, but also systemic oppression against black people in the South. That if you are black you have to fight ten times harder for any breadcrumb.

We need institutions to prepare them for the work of the real world they are stepping into, not the world we wish they were stepping into. That we look at the best practices which we have created for other countries that they have put into use like Finland, which have some of the best school systems of the world.

I wish that we had schools that understood that P.E. and recreational time outside aren’t optional—they are necessary for physical, mental, and emotional health and social development. I wish that we understood that early childhood brain development does not lie. That children need certain fundamental things to develop properly and that you cannot always test stages of children in early childhood. That the idea that children develop differently is not a theory, but a proven fact. It’s something we all know if we think about ourselves and our friends as young children, and think about how successful some of us are and some of us are not. I wish we actually honored this basic knowledge instead of throwing everything that we know, our grounded experience and knowledge, out the window.

I want to see reciprocity come to New Orleans, respecting the people and the culture. Not in a National Geographic, we need to tour and talk to these people kind of way, a we know what’s best for them kind of way, but in a we are equal human beings and what do you need kind of way.

I’ve often felt like a National Geographic animal since Katrina. Everybody was looking to study and take pictures of us but no one was actually listening to us. People write papers about poor black people in New Orleans, people have discussions and debates over what should happen to us. Which is very similar to what you would do with the National Geographic animal, except I doubt people would move into their habitat and push them out. No one would move into the elephant’s area, have a tenant, and say “you know what elephants, you go live at the edge of the forest because we’re making it better for you by living here.”

The exception is that even though they would speak for and take picture of us just like they would do for National Geographic animals. The fact that they would displace us shows us that we do not even have the same respect or are treated as well as those National Geographic animals. I know that I’m reaching for the sky with this hope, but I want to be treated like a, you know, full-fledged human being. I know it’s a lot I’m asking though.

I want to talk about the kind of school I went to for a minute. I went to a little hippie school where I got to choose what I would learn for half of the day. If there weren’t a teacher who could teach me what I wanted to learn, they would find a community member that could. I was told that I was brilliant and was going to be an incredible writer even though I was dyslexic and two grade levels behind. I was bad at things like spelling, but I was good at things like processing large chunks of information. I understood the big picture framework that my world worked in and everything around me was affected by. That whatever was happening in the world would defiantly impact me. It was understanding that if Johnny didn’t eat his lunch it wasn’t just his problem. That he was going to be cranky and disrupt the class that I was in, including me in the problem as well. I also understood that it wasn’t his fault, that he could be allergic to the food that they were serving or he didn’t have the money to buy lunch today. But that if I was to truly have a day without problems it was my responsibility to make sure that Johnny and everyone else was okay too.

But somehow that has gotten lost. They keep talking about the “culture of violence.” Our mayor keeps talking about this culture of violence, talking about the black community, yet he never talks about how the culture of violence is perpetrated on us. This is not saying that we don’t have criminal activity going on in the black community; I wouldn’t say that because we have a whole underground economy. I’m just saying that if there weren’t an underground economy there would be a lot of hungry children in New Orleans.

Yeah I said it.

So if the only job you can get as a parent or even a student is a minimum wage job, the rent is between $900-$1300 a month for one bedroom apartment. The electric is higher; the water is higher, yet the wages aren’t. How is one to pay their bills, feed their children, and not move away? The answer is the message that this sends: “Move away please, we don’t want you.”

And this message is being received by children when they are being sent to far away schools that are run by people that don’t look like them but who can easily afford to pay the rent to live in the city.

Now the question that started this was about education, and what I would like to see going forward. But what people don’t seem to understand is that all systems are linked—housing, jobs, and education.

This is true when a child moves every six months because her parents are evicted and don’t make enough money to feed the child. They are not eating, they have no safe place to play, and if that same child is on the bus for ten hours a day, that child is then impacted by all those systems.

There is also the stress of the parents who are unable to provide safe shelter and three meals a day for their child, who are unable to drop their child off to school and pick them up. If you are a child and one of your parents applies for job assistance, then applies for a job and doesn’t get it, they are frustrated, stressed out. They probably still have trauma disorders, PTSD from the storm that is untreated, affecting your social, emotional, and overall sense of safety and well-being.

To ignore what is happening to people that is so young, to poor black people, in a system full of poor black children is ridiculous and preposterous. To say that it is not our problem in education is also ridiculous and preposterous; for children to succeed in school but for their people to not succeed in any other way is ridiculous.

I’ve heard people say, “I want to focus on the children, I can’t be worried about adult problems.” But the adult’s problems are the children’s problems. I don’t know if the people saying these things have short-term memory loss, but if they remembered being a child, having your parents keep you safe and having your bed warm, that was important. Not having dads and saying that they are going to succeed in spite of it, having children who are in homeless shelters, children who move 12 times in one year and are getting good grades, children who live in their parents’ cars and eat one meal a day, children who in the summertime lose weight because they are not getting their school lunches and their parents don’t make enough to even feed them once a day. Yeah, some of those children score high and succeed, but can I mention how much better they will be doing if they were safe and secure?

By the way, high grades do not promise a successful life, since grades do not account for social and emotional development. Ted Kaczynski had great grades, and he is one of our most notorious killers. I can’t say that we could have prevented him from turning out the way he did, but we have to focus on holistic learning. We have to understand that we are human beings and that we develop in a variety of ways and go through a variety of developmental stages. That we are not just widgets on an assembly line. This is key to education. And if we are going to reform education, we should at least have education reform for humans, not robots.

I hope we can continue to report on the reform in our schools. I hope we can continue to look forward with the understanding that schools probably look different, but to recognize that foundational understanding of early childhood and adolescent development cannot be tossed aside.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs cannot be tossed aside; children do need food, shelter, and safety for them to self-actualize. This is proven, we have to live in reality if we want our children to survive reality, so I suggest now that we demand an education system that lives in the reality of the children we intend to educate. And if the reality is too troublesome and problematic, then change it.

I hope you’ll join me in changing it, in making this city at least a better place for all children, families, and community. Thank you.


Ashana Bigard (@ashanabigard) is a parent and community activist in New Orleans. 

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