Brandon Caples is in the Game


Brandon Caples is a twenty-something Orleans Parish public schools graduate who represents the next generation of education advocate. He is a millennial who is just breaking into the field of education justice, working with whatever organization he can to get the work done. He wants every child to get the best education available, and he’s willing to play his part in making this happen.  In fact, he reminds me of when I was in eighth grade and played basketball for my church. The coach moved me around nearly every week. I played point guard, forward, even the center a couple of times because even though I wasn’t tall, I was feisty. At the end of the year the coach gave us each an award. I received the “I’ll play anything” award. I’m now ready to pass on this award to Brandon Caples, who also doesn’t seem to mind what position he plays, as long as he’s in the game. And the game, of course, is education justice.

I first met Brandon when my organization hired him to organize youth to intervene in the school-to-prison pipeline. Out of all the applicants he stood out as the most passionate and determined, and after the interview, we immediately knew we would hire him. In that time, he was willing to do what he could to learn about the laws and policies that create inequitable discipline practices in schools, and share the information with other youth. In just a short while, he organized a small, but powerful group of college students who were invested in the work.  Although he has moved on from our organization, he continues to make an impact on education in New Orleans.  He has patiently endured the many cycles of funding and losing funding at a few organizations in town. But he has stayed persistent and keeps finding new roles in the education equity movement.

Talking to him, it is clear he cares deeply about the school system and the City. He often compares his experience of school to the experience of his nieces and nephew, who range in age from nine to thirteen and currently attend New Orleans public schools. Brandon grew up in New Orleans East and went to a private school until second grade, but then switched to a public school in the Pontchartrain Park Gentilly neighborhood for the remainder of elementary school. He attended middle school in Mid-City and high school in the Uptown area of New Orleans, with a brief interruption caused by the flooding in 2005. Reflecting on his experience, Brandon appreciated his ability to attend schools outside of his neighborhood.

“My parents wanted me to be able to go the best schools I could. I had to take a lot of public transportation, but I could go to a school across town, not just the ones in my neighborhood.”

He is worried that in the past several years, school choice has actually become more difficult in practice, even though it seems easier on paper. He explained that his nieces and nephew were simply placed in the schools they attend even though those schools weren’t their parents’ top choices.  In particular, he sees more racial disparity.

“Families are not making choices from an even playing field. The system needs to account for that. White kids get into the good schools, and Black kids end up in the failing schools.”  Brandon believes the system is designed to privilege those who are already privileged. He points to selective admission schools as evidence.  He also thinks the school enrollment system is too difficult to understand. He himself didn’t know much about it until he worked for Sharon Broome when she was serving as a state senator and focused on educational equity. That’s when he became a more active advocate of policy change.  When I asked him what he wants to see changed in New Orleans, he explained that he wants schools and children to have an expanded view of the world and of education.

“Schools need to reimagine the education system and what we want kids to learn. The world is changing, but I don’t think schools have kept up. They have to realize there are a lot of ways for kids to be talented. They need to value these other ways, like writing a book, doing poetry, or being creative. We need to find new ways to teach. We need to realize it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. ”

Brandon advocates for school partnerships with non-profits who can provide creative outlets as well as bring expertise in other important areas, such as healthy eating.  He is also concerned that with a narrow view of what education means, schools are too focused on their own performance scores. He tells me about his nephew’s recent experience at a local school.

“I think the school passed him just to pass him so they didn’t look bad. He was in the third grade and he couldn’t read. But he was getting ‘C’s. We moved him to another school and he started getting ‘F’s, but that was where he was really at. And he had to work harder and the teachers had to work harder, but at least we knew.” From his own family’s experience, Brandon recognizes it can be hard to get a child into a good school, and it is important to intervene before they are failing.

Brandon also knows the value of seeing a bigger picture.  He was fortunate that his parents took him on vacations usually twice a year, mostly in the south, but also in the mid-west. He visited family in Detroit. Though he does not downplay the trauma, he thought this was the one upside of the flooding in 2005—a lot of families and children got to experience life outside of New Orleans.  So when he was applying for college, he knew he wanted to go out-of-state. He applied only to out-of-state colleges, and ended up at the University of Tampa in Florida.  Knowing the value of that experience, he wants all children to be curious and engaged with the world, however possible. He hopes new generations can find a balance between technology and human interaction.

“We all need to find a common ground, respect each other, care for each other. I think this generation will create a lot of new things. They are great with technology. But they need to balance that with humanity.”

Older generations of activists seem concerned that millennials are not engaged enough. But Brandon is proof of how that engagement might just look different among younger generations. He is finding balance between multiple projects.  Along with working with various education justice efforts, he is a writer, and he started a small business that he hopes will brings visibility to plus-size men’s fashion. He is a new kind of advocate, tackling social justice issues from many different sides, in many different roles.

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