“We just don’t want to be shut out…”
For a second time, I’ve had an opportunity to see a New Orleans school established post-Katrina initiate steps to establish a relationship with the alumni community of the school that previously held the space it now occupies.
But this time was different.
Perhaps this was because John McDonogh Sr. High School hasn’t necessarily received the best local/national media attention nor adequate resources from the city’s previously run school board.
Having grown up just blocks away from the school, I am even guilty of glossing over any glimpses of light John McDonogh’s students experienced, having intentionally sought out admission to another school outside of my neighborhood.
And unfortunately, longstanding, negative narratives were true for most of the city’s schools before being taken over by the RSD in 2005.
*scores out of 200 points according to Cowen Institute
Failing performance scores, a 2003 school shooting and the 2013 Oprah Winfrey Network(OWN)-produced docu-series Blackboard Wars all sealed the deal for a perception that wasn’t the best and still leaves it’s former staff and students upset to this day.
According to The Times Picayune’s description of the 2013 docu-series Blackboard Wars,
“A teaser trailer released a few weeks ago depicts McDonogh as a dangerous, dysfunctional institution.”
Via data, the televised documentary and news reports, sure, this synopsis may have held some truth, but now, as both an adult and educator with greater awareness of how gravely low-socioeconomic status oppresses black communities, the sad truth I’ve come to realize over time is that these situations were never solely the problem as we were led to think.
These situations were rather symptoms of a larger problem- SYSTEMIC POVERTY and NEGLECT OF A COMMUNITY.
And this is the message former students and staff want to convey.
They were not the problem.
“We are not what they say we are…”
As Bricolage Academy now prepares to occupy the newly renovated John McDonogh Sr High School building, their staff has connected with former John McDonogh High students and staff to identify ways in which a meaningful relationship can be formalized to provide what alumni and community members have wanted all along – someone to listen, and a place to call home once again.
This led to an organized opportunity for dialogue titled, “Listening to John McDonogh,” facilitated by Bricolage staff members who stressed the importance of the staff listening with the intent to understand each individual’s stories, because for so many years, those in positions of power, wouldn’t.
And for many community members, that is the greatest frustration. Despite attempts to assume management and be involved in the process post-Katrina, the school was essentially awarded to charter management operator Future is Now, drawing more contention between its current students/staff, former students/staff and community members than ever,
Through simply listening,
I felt the apprehension.
But I better understood their plight.
And although they may believe their feelings have been ignored over the years, I better understand the power of the voices of alumni.
Especially given my little to no involvement with my high school alma mater, who, unlike John McDonogh, was allotted more resources and support to thrive rather than suffer like the majority of schools. Survivor’s remorse maybe?
It’s so easy for these voices to be mistaken merely for overbearing complaints, but I was able to see past the surface. There was no arguing or yelling, but a deep need to be heard. There is so much unresolved trauma that needs healing. There is so much apprehension and fear about white leaders and educators overtaking spaces previously held predominately by black community members.
Despite disappointment with convincing Orleans Parish School Board/RSD to preserve their former building and school name, leadership at the now Bricolage Academy at John McDonogh have listened to what alumni need and are continuing to work and discuss greater opportunities for integration of the two communities.
The building that once housed the students and staff of John McDonogh Sr. High is going through its final finishes and touches to finally reopen its doors and more than ever, in addition to ensuring their school’s legacy is painted in a more positive light, alumni and staff want nothing more than the best for its current and future students served, even asking for ways they can be supportive to students on their first day of classes and thereafter.
The personal stories I had the pleasure of hearing, highlight memories of school pride, family, and support. Our guests didn’t deny that challenges existed, but what they took away from their high school experience was far greater than what any school performance score or reality show could ever accurately capture.
As former school principal, Dr. Thompson said about the community members during a scene of Blackboard Wars, “I don’t think they resist change, I think they resist the process of change.”
And if this is true for most, those moving toward occupying that space have a responsibility to work toward mending the broken pieces of a school that lost its way along the way because after all, John McDonogh alumni LOVE that place.
And their voices matter.