When students believe in the school they attend, something is working.
KIPP Primary academy received a “C” and an 83.5 on their Student Performance Score on last year’s state report card. Among the student body, 69% are performing at or above grade level and 94% receive a lunch subsidy. The best data point, however, is the smile and excitement on the face of Ronald Anthony Clark Jr. or “Dooda” – as his family lovingly calls him – as he makes his way to school.
It was Pajama Day and the last week of school for students at KIPP Believe Primary. Dooda lives in New Orleans East with his mother, stepfather and two siblings. He wakes up at 5:30am every morning to be ready to catch the bus which comes promptly at 6:20am every morning. The sun is out because its summer, however, during daylight savings time in the fall this one block trek feels a lot different. Dooda’s bus arrives and he hops on and waves back with glee.
Dooda will eventually graduate college as part of the Class of 2030. To prepare him this year he was one of 23 students in Ms. Lund’s Vanderbilt first grade class at KIPP Believe Primary School. If you remember, this is the school that was moved from its uptown location to Holy Rosary on Esplanade because of bat infestation during the school year. Considering this, Dooda is still charging towards the “Respectful Revolution” which represents one of the many mantras students at KIPP Believe Primary are learning and living by. When I asked what university he would attend, Dooda with as much confidence a seven year old could have, says “I want to go to LSU to stay close to mom but may just end up going to Vandy.” As a former teacher, I beamed with pride because I knew Ms. Lund worked all year for the very moment someone asked him where he would go to school and without hesitation he envisioned himself at Vanderbilt University – an Ivy League University. During the time we spent together he raved about his teacher and spoke about his recent fieldtrip to Dillard University.
So while as an educator, organizer and someone who spends times listening to families that push back on the new educational landscape I can say that for Dooda it’s working and he loves his college going school culture and his school. The sad truth is that in New Orleans for every Dooda there are hundreds of others not having his experience. Unfortunately, I have heard and witnessed more stories of students who are not excited about school and not reading on grade level. Every child in New Orleans should be able to benefit from schools that groom them for college and beyond. Without a critical mass of students having Dooda-like experiences, we essentially are re-packaging inequity, whereby a select few black and brown students are college-bound while the vast majority are left with few options. Something is working in Dooda’s home, in his school and in his classroom that have made him a part of the selected few who are college-bound now let’s make this work for every child in the city.
This Mother’s Day weekend I thought so much about Samaria Rice, a mother whose mother’s days will never be the same again. A mother who has had to deal wtih a living nightmare. That which I still cannot bring myself to watch; that which still even as I write makes my eyeballs spontaneously spout and my heart clench.
Black students and families are the main consumers of public charter schools in New Orleans and have been most vocal about the lack of diversity in the teaching staff and school leadership as well as a lack of local control over the city’s schools. Many are asking what is being done to diversify school leadership in the city?
The Cowen Institute released a brief on charter management organizations (CMO) in New Orleans last month detailing their growth since 2005 and explaining its impact on the education environment. Since 2006, the total percentage of students in New Orleans who attend CMO-affiliated schools has increased from 25% to almost 60%. While the majority of CMOs have done a good job of recruiting people of color to fill the roles of principal and head of school, the fact remains that individuals in executive level roles who are responsible for both the vision and strategic direction of CMOs are majority white and non-native.
Massive amounts of public and private funds are assigned to run and support schools and education reform efforts in New Orleans, however, very little is invested in building a pipeline of leadership that reflects the city’s student body. If human capital is truly a hallmark of education reform, then CMOs must commit themselves to recruiting and developing Black and native talent at the executive and board level. This represents an opportunity to build equity into schools from the ground up. Strategic efforts such as the ULEAD Fellowship enable a cadre of homegrown leaders to step right into leadership roles and can help jumpstart other efforts to build and develop local talent. Programs like ULEAD are the embodiment of education reform and can and should be replicated and scaled at every CMO serving a majority Black student body.
Black leadership is necessary not only in terms of maintaining close connections with the community in the role of teachers, para professionals and principals, but also in the capacity of leading CMOs, influencing policy and practice, and designing and facilitating strategies for schools that serve hundreds and thousands of children. Recruiting and capacity building approaches that value the perspectives and skills of those professionals whose talents and experiences align with the needs of our children stand to be the most effective in sustaining education reform efforts throughout the city and as a model for the country.
Much of what has been criticized about New Orleans education reform landscape is its lack of diversity and local control. The Urban League is a very well respected local Black institution and has launched an education leadership academy to train and empower Black professionals in the city with the knowledge, resources, and network to act in support of creating sustainable quality educational options and policies. Ethan Ashley, Director of Community Engagement, shared his thoughts on the Urban League’s inaugural Urban Leaders for Equity and Diversity (ULEAD) cohort.
MM: What is ULEAD?
EA: Urban Leaders for Equity and Diversity (ULEAD) is the premier training institute for Black professionals in the community on the current educational landscape in New Orleans. The purpose of ULEAD is to educate and empower action by Black professionals on principles of leadership, diversity, and equity within education. The program helps prepare participants for various roles in education throughout New Orleans. This is to ensure that the system is sustainable and equitable. Topics covered in the training include the history of education in New Orleans, New Orleans education policy and governance, New Orleans civic engagement, the future of education in New Orleans, and professional development. A major focus of the program is to help each of the fellows find his or her place in the education movement.
MM: The most exciting part for me about ULEAD is that you have a respected Black organization like the Urban League training Black leaders in education. Why did it take so long for a program like this to exist?
EA: Our organization has a long history of providing direct services to those most vulnerable and impacted by the educational system. We run a Head Start program in the ninth ward, a K-12 parent information center, and a college and career readiness program for high school students. We wanted to be thoughtful about when and how we launched this next phase of work. As shifts occurred in the educational landscape, and funding was made available, it became clear that the time was right. Within a week of the ULEAD application’s release, we received three times the amount of applications needed to fill our first cohort. As a result, we have stepped up and created a fall cohort to meet the needs and interests of the community where we will continue to not only accept applications, but also accept fellows from the current pool of applicants.
MM: What level of impact do you think Black educational leaders have on New Orleans in today’s landscape?
EA: The sky’s the limit! The Urban League believes that Black educational leadership is imperative to raising the bar of education to the next level. Quality Black leadership in education is a necessity for a system that is made up of a predominately African American student body. Black leadership within the education system would both provide a more leveled and culturally diverse setting for African American students and positively impact the power dynamics that play out in the school setting. Therefore, it is important to continue to invest and provide the appropriate tools and training to create a sustainable community that itself will produce leaders.
MM: Tell me about the cohort selected for the inaugural class.
EA: ULEAD is about bringing equity, diversity, and sustainability to education in New Orleans, and our fellows embody these core principles. We selected a very diverse cohort of 26 fellows who range in age, gender, and professional experience. Among the group are university professors, engineers, business owners, school principals, attorneys, etc. The program is intense and demanding in time, action, and thought. Each fellow is expected to complete pre-work and homework assignments weekly. By the end of the program, they will be versed in education advocacy, human capital, entrepreneurship, policy, and governance. Helping facilitate ULEAD represents hope for me. It’s hope for the city because the program is about action. This is not an information boot camp where you just sit and listen. This is a program where action is required. Already, fellows have been challenged to think about what it would take to move into a role as CMO leader, or what it would take to serve on the Orleans Parish School Board or local charter school boards. We are building a pipeline of Black leaders in education, and this is just the beginning.
Families in Louisiana are calling for an end to zero-tolerance policies and suspension laws because they do not address student behavior and disproportionately target poor people and students of color. Secondlineblog’s Andre Perry discusses on his latest CNN appearance that the “vigorous enforcement of lower level offenses with the aim of reducing or preventing high level offenses penalize the people who are being targeted by these laws and policies.” Under zero-tolerance policies in schools, students become primed for a life of cycling through the system. Most of us can agree that we have an education issue in Louisiana and here in New Orleans. Last year the state of Louisiana reported suspending 1000 kindergarteners. Given the evidence that demonstrates the likelihood of incarceration among students suspended from school, it seems absurd that students as young as five and six year old are subject to such probabilities. This trend of punitively removing students from critical classroom instruction not only fails to address the root causes of student behavior, it ultimately undermines the school’s ability to establish themselves as a safety net. Instead, schools have become the proverbial “training camp” for detention centers throughout the state.
Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children based in New Orleans are urging law makers to amend SB 54– a law that is the basis for school discipline and zero-tolerance policies for K-12 in Louisiana. The bill proposed by Senator West-Broome of Baton Rouge was heard and passed the Senate’s Education Committee last week. The revision would reduce the number of suspensions and explosions by excluding students grade K-3, unless students are a threat to the safety of others. Rather than suspending or expelling students, a case-by-case determination would be made for students who displayed unacceptable behavior. The bill suggests schools begin to implement alternatives to suspension such as a loss of privileges, counseling, or a set of interventions that seek to address the behavior while also keeping the student in school. Zero-tolerance policies are subjective to who are interpreting and enforcing them. The current trend demonstrates that these policies only initiate contact between law enforcement and our children. Teaching is incredibly hard, in building behavior intervention plans with students and families I always saw my role as two fold both to maintain a safe and structured learning environment for all of my students and to be compassionate and understand my students as whole beings. By identifying serious behavior issues and complementing interventions early teachers become shields and the arm of the safety nets schools are intended to be.
Alternatives like intervention and counseling have shown to address behaviors in student and deter higher level offenses. Mayor Mitch Landrieu is championing the use of restorative justice in New Orleans public schools through the NOLA FOR LIFE initiative. New Orleans Health Department and Center for Restorative Approaches have just announced last week that they have partnered with NOLA FOR LIFE by supporting the work of conflict resolution a practice of restorative justice in schools. Organizations like the Center for Restoratives Approaches and Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, helped usher in these changes by organizing and educating families about the dangers of punitive school discipline policies and by demonstrating that “zero-tolerance” approaches have no utility. Restorative approaches offer an alternative for schools to begin building problem-solving skills while fostering a level of understanding and community that ultimately help to resolve conflict. This practice was acknowledged as a best practice by President Obama’s Supportive School Discipline Initiative, and has shown evidence of reducing suspension rates and improving school environments.
Now, why does all of this matter right now? It matters because of Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant and Henry Glover. It matters because the children and people disproportionately targeted by these policies are people of color and poor. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness speaks directly to how “tough on crime” laws gave birth to zero-tolerance school policies and are the “bird cages” that house children as they learn to be criminalized and move through the school-to-prison pipeline. Rather than schools being conduits of hope and educational opportunity they serve as the triage for prisons. So, it matters because these policies become the very systems that carries out prejudice notions. Schools have had parents inherit trust – trust that their children are safe, respected, and valued. As every Baltimore and Ferguson continue to publically playout, the trust needed to sustain schools is slowly being chipped away. Parents and students alike are outraged that schools and police – two entities that share very different values – have such similar missions. Zero-tolerance then, has become code for “black men are not allowed, period”, and as the trend indicates, black women and girls aren’t too far behind. Throughout the country, black men and boys, whether in the classroom or not, are targets for punitive treatment by both schools and law enforcement. So, yes, it matters because we here in New Orleans have an opportunity that before things erupt we can change policies, procedures, school and city culture, and behaviors. Yes, it matters because we can do better.
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.