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.
What is the state of education in New Orleans 10 years after the storm? Like crawfish boils in the spring, this question has become a staple in the social lexicon of families, teachers, church mothers, and reformers in New Orleans. Responses to the question, more often than not, lead to a more complex set of conversations about crime, violence, prisons and the lack of opportunity. The proximal relationship I have to each often prompts a reflection of my own childhood experiences with these interwoven systems and helps explain how and why I became a reformer.
Something we did regularly as a family was take long drives and stand in long lines to visit my older brother who has cycled through prison systems since 1997 – the same year Master P dropped his biggest single, “Make ‘Em Say Uhh!”. Rudy, who was incredibly charming and talented as a young boy, became a man in a California penitentiary. Week after week, we would see the same families visiting their boys. These families were black, Latino, Asian, white and oddly, well organized. Whether standing in line to receive a visiting number, or while waiting for the bus to take us to the secure visitation area, we organized. Across language barriers, age differences and gang communities we shared information that ranged from the best drug programs to the most effective (and inexpensive) lawyers. Through tears of disappointment, hopelessness, and sheer fear of the unknown, we used our collective experiences and stories to draw strength together. It is here – within an enclave of chaos and dejection – that I became fascinated with the power of organizing and enamored by the willingness of families to toil with, support, and uplift each other through commonalities in the fight for their children. Though I haven’t a clue where those families are now, the spirit of their struggle is resonant of the struggle black and brown families in New Orleans have endured over the past 10 years to find quality schools for their kids. As an organizer who believes in reform as a lever of equity, it pains me to witness such disparate institutions – prisons and schools – produce such homogenous outcomes.
In 2012, Cindy Chang and the Times-Picayune put out an eight part series, “Louisiana Incarcerated: How We Built the World’s Prison Capital”. Something I learned then has always stayed with me—the typical lifer (prisoner with a life sentence) enters Angola at 25 years old. With all of the rage and sadness that overwhelms me by that fact alone— I think about the opportunity our families, communities, and schools have for at least 13 years of their lives. I think about the thousands of families who serve the same time as their children without ever entering a prison cell. I think about the trajectory of our schools since Katrina and I’m reminded that the odds we face in creating a more equitable education system is the glue we need to piece together our communities, our strength, and our love for the children of the city.
I understand firsthand the risks of not improving the quality of schools and what that does to families and communities. As we look forward to the next ten years of reform, it is important to recruit teachers who are from New Orleans – who understand these risks and who in addition to providing the academic rigor our students need also understands how to motivate and inspire our children. If the schools my brother and I attended had a standard of academic rigor, a culture of scholarship that translated culturally to me and my peers, and that were inclusive of our community and traditions – other possibilities could be imagined for my brother’s life trajectory and so many other young people like him. The vision moving forward needs to be created with teachers, parents and students and should include a deliberate plan that disrupts the school-to-prison trends in the state. Since Hurricane Katrina there has been an influx of the Vietnamese and Latino population in the city. Our vision must include voices from the Vietnamese and Latino community and include the issues affecting their children. Sustaining the education reform movement can only happen when children’s best advocates – their parents – are active participants in changing the systems, policies and community’s engagement with schools.
Jonas Perriott, father of a beautiful, wide-eyed three-year-old daughter, says that high-quality school options are scarce in New Orleans public schools. His best bet is to start now and get as many shots at the target until she gets in. So that means applying to highly selective Pre-K programs (like the one at Audubon Charter School) now until she is able to get in. Read More