One fear we have about public education in post-Katrina New Orleans is the over-reliance on simple solutions. Many of our policy makers have touted “school choice” as the primary approach that will make our schools better.
The following essay by Kirsten Theodore, who is now a senior at Frederick Douglass High School, explores this question while offering a glimpse at public education in New Orleans before and after Katrina. It also continues the theme of returning to home and school that Janay Barconey and Tyeasha Green presented in our previous two entries.
For Students the Center, one of our major struggles right now concerns the fact that the move to making all public schools in New Orleans city-wide choice schools is making it more and more difficult to continue building the neighborhood school ideal that Kirsten describes.
Driving down our streets each winter and spring has become like a continual political election campaign: at almost every major intersection there are small signs and big billboards advertising schools.
Our superintendent has announced in many recent meetings the “themes” around which high schools will be organized. Kirsten and her peers and teachers and family members have been informed rather than consulted about the vision for Douglass to become a police, fire, and emergency academy.
The neighborhood school that Kirsten experienced before the storm and dreamed about before and after is in danger of remaining a dream, not a choice.
I Don’t Want to Go to That School
By Kirsten Theodore
“Why can’t I go to Douglass, Auntie Nise?”
“Because it’s not the school for you.”
“What do you mean not the school for me?”
“Look I’m not about to explain myself to you. You’re just not going.”
“Damien and Shannon went. And Damien’s already finished two years of college successfully. Why cant I go?”
“They didn’t have options, and you have two, so I’m choosing one for you.”
“So what. What’s the difference between Douglass and Signature? Can you answer that?”
“Signature is better.”
“How do you know? There’s no proof. Douglass has had ups and downs and you judge it, but you don’t know anything about that experimental school that’s been open less than a year, and you’re ready to send me there.”
I was in eighth grade when we had that conversation, and I still remember it like it happened this morning. To people like my Aunt, who had never been there and just looked at the test scores, Douglass didn’t have much to offer. But I wanted to go there for several reasons: 1) My cousin and sister went there and always came home excited about their writing class or the journalism club or the choir. 2) Douglass was only a hop skip and a jump away from my house. And most of all 3) I had spent most of my afternoons in an after school program called Urban Heart that was set up and run by the community, teachers, and high school students like my cousin.
Urban Heart is also where I discovered that I wanted to be a teacher at Douglass. I wanted so much to be a part of the Douglass family, but it was ripped away from me when I was sucked into Signature High.
At this “choice” school my dream to be a teacher slowly faded, because the majority of my teachers told me I was crazy for settling for something so low and I shouldn’t want to help students who give up on themselves and would end up selling dope. I kept wondering how my Auntie could think Signature was better than Douglass when all Signature did was put down people like me.
For my tenth grade year my Auntie dragged me back to Signature, but that was cut short because of Hurricane Katrina. We evacuated to Copperas Cove, Texas, where I went to school with all the high school age students in that town for over a year.
When we returned to New Orleans in October, 2006, a couple of months into my 11th grade year, one of the only open schools with space for students was Frederick Douglass. So now it was my Auntie who didn’t have a choice. My whole world lit up when I found out that I’d be going to Douglass, my dream school.
Like most things in New Orleans, however, Douglass had changed after the storm. Now the state, which had never run a school, much less a school system, before, had taken over Douglass. Only five teachers who taught at Douglass before Katrina were left. About half of the teachers were uncertified and teaching for the first time. And there were security guards everywhere. In fact, at the beginning of the school year there were more security guards than there were certified teachers. Even my favorite part of the day, whether I was in Texas or Louisiana, at a “choice” school or a neighborhood school—I’m talking about lunchtime—even that was a disappointment. When I got to the cafeteria, the lines were longer than I had ever seen, even in my imagination of Great Depression bread lines. I didn’t even eat lunch that day, because they ran out. But I became happy I didn’t, when I found out that all students were receiving were ice sandwiches that would freeze your throat when you try to swallow.
Despite all those ways that the state takeover has made Douglass worse than when I dreamed of going there, I’m actually happy to get out my bed every morning to learn from the half of my teachers who are certified. These veterans of neighborhood public schools in New Orleans are always there to help me where I lack. If it wasn’t for Ms. Adams, I would not know that Huey P. Long and Claiborne were governors, not roads. Ms. Haines taught me not only what a parenthetical citation is but how to blend many sources and stories together into a unified essay. And Mr. Randels, the same writing teacher with Students at the Center who taught my cousin Damien six years ago, has trained me to go to the elementary school across the street, the one where Urban Heart used to be, and lead writing workshops for 7th and 8th graders with my fellow Students at the Center members.
Best of all, being at my neighborhood school has me back on track with a vision and purpose for my education. Once again I want to become a teacher, and I’m really glad to be in a school that supports me in this vision rather than looking down on me for it.