Vallas Claims No Community Involvement
This week has been busy with responses to the April 7 announcement of the impending closing of Douglass High School.
Earlier this week, on Monday, April 14, Recovery School District (RSD) Superintendent Paul Vallas gave a report to state superintendent Paul Pastorek and the public at large about the RSD’s progress. A number of Douglass supporters attended the meeting to give comment, ask questions, and seek answers about the plans for Douglass. Many of them have approached us upset that Mr. Vallas, in response to their concerns, claimed that the community had not cared about Douglass for the last 40 years. We were not there, but we have felt and heard from many of our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and former students the strong wave of response to this characterization of the school at which we have worked for the last ten years.
But more important than the effect on the school, we are concerned about the whole future of public education in our city. We begin to have serious questions when the leader of our city’s largest school district, who has been in our city less than a year, will make claims that he cannot support and about which he knows nothing. If he will speak like this in public, how can he be trusted? If he does not care enough to learn about the strengths and weaknesses and histories of our schools, how can he lead the work to improve them? If he does not care about our communities, how can he care about the children we raise and the students we teach?
Today’s writing comes from Crystal Carr, a 2005 graduate of McDonogh 35 and four-year member of Students at the Center. The play she describes, Inhaling Brutality, Exhaling Peace, was part of a collaboration between the Crescent City Peace Alliance, Douglass High School, neighborhood residents, Tulane School of Public Health professors and students, and Students at the Center to help students understand violence and promote peace. In 2004, the Centers for Disease Control invited this Douglass community project to speak at a conference on social disparities in public health as one of nine exemplary programs of its sort in the country. National journals on youth violence prevention have published articles about this Douglass community initiative.
Unlike Mr. Vallas, Crystal Carr has a balanced, accurate, and compassionate understanding of the history of community involvement in Douglass High School, which she attended as a 9th grader in the 2001-02 school year.
Separate But Equal
“It is only temporary. It shall not be long. It is only temporary.” These words echoed through my head as I walked through the halls of Frederick Douglass for the first time. The walls were falling. The floor was coming up, and many of the windows had been broken. Puzzled, I marched toward my first period class in order to find a familiar face.
Frederick Douglass was not the most intellectually stimulating school or even the most fun. My years at Douglass can only be described as a reality check to my innocent mind. Douglass taught me that everything is not peaches and cream in the ‘hood; it taught me how hard it is to survive. This school, my district school, showed me how to connect with others from my neighborhood at a greater level. My year at Douglass brought many smiles and many tears, yet in the midst of it all I still survived.
The books there were torn, written in, and abused. I thought, “who could learn without good books?” I wondered if adults in the community and people who make policies that affect our students knew about these conditions. I don’t think they did. Most were blinded.
I had my eyes opened and my mind filled in some classes there, despite the lack of books. In my Students at the Center (SAC) writing class, taught by Ms. Patterson, we learned lots about black people and community. One of the most memorable things she said was, “This is not a school but a learning community and in order to bring scores up, we must focus on community.” The books we read, the essays we wrote, the critical thinking we developed were all part of movement and community building. My classmates and I wrote a play, Inhaling Brutality, Exhaling Peace, that we performed not only at our school and in a neighborhood church but also for teacher training workshops, a national conference on youth leadership and the arts, and the Centers for Disease Control. We read essays and stories by writers such as James Baldwin and Edwidge Danticat. We wrote about these stories in relationship to our own lives and adapted them to the play we developed.
Although it may be a surprise to most people who only look at the scores and the sensational stories that the media covers, I learned a lot at Douglass. The teachers taught me things ranging from how to survive in the streets to how to honor my culture. I applied this knowledge and skill to my life.
McDonogh 35, the city-wide access school to which I earned admission as a 10th grade student, is quite different. This school doesn’t have off campus lunch or anything I would call fun. It is a lot of work. Getting into McDonogh 35 and staying there in my sophomore year was pretty easy. Now in my junior year I am learning the importance of knowledge. Most teachers are so busy preparing us for tests that they only teach us what to think. My English teacher, Mr. Ogle, is like Ms. Patterson; he teaches me how to think. He makes me question many things and gives me a deeper desire for learning. In his class, it isn’t learn this or learn that but realize this and confront that.
At McDonogh 35, however, I am also taught to stay away from the community. Our purpose is increasing our knowledge, not interacting with the community that surrounds the school. The only time we really spend in the neighborhood is during fire alarms or on our way in and out of school. Even though I have been attending McDonogh 35 for two years, I know none of the names or the faces of those who stay around the school. Ever since one of our McDonogh 35 students was injured in the leg, everyone has been too scared for us to even set foot in the neighborhood. I now wonder how things might have been different, if we had interacted more with the neighborhood residents, even started a community non-violence program together.
This situation reminds me of the section of Barbara Ransby’s biography of Ella Baker that we just finished discussing in my SAC class as part of our study of the 50th anniversary of Brown and the 40th anniversary of the freedom schools in Mississippi. Shaw University, where Ella Baker attended high school and college, actually forbade its students from interacting with the black residents of Raleigh, North Carolina. This rule created a separation that Ella Baker later fought against in her civil rights and black power work.
I miss my community-based learning and home at Douglass. Yet I also love the education I receive at McDonogh 35. I feel stuck between the two. I do not want to go back to Douglass, but I don’t want to stay at 35. I feel stuck between the two. Sometimes I wish the students and visions of the two schools were not so separate. I wish 35 was more like Douglass and Douglass was more like 35.