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Separate But Equal Revisitied

Today we feature one student’s reflections about the public school facilities issue in New Orleans. Alexandra Lear, a 2007 graduate of McMain Secondary School and staff member with Students at the Center, shares these thoughts as the city is going through a massive and controversial planning process for school facilities. As her essay illustrates, questions about equity in public school facilities are still a major issue in New Orleans.

Schools in New Orleans
Alexandra Lear

On my Easter break I visited my older cousins who moved to Maryland after the hurricane. As soon as the plane landed the first thing I said was, “It’s cold as hell out here. Did Maryland get the message that it is spring?” Everything we passed on our way to their apartment was so beautiful but so different. I remember one day we were driving up the street, and I asked my cousin-in-law Rick: “What university are we passing?” My younger cousin, who lived in Maryland all his life, looked at me like I was crazy. He asked me if I knew what a school looked like. Rick interrupted him and told me it was a high school. I was shocked. It wasn’t just a big building. It was a campus. They had the biggest buildings I had ever seen. It had a gym building, an outdoor pool, a tennis court, a football field, and a media center. I was amazed! Then I asked if it was a private school. He told me, “No, it is a public school.” Public?

I knew the schools out there were better than the ones where I lived, but damn. I’m from New Orleans, and I don’t know of one school with all of those features, especially not a public school like the one we passed in Maryland. My school is one old building that was run-down before and after the hurricane. It was awful. Rick told me that all the schools out there didn’t look like the one I saw. He told me it was one of the newer buildings and most of the old ones in different areas look mostly like the ones in New Orleans.

Rick then told me his views on the history of education between the school I saw and the schools I’m familiar with in New Orleans. He started off by using my grandparents as an example. My grandfather dropped out of school in the sixth grade when his father died and had to get a job to support his mother and two sisters; my grandmother only finished high school, got married to my grandfather, and started having children. I know at that time schools were still segregated, but Rick told me the schools built for black children weren’t adequate for any child’s education.

Little did I know, that both my grandparents went to a school in New Orleans built by African Americans, in an African American community, for African Americans. It was called Valena C. Jones, after a black educator. The school was built because at that time there were no schools that were in good condition for African American children. Knowing that there were no good schools, African American leaders got together with the community to build a school. In 1929, Valena C. Jones was completed. The community raised their own money and built the school by themselves. The state and the city government had nothing to do with the building of the school.

My mom is the one who told me all those stories. She told me when she was younger all the parents wanted their children to go to Jones Elementary, but everyone couldn’t get in. She told me my grandparents split them up into two groups of four and sent some to Jones and some to Craig, which was another public school for African American children built around the same time as Jones.

My Easter break was a blast. I learned new things about my family history and the history of public schools. School was important to people back in the day, but it was African Americans against the rest of the city. I now feel like nothing has changed. The education system has not changed. Public schools are still not adequate. Yes we have more of them, but they are not in the same condition as they were in the 1920’s. A hurricane has passed, and the school still looks old and run down. I can’t tell what are new damages and what are old damages. On the other hand some selective admissions public schools and well-funded charters got new buildings, renovated old ones, and took over underachieving public schools that didn’t get much damage and made the school look better than it ever did before.

And now that I go to Douglass every day to work with my fellow Students at the Center writers there, the inequalities slap me in the face regularly. On the way home, I often pass by NOCCA Riverfront, a state-run arts school that is public but also has a lot of private donations like so many schools now in New Orleans. This campus has many buildings and state-of-the-art equipment, just like the high school I saw in Maryland over spring break. And what’s most ironic is that it’s built where Homer Plessy got on a train in 1892 to challenge Louisiana’s Separate Car Act. Just like separate but equal didn’t work then, it’s still not working now. Maybe it’s like back in the 1920’s. Neither our government nor our well-off citizens are going to make sure that everyone has great facilities. Maybe we need to build our own schools again, just like they did with Jones Elementary in 1929.

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