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Farewell Blog: No Choice

The Students at the Center community is bidding a few farewells this summer, including one to this blog. Today’s entry is our last, and in it we want to share and explain two of our other farewells: one that’s by choice and one that we feel results from us not having the choice we’d like.

We are happy to report that two of our staff members, both of whom have writings in this blog series, are temporarily leaving us to pursue graduate degrees. Gabrielle Turner has just begun work on a Master’s degree in teaching. She plans to return to New Orleans and teach in public schools and work with Students at the Center about a year from now. Ashley Jones is earning a Master’s degree in English with a concentration on writing for the community at the Bread Loaf Graduate School of English’s summer program. She has also just completed the first semester of her graduate degree in film production. Both of these young ladies developed their interest in writing, media, and teaching as high school students. And their entry into two of the graduate schools has come directly through their affiliation with Students at the Center.

We are not at all happy to report that our community is leaving Frederick Douglass High School, at least temporarily. Our reasons for this move are many, and we will list a few of them below. But most importantly, in this post-Katrina city that many people have described as a laboratory for reforming public education—especially through giving families choices about the schools their children attend—we find ourselves without the choice we want in a school in which to work and to send our children and grandchildren.

As teachers, education workers, students, parents, and grandparents, none of us can choose the school we really want: a neighborhood-based school that provides a well-rounded, community-oriented education for all young people who live in a specific geographic area. The opportunity for such a high school in New Orleans no longer exists.

All public schools in New Orleans now have the entire parish (Louisiana has parishes, not counties) as their attendance boundary.

All Recovery School District schools now have a career theme as the pathway through which students select a school.

And just as important for us, there is a lack of democratic participation in and governance of schools in New Orleans. The policy board for the Recovery School District, which directly governs over one third of the public schools in New Orleans and oversees more than 50% of the charter schools in New Orleans, meets 80 miles from here and has only one member of its 11-member state-wide board elected from New Orleans.

The state takeover and competition models of education governance introduced after Hurricane Katrina have trampled on democracy and equity. Schools now compete for resources (not just funding but also students and board members and buildings) rather than sharing them equitably. And while the over 120 schools that were part of the unified New Orleans Public Schools before Hurricane Katrina accumulated a sizable debt, after Katrina only the five schools remaining under the direct governance of the Orleans Parish School Board are helping to pay down those hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.

Our students are receiving lessons from our adults that their only responsibility is to themselves as individuals and that it is okay to change laws and governance when a majority of the population is away—that it is better to have a few people get together and decide who will govern particular schools rather than to follow the American and democratic tradition of having free and open elections for public positions.

So Students at the Center is saying farewell to Douglass High School, which no longer has the potential to realize the vision that Ashley Jones articulated so well in her essay, “Honoring Community,” that was posted on this blog on April 6, 2008. Instead we will now have specialized high schools where only the people pursuing a particular career path will study together.

All of these developments affirm our resolve to stand by the principles espoused by two important educational organizations that started in the middle of World War I. McDonogh 35 Senior High School, which is run by the local New Orleans Public Schools, will replace Douglass as our sister school to McMain Secondary School. McDonogh 35 started in 1917, filling a gap of over 20 years when black students in New Orleans could not receive a free, public high school education. We stand in the tradition of struggling against any policy group that stands in the way of all students receiving access to high quality, equitable education.

In 1916, teachers in Chicago, most of whom did not have the right to vote in the United States of America despite being citizens of that country, formed the American Federation of Teachers to ensure that teachers would have a voice in providing the best teaching and learning conditions for their students. This teacher union’s original motto was “Democracy in Education; Education for Democracy.” Twenty years later black teachers in New Orleans formed AFT Local 527 to pursue these goals. Our Students at the Center community does not have the choice we want in schools. But we do have a choice in governance model, and we are going with the one that most closely upholds the ideals of democracy and quality education that teachers from New Orleans and across our nation have struggled for during the last 100 years.


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