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Public Schools: They're Trying to Wash Us Away?

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Fourteen students, graduates, teachers, and community partners traveled to Clemson University from seven states for a working retreat for the Students at the Center (SAC) program last weekend. You can probably guess at the familiar reunion details: hugs, jokes, inquiries about classmates and family members, discussions of future plans, and lots of writing.

As always, the students had plenty to teach the adults in attendance. Damien, sporting the dress shirt and tie required for his new job and asking us to call him Mr. Theodore now, helped us see how to temper anger with humor in his memo to public officials. Christopher, who loves the history of New Orleans and its public schools, laughed heartily, like someone missing home bad, at every writer's references to our city. And Rodneka showed the grit and heart of a lower 9th ward resident: "Our job's a little bit harder now, but we're still going to do it."

What's sticking in my mind most, a couple days after everyone's left the reunion, are writings by Ashley Jones and Maria Hernandez. Ashley just graduated from Clark Atlanta and is entering her eighth year with SAC, now as a staff member. Maria would have been a senior at Douglass High School.

You can tell how Ashley feels about Maria and other Douglass SAC students in this excerpt from one of her essays.

"Before I thought about the place I used to get my chicken sandwiches from on Freret St. or Ms. Sadie, the ice berg lady right off of LaSalle St. in the 3rd ward, I saw Maria, and Rodneka, Earlnika, Keva, Daniel. I thought about Douglass High School and the gloomy hallways that always made me feel that I was in a scary movie or something. I wondered what would be next for them, no longer having SAC. I thought about the schools they may be forced to go to. Those cold, stiff rooms where the real world never becomes part of the lesson plan. . . .

"Revisiting the halls of Douglas in my mind, I never knew how much these kids meant to me, and although I have always been grateful to SAC, I finally realize the saving grace it has been. So many times I've walked Douglass' dusky halls and felt that I had just entered the walls of an abandoned ship stacked high with forgotten treasure. I size up the bounty of pliable, young bodies and make note of the brilliance exuberating from their eyes and their hair and their mouths and I think, 'Why hasn't anyone claimed this treasure, this fountain of youth, this elixir of life?!'"

There's a running joke between Ashley, who graduated from McDonogh 35 one of the many public schools in New Orleans with selective admissions, and Damien, who graduated from his neighborhood school, Douglass. Damien hates 35 but loves Ashley. He says her alma mater is her one flaw. When Ashley finished reading her essay, she flashed a big grin at Damien and the rest of us. "You can't complain now, Damien. See, I thought about Douglass first, not 35."

Maria's essay is rawer, more chilling. She describes her six days in the Superdome, not knowing if her father's dead or alive--all the harrowing details the news reports help you imagine. But at the end of her essay, she makes one of her patented gut shots:

"This uncertainty that's straggling me is also undermining Douglass, the school my friends were fighting to make better. When we gathered for a weekend reunion on October 8th and 9th, we learned that all the New Orleans Public Schools would become charter schools this year. And worse than that, the only public high schools open on the east bank of the city, where probably over 80% of the population and all of my friends live, would have no public high schools other than those that have selective admission criteria. How can these decision makers open two high schools on the east bank, but none for common folk like me, who either can't get into or don't want to get into selective admission high schools.

"I've lost my home, my friends, and my school. I'm always on the verge of tears. But the worst part of it all is that the public officials--both elected and hired--who are supposedly looking out for my education, have failed me even worse than the ones who abandoned me in the Superdome. My family and friends have food and water and the kindness of strangers. But we still don't have control of our lives, and we're still being abandoned--even worse than at the Dome--by local, state, and federal officials who are supposed to be looking out for us."

Randy Newman, in his song about the 1927 floods in New Orleans when the business leaders of the city decided to break the levees and flood poorer parts of Louisiana in order to save their city, sang "They're trying to wash us away." Maria and Ashley and all of us are living that in terms of our public schools.

That washing away hits me really hard. You see, my alma mater, Benjamin Franklin High School, the top-ranked school in the state and the only majority white public high school in a city that before Katrina was about 70% black, just announced that it will be a charter school operating separately from the school district. Those of us who graduated from there haven't heard from Maria or thought like Ashley. We didn't think about Maria and her peers first. We didn't work to open schools for them. We took care of our own, abandoning the most poor and oppressed in our city to a fate crueler than those long days without food, air, water, and security in the Dome.

Part of going back to New Orleans for me will be coming to grips with my alma mater. I'll start looking now for fellow graduates who want to start a new alumni association, one that supports neighborhood public schools with no selective admissions requirements, one that takes up the moral mandate that our New Orleans ancestor Homer Plessy and his colleagues laid down for us over 100 years ago: no more separate and unequal institutions in our society.

4 Comments

To: Mr. Randels
RE: Benjamin Franklin and its Alumni association.

Dear Sir, as a SENIOR of the class of 2006 at Benjamin Franklin High School I take total offense to your inane writings about Franklin and its future - also your misreading of your own students writings. Sir, your comment (items marked in brackets are my questions requiring clarification due to the lack of clarity): "We didn’t work to open schools for them [So it's them and us now? Franklin is nothing but rich upper class white children? if that is the case, I urge you to view Ben Franklin's profile which shows it as THE MOST DIVERSE SCHOOL in NEW ORLEANS, encompassing ALL RACES, creeds, ethnicities]. We took care of our own [Whites? again review the facts], abandoning the most poor [Where are you talking about?? do you think that as a public school we ask kids what their yearly family income is in order to determine admission?] and oppressed [everyone not at Franklin is oppressed? is Franklin denying them entry arbitrarily or is it completely academics based, I say academics] in our city"

"...And worse than that, the only public high schools open on the east bank of the city, where probably over 80% of the population and all of my friends live, would have no public high schools other than those that have selective admission criteria. How can these decision makers open two high schools on the east bank, but none for common folk like me, who either can’t get into or don’t want to get into selective admission high schools."

These comments are banal, showing unfortunately, uninformed oppinion of what is happening in New Orleans.

Let's start with the fait accompli - not my opinion the facts! You are correct in stating that schools MAY open as charter schools in New Orleans, but above all lets talk about why. The School board has no money, even more so than usual. These schools opening on the westbank are the only schools which are being sought to reopen on the westbank by the school board. These schools are being considered as charter schools, however an injunction was filed against the action - typical school board politics. There were NO plans to open any east bank schools by the school board - the least of which is Benjamin Franklin. Benjamin Franklin took on two feet of water INSIDE of the building, and has no electricity, the school board has expressed no interest in reopening Franklin or even repairing in the near future. Lusher, the other East Bank school she refers to which had little damage which may reopen was not considered an option by the school board either, however; Lusher, which gives middle school students ACROSS the city access to an accellerated arts based curriculum, has a strong parents association which sought to reopen the school, the school board had nothing to do with said action, only concerned parents. Lusher will be chartered by Tulane, because of its academic background - not because Tulane wishes to open schools, it wishes to provide a GOOD, accellerated High School for their employees children, when they return in January.

Now let's talk about Benjamin Franklin High School's status of reopening; Franklin, which suffered the most damage - my opinion - of any school in the city may reopen because of the most dedicated principal in the city, Carol Christen. Ms. Christen, which is currently not being paid for her work, is working non stop in order to get Franklin open. Franklin has given the best education in the city since its founding in the 1950's. Franklin, is not an elite closed group of uptown hoighty toities which the writers thesis entertains, it is quite the contrary, many students live on the westbank and commute, also MANY students live in Gentilly/New Orleans East (a harmed part of town), and we have many in the uptown area as well as LAKEVIEW (a harmed part of town) we commute, so we can get the most out of high school.

Your student writes that she does not WANT to go to a selective admissions high school [Franklin], then why can't a STUDENT who has the drive, and intelligence to attend a college preperatory, high stakes school attend one? Benjamin Franklin is a high school where students are there because they live for their education, we wake up in the morning ready for school, and attend classes where we each add something to class everyday. Also, I'd suggest you re-examine your motivations to form a "new" alumni association; Even though you think that you "support" neighborhood schools while BFHS does not re-examine this: BFHS is only going charter for one reason - because if we do not Franklin dies as an institution, and Franklin is the future of New Orleans, among the best and the brightest in our state and country. Franklin IS the best school in the state, and I will tell you why. It is the best not only because of students, but also a dedicated Faculty and staff. Where else will a teacher lose his job, go to Chicago, and begin searching for teachers to get letters of recommendations written for seniors (Mr. Gonzalez); Where else did a school principal would choose NOT to retire, and work for free, daily inorder to write a charter to save the greatest educational institution in the state; Where else would a teacher, for no pay spearhead the effort to reopen Franklin, and restore it to its previous status. I can answer that question for you - Comparisons are odious! Franklin is the best because of the Students like Wynton Marsalis, the Faculty like Mr. Gonzalez, and Mr. Firneno, and the Administration like Ms. Christen and Ms. Fontenot. So before you go trying to tear down an institution which fostered your intellectual growth, and your aspirations - that provided you the opportunity and most likely nurtured a love of teaching and learning in you, look back - question your data, and form your own opinion off of fact, not an emotional essay by a 16 year old girl.

I submit this respectfully as a differing opinion from yours.
Sincerely,
Thomas Lambert

Many of Thomas Lambert's comments are on track. It is a shame that the only schools that may open on the eastbank will be selective charter schools; but that is not the fault of those schools. The school board is not willing or able (and able seems the key word as they are bankrupt [literally] from years of bad financial control) to do what should be done. The only source for money to open any schools on the eastbank is through grants for charter schools. And that is what Ben Franklin and some others on both banks of the river are doing. The company (Alvarez and Marsal) the state forced Orleans Parish School Board to accept has stated that there simply is no money to open school anywhere before January and even then the options will be limited to the westbank.
Unfortunately the needed cleansing of Orleans Parish schools came in an horrific storm. Now people are just doing what they can to have what can be up,up and running. Hopefully the school board or some other organizations somehow can open more schools on the eastbank in January; tell students and parents of closed schools to do what they can to reopen any school that is physically repairable and where a teaching staff can be reorganized. It is difficult but it can only be done piecemeal. Hopefully the pieces can soon become a better school system responsive to all the needs or the parents, students, and citizens of Orleans Parish.
Earl Luetzelschwab
resident and public school teacher in Orleans Parish

I can't believe it, my co-worker just bought a car for $18311. Isn't that crazy!

469-693-3657--sister cell

Hey Mr. Randels its sheanka i want to get in touch with all of you--please call

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  • She-'anka Johnson: 469-693-3657--sister cell Hey Mr. Randels its sheanka i want to read more
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  • Earl Luetzelschwab: Many of Thomas Lambert's comments are on track. It is read more
  • Thomas Lambert: To: Mr. Randels RE: Benjamin Franklin and its Alumni association. read more

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