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