Our SAC team shared this essay last night in one of the sessions of the College Composition and Communication Conference, at which our school-based writing community presented at five different conference events for college English professors from across the country.
These professors listened closely and respectfully to the ideas and experiences of students, teachers, graduates, and parents of what used to be a local public school system.
Unfortunately in post-Katrina New Orleans, the education leaders of our state-run Recovery School District have not listened well.
The kind of community capacity building that Ashley Jones, one of our senior SAC staff members, describes in her essay “Honoring Community” is difficult to achieve when high-priced individual and organizational consultants from other cities drain our resources and remove decision-making about education from local control.
In articles in The Times Picayune this spring (particularly on Tuesday, March 25, 2008), Paul Vallas and Paul Pastorek have defended their decision to put out numerous no-bid contracts for $2,000-a-day consultants to improve our public education. They have apparently disagreed with Ashley, a daughter of and worker in New Orleans.
The state-hired superintendent of the largest single group of public schools in New Orleans assured The Times Picayune this spring that he was no longer offering such exorbitant contracts (he caps them now at $1,200 a day) and was reducing the number of outside consultants. Yet just last month a couple of community organizations that support Douglass High School were called to a meeting with a consultant from one of the cities where our state-hired superintendent used to work. The consultant had received a contract to work on redesign of the academic programs at Douglass and a couple of other schools, although he could only fly down here a few days a month. This is not the sort of community capacity building that Ashley recommends below.
Those of us who live and work in the Douglass High School neighborhood have read in the local newspaper of Recovery School District consultant and staff plans to turn Douglass into a police, fire, and emergency worker academy. These moves violate two principles that Ashley outlines below: a) educating a whole community rather than creating specialists and b) involving the community most affected by the school in decisions about the direction of the school.
Ashley temporarily moved from New Orleans this spring. She is pursuing a master’s degree in an out-of-state university. She plans to return to New Orleans to work with us in the summer and after she receives her degree. She hopes to teach in New Orleans. We hope by then that consultants and superintendents have at least more actively listened to recommendations that she and others like her are making.
By Ashley Jones
In the summer of 2005 I had the rare privilege to see an ancient community working together to make themselves stronger. In this community -- where people sit in a circle on the floor -- there were expert hunters, farmers, and medicine men. Each person had a skill to share, and in the event that the medicine man was absent, people did not die because everyone was taught the healing properties of certain herbs and plants.
This ancient community was part of a play by students from Fredrick Douglass and Chalmette High Schools, both schools in neighborhoods severely devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Chalmette, a predominantly white high school, is in St. Bernard Parish, just across the parish line from Douglass, the all-black New Orleans public school where I was working. As part of the State of the Nation program, a project of the Douglass Community Coalition led by coalition member Artspot Productions, these students dealt with the problem of inequities of public education, specifically starting with the New Orleans public school system.
In the six weeks that we convened to create this play, a group of black and white students -- who wouldn’t otherwise be affiliated with each other -- became a community. I’ve seen them with my own eyes, learning from each other’s strengths and each one growing stronger herself. As much as it made me happy to see this utopia of learning and understanding and community development, it was also heart crushing. Because in the real world -- a world where the individual is more important than the group -- this type of community learning would not be awaiting them at their respective schools, unless they were able to be a part of a program such as Students at the Center, a school-based writing program that links community to school and develops youth voices and leadership.
I know of no other program that encourages students to learn through their own experiences, which means that everyone can be a teacher in his or her own way. How well you do in the class is not dependent on your grades or whether or not you can pass a test, but on how well you can connect your experiences to the current events, policies and decisions that affect your life. Students at the Center equips each student with the ability to be leaders in their own schools and communities.
In the wake of hurricane Katrina, the students from Chalmette and Douglass high schools have both suffered devastating losses to their communities. The good thing is that all of us who care about New Orleans and the surrounding parishes have the opportunity to learn from the SAC community. We can make our school system reflect true equality and community cooperation that could generate significant economic and technological growth as well as great self–reliance and sufficiency.
One of the first and most critical steps to having a public school system that works for each student is to break down the barriers that divide communities. These barriers include selective admissions schools that have the ability to design their student body based on admissions test scores or simply self-selection by students, their families, and their teachers.
Separating students who can achieve on certain levels from those who may not be able to achieve on those levels hurts and weakens all students. Instead of creating a system that allows students from the same neighborhood with varying degrees of knowledge to learn and help each other be better students, these selective admission schools rip vital human resources from their own communities while discriminating against others. But these “others” are also vital human resources.
I know this because I attended McDonogh #35, a selective admissions school. Yet my relatives and friends in my own community attended Carver, Booker T. Washington High, and Douglass High Schools, all of which are considered low performing schools. Although I didn’t initially understand some of my family’s resentment of the high school I chose to attend, somehow I did feel like I was a part of the abandonment of not just those in my family but in my community. I understood that my education was somewhat better than theirs, but why? Whenever I walked into my cousin Eddie’s room when he was doing homework, he would stop immediately and throw his books aside. I knew he was having trouble because his mommy told me so. Even though we were cousins, for some strange reason the fact that he attended Carver and I McDonogh # 35 made it hard for him to come to me for help, even when I was clearly offering my services.
Imagine if all of the medicine men, all of the hunters, musicians and farmers decided to create their own communities, excluding or rarely dealing with those with other skills? They would notice that their communities would become gravely destitute as musicians realize they know nothing about hunting, the hunters can’t heal the sick, and the medicine men starve to death because they know not how to cook. The ancients understood one thing we fail to realize: you can’t be a community by yourself. And even if you find a group of people who are just as smart as you, or can play an instrument just as fine as you can, there are skills that the group lacks and desperately needs.
If we are serious about creating a better New Orleans and we understand that a better school system is an important factor in that, then we know what we have to do. There is only one way to eliminate low-performing schools for good: Get rid of those schools that separate and destroy the potential of community.
The vision that we created through the State of the Nation play last summer was a vision of community. So when a student is trying to decide whether to attend Easton or Douglass, the determining factor should be as frivolous as liking the color of the uniform. It should not be a choice to abandon your whole community to better yourself.
The opinions expressed in Student Stories: A New Orleans Classroom Chronicle are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.