Filed Under:  Columns, Education, Local, Opinion, Regional, State

Be nice or leave!

9th July 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Dr. Andre M. Perry
Contributing Columnist

“Be Nice or Leave!” is a local adage that can be found almost everywhere in New Orleans on signature signs that are popularized by folk artist Dr. Bob. Plain and direct, the saying captures a chronic problem that locals have found a suitable solution to.

Whether you’ve had too much to drink in a neighborhood speakeasy or if you disrespect venerable school principals, the old adage applies: “Be Nice or Leave.” ‘Tis the case of consultant Aamir Raza. The Algiers Charter Schools Association hired Raza to serve in the immediate absence of recently resigned CEO, Andrea Thomas-Reynolds.

Facing academic stagnation, school takeover and no CEO, the Algiers Charters Association needed decisive and immediate leadership. Before the ink could dry on his contract, Raza proposed a plan to move two of ACSA’s most effective, popular and powerful principals, Mary Laurie and Renee Lewis-Carter to other schools. Algiers needs to replicate its success stories. Consequently, Raza sought to move high performing principals to low performing schools. Raza also planned to fire central office staff and numerous teachers.

Raza’s proposition naturally led to an ebullient and organized response, which the faith community helped organize. In response to the upheaval, the board immediately halted Raza’s plans, which probably would have worked seven years ago.

In many other places, the act of a stoic educational leader who applies a scorched earth policy to a school district would raise eyebrows or even applause. The problem with such an approach in New Orleans is that we’ve already had Katrina. Moreover, the city and region experienced multiple waves of explosive reforms. We’ve grown tired of brash, controversial and divisive educational figures. Most reformers and nearly all community members now prefer ice to fire, strategy to bombast.

In terms of weathering community pushback, place matters. East Bank reformers benefit from a peculiar anomie or metropolitanism. On the East Bank, teachers and principals come from everywhere, and they aren’t anchored in a particular place other than the school. Anyone encroaching across the Best Bank should take into account the West Bank didn’t flood. ACSA’s principals are fully ensconced in the local neighborhoods. After the storm, proud West Bankers became that much more cohesive.

It’s true everywhere in education but particularly on the West Bank, leadership and place are inextricably linked. Families follow principals as much as they do the name and reputation of the school. Moving principals would probably result in families desperately wanting to go wherever Laurie and Carter landed.

It’s always better to attack problems rather than people. Raza could have enlisted Laurie and Carter’s vice-principals or veteran teachers to replicate success. The board could have asked the proven principals to step into administrative roles, which included continued supervision of their own school.

Nevertheless, the charter movement is about leaders taking ownership at the individual school level. Moving principals around like middle managers is an old-school tactic of keeping principals, who are growing to big for their britches, in line with hierarchy. A byproduct of effective leadership in a charter system is entitlement. As long as that power is not corruptive, central office staff should not want to control principals.

Raza’s moves appear more scripted than tactical. Many market-oriented reformers will robotically say they won’t deal with what is affectionately known as “adult issues” (which happen to be people). Educators who are supposedly interested in helping communities have summarily fired teachers in New Orleans, Providence, RI, High Point, NC, and Savannah, GA. Just like a new CEO routinely fires employees to see stock prices go up, reformers have done the same to garner political support. “You’re fired” makes for interesting reality television, but it has become a trite, unimaginative hook that is seen as a necessary condition for organizational change.

Being mean should never be in fashion. Change is painful enough.

What was an authentic struggle to find solutions is becoming a reality show. Leaders are firing and transferring employees without assessing talent. We’ve pushed legislation that expanded and authorized vouchers without accountability. State bureaucrats are evaluating schools with a half-baked grading system. Didn’t Louisiana just pass anti-bullying legislation?

The goal of education is to improve the community, not to improve despite the community. If ultimatums are going to be thrown, let’s stick with “Be Nice or Leave!”

This article originally published in the July 9, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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