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Cohen students walk out in protest of firings

15th October 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Zoe Sullivan
Contributing Writer

Students at Walter S. Cohen Senior High School staged a walkout on Friday, October 5, after learning the day before that they would be losing their new principal and four out of 12 teachers in a management makeover. This shake-up is the second in two years. Meagan McKinnon, the Senior Class President, told The Louisiana Weekly that she feared the abrupt switch would affect her academic performance. “If there’s always going to be constant change, and there’s no consistency, I won’t be able to learn. It’s going to push me back further and further,” she said in a phone interview. The youth vowed not to return to Cohen until the faculty and administration did.

On October 10, roughly 75 students, according to a report by WDSU, staged a peaceful protest in front of the Recovery School District’s (RSD) new Poydras Street office. None of them were allowed into the building to speak with RSD officials. Principal Gavin Lewis along with several administrative staff and teachers were fired the week of October 4. Students learned about the dismissals on October 4 and planned a walkout for the next day.

Future is Now is a charter school organization currently running John McDonogh High School, which will take over Cohen Senior High. New Orleans native Chad Broussard who had been working as an administrator in the Houston school system has been selected as the replacement principal.

One of the senior class leaders, Terrell Major, told The Louisiana Weekly that “Patrick Dobard stated that the community and the parents should be involved in everything that happens to [the school], and…we had no hand in [this change]. That was done behind closed doors.”

Cohen is a school that is being phased out. As a result, the RSD operates only the 11th- and 12th- grade classes. New Orleans College Prep, a charter school organization, runs Cohen College Prep, which serves sixth- through 10th-graders in the same building.

On the afternoon of October 8, the students posted a list of demands on the wall of the school building. The Uptown Messenger photographed the lists, which included items such as sex education, a set of books for every student, and a librarian. The demands also included keeping the staff and an apology. The Louisiana Justice Institute posted a revised list of demands issued on October 10 on its blog. These demands included items from the original list, such as building repairs and reinstatement of the faculty and staff, and included new ones, such as sharing data related to student test scores, police reports and attrition rates for students and teachers.

Asked what criteria were used to determine that the school environment was not conducive to learning, RSD Deputy Superintendent Dana Peterson said that the District would not release this information to the public.

Peterson responded to concerns such as those raised by McKinnon about the disruption caused by the abrupt transition, saying: “Change is difficult and students will have to adjust, but students will adjust to it and adjust to it well. Students lingering in an environment which isn’t challenging and stimulating academically, that’s worse.”

The National Education Policy Center published a post from prominent education advocate Diane Ravitch on the controversy over the Cohen switch. Ravitch, who was an advisor to President George H.W. Bush and supported testing, has since revised her position. In a recent National Public Radio Interview, Ravitch asserted that poverty and segregation are the roots of educational shortcomings.

Ravitch’s post shared an email exchange between Gideon Stein, President of Future is Now Schools and Tracie Washington of the Louisiana Justice Institute. In her email, Washington wrote: “The problem is the presumptions made that started this web of deception and mess. That web continues, even today with Recovery School District (RSD) and FINS-Nola backdating a contract (it’s a public record folks; that’s a big ‘no, no’).”

Students and others spoke with The Louisiana Weekly about their concern that the management switch at Cohen was not due to poor teacher performance, but rather to financial interests. They suggested that low enrollment at John McDonogh had pushed Future Is Now Schools to find another source of students.

Both Peterson and Stein denied this assertion when questioned by The Louisiana Weekly. “Our national organization doesn’t charge a management fee for the schools that we run in New Orleans,” Stein told The Louisiana Weekly. “We are funded philanthropically, and we don’t take a single dollar out of New Orleans.” Among its funders, Stein described substantial support from New Schools for New Orleans, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Moriah Fund.

Stein acknowledged that consulting the community had not been part of the discussions Future Is Now conducted with the RSD, and said: “In hindsight, it probably could have been done better.” However, Stein stressed FINS educational mission, and explained that part of the reason the RSD approached it was because more than 60 former Cohen students are now studying at McDonogh and two former Cohen guidance counselors are also working there. “That’s why the match made sense to both us and to the RSD, specifically for Cohen.”

FINS released a letter on October 10 in response to the Cohen students’ demands, closing with an apology acknowledging the “im­portant history and unique identity that students, alumni, parents and the community of Walter L. Cohen High School share.”

This article was originally published in the October 15, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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