Filed Under:  OpEd, Opinion

Fighting for an education

15th October 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Edmund W. Lewis

I am so proud of the students, parents, teachers and supporters of students at Walter L. Cohen and L.B. Landry senior high schools. Especially the students.

These are not the kinds of students who usually get the lion’s share of media attention, you know, the ones who show up for school with their pants sagging, scowls on their faces and attitude for days.

These are well-behaved, articulate and energetic young people who appear to be well-informed of the issues facing their schools and communities. The kind of kids who do the right thing every day and felt compelled to do something when they saw their teachers, mentors and role models being treated unjustly by the Recovery School District.

One of these schools is nestled along the West Bank of the Mississippi River while the other is located on the East Bank, but they came together nicely last week to fight a common foe: Injustice.

Students at Cohen were understandably upset after their principal and several teachers were fired while Landry students were moved to action by the termination of a popular coach and two staff members. Apparently, these firings were the proverbial last straw so the students decided to take some action of their own.

They walked out of their respective schools and have participated in a series of peaceful protests to draw attention to their plight. From everything I have seen, these young people were respectful, disciplined and well-organized in carrying out their protests. Rather than leave the school and get into all sorts of trouble, they held class outside the school and made it clear that they had every intention of taking a stand for what they believed while continuing to get an education.

Well done.

Across the city, neighbors, teachers, parents and other supporters saw their light and came to their aid. It was gratifying to see so many people in the community support these students’ efforts.

Students from Cohen and Landry were joined Wednesday in a peaceful protest at RSD headquarters by more parents, teachers and members of the community who supported their efforts. Terrell Major, one of the student leaders, told ABC26 Wednesday that the students presented the Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard with a list of their demands. Major said he doesn’t think Dobard is taking the students seriously, which, if it is true, may come back to haunt Dobard and the RSD.

The students, parents and their supporters are already considering their legal options.

Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians have witnessed the systematic destruction of the city’s public school system and the cultural and historical ties that define many of the city’s storied neighborhoods. After huddling in Dallas while many residents were still searching for loved ones or scrambling to make sense of the devastating storm and consequent flood, the city’s minority ruling class set out to illegally fire several thousand teachers, administrators and other employees of the city’s embattled school system as part of a plan to seize power and control of the city and its resources. The justification for an unprecedented takeover of a vast percentage of the city’s public schools was dismal LEAP scores and ineffective stewardship by the school board. The real motive was lucrative public school contracts that school board members awarded to bidding contractors. Waving lofty goals, attractive salaries and a chance to test out educational theories in a real-world laboratory, the powers that be began hiring replacement administrators and teachers to take the place of the thousands of public school employees illegally terminated after Katrina.

Schools were torn down, idealistic and adventurous young educators were recruited to come to New Orleans “to make a difference,” and some school buildings were reassigned for other purposes with little or no input from the communities these schools had served for decades. It soon became clear that the real purpose for the school takeover and everything that has happened since was cold, hard cash. Cash from the awarding of school contracts, cash from the allocation of rebuilding and renovation funds and dinero from the state’s voucher program, which raids public school funds and theoretically uses those funds to pay for students to attend better, private schools.

The problem is that when it comes to a significant number of the city’s charter schools and institutions that seek to attract students with vouchers, there’s no accountability or transparency. State Education Superintendent John White was initially brought in to replace Recovery School District Superintended Paul Vallas but ended up with State Education Supt. Paul Pastorek’s job several years ago.

As for the people of this city, we’re supposed to believe it was all purely coincidence that New Yorker John White ended up as State Education Supt., that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg just happened to make a donation to the campaign of a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education candidate touted as the best chance to defeat one of the governor’s toughest critics on BESE and that Gov. Piyush Jindal, John White, Patrick Dobard and all the others who are lining the pockets of charter school entrepreneurs are doing so because they really care about poor Black children in New Orleans.

Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard, who was tapped to step into the office after John White was conveniently promoted to State Superin­tendent of the Louisiana Depart­ment of Education, has been reluctant to speak with the media or share information about the state’s voucher program, prompting whispers in some quarters about his aversion to sunlight.

Although a New Orleans native, Patrick Dobard has not been very successful at inspiring trust among local parents, students and teachers. There have been no shortage of strong-arm and secretive moves from Dobard and others in the RSD, including placing an alternative school within the confines of John McDonogh Senior High School without seeking feedback from or notifying McDonogh administrators, plans to take over control of George Washington Craver Senior High School, and moving forward with plans to merge L.B. Landry Senior High School and Edna Karr Magnet School in Algiers.

These are but the latest affronts in a series of moves and assaults that include allowing Lusher High School to take over Alcee Fortier Senior High School, refusing to rebuild John F. Kennedy Senior High School, tampering with the curriculum of Joseph Craig Elementary School and neglecting Joseph S. Clark and-Booker T. Washington senior high schools.

Attorney Tracie Washington of the Louisiana Justice Institute called Dobard a “sorry excuse for a Black man” last week for playing an active role in violating these students’ right to a solid public education. In particular, she took offense after Dobart reportedly told her Monday that the students who were participating in classes outside the uptown New Orleans school would be identified as truants in their school records. “He’s willing to criminalize these students” to accomplish RSD objectives, she said of Dobard who is a New Orleans native but lives in Baton Rouge.

“We need to make his whole life a living, frickin’ hell,” Washington told WBOK Tuesday afternoon.

It looks and sounds an awful lot like Mr. Dobard has no qualms about being used as a pawn by the powers that be who continue to want to control the flow of financial resources earmarked for public education in New Orleans. If he’s Black and the people being adversely affected by the decisions he makes are Black he can’t be accused of being a racist, right?

Right. But he can be accused of being used as a tool of oppression by those who pay his salary. Why on earth, if not to carry out their machiavellian purposes, would a governor and state education superintendent hire such a superintendent who appears to be so unimaginative and unprincipled? Why would they choose someone from New Orleans to run the Recovery School District who seems to be so detached from and unconcerned about the everyday struggles of this city’s poorest residents

Patrick Dobard is either a dim-witted, spineless fellow who doesn’t mind being used by those in power to do their bidding or he is more concerned about holding onto the kind of lucrative job that can keep him living in comfort and style, even if that means selling out his own people.

But in this case he is not merely selling out his people, he is making a conscious decision to implement school policies that will undoubtedly deprive some of the city’s poor Black children of a solid public education and a shot at a better life. So much for a brave new world.

Those kids who are protesting know exactly what is going on and what is at stake, They were in elementary school when Katrina hit and have watched for years as the governor, state legislators and others have made decisions that clearly place money, power and politics above the needs of public school students.

By last week, they decided that they had had enough and aren’t going to take it anymore. As their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbors, we need to do everything we can to support them in their cause because their cause is our cause.

There are two kinds of “tired”: The kind that convinces some people to wring their hands and give up and the kind of tired that makes people get up and fight like the devil because they are “sick and tired of being sick and tired” and have nothing else to lose.

What kind of “tired” are you, and what are you willing to do to help these young people in their quest for a solid education and their efforts to be seen, heard and included in the democratic process?

All power to the people.

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

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