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Group forms in protest of Teach for America

23rd September 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Harden
Contributing Writer

When Briana O’Neal returned home to New Orleans in 2006, she thought high school was going to get better.

She’d heard there were new schools with new exceedingly qualified teachers, and that they were going to have the opportunity to learn on a higher level than ever before. She couldn’t wait.

Displaced, O’Neal spent her 9th-grade year divided between a school in Baker, La., and Little Rock, Arkansas.

In Baker, it was horrible, she said. “They didn’t want us there. They treated us horrible.”

In Little Rock, things got even worse. O’Neal was one of three New Orleanians – and three African Americans, at her school. They didn’t want her there either.

But one day, she said, “I almost lost my life.”

It was Halloween, and she was on a bus with the two other Black kids. A group of white students wore KKK outfits as their costumes.

The bus driver pulled over, and the white students in KKK hoods students started beating the three kids from New Orleans.

“We ran for our lives,” O’Neal said. She said she was beaten with books, brass knuckles, and they cut off her hair. One boy was in a coma for six months, she said.

“The bus driver let them do it.”

So O’Neal moved back to New Orleans by herself, while her mother remained in Arkansas to work.

At 16, she was living in their home without electricity or running water. But she was eager to continue on a path toward college, and happy to be home.

She returned to Walter L. Cohen High School, where she had gone before the storm. But because the plan was to close Cohen, O’Neal said she ended up at John McDonogh High School.

“It was awful,” she said. By merging the two schools, O’Neal said they essentially merged an uptown gang with a downtown gang.

According to O’Neal, there were riots and fights at Cohen, and the classes were overcrowded with 40 or 50 kids to a room.

All her teachers at Cohen were from Teach for America, O’Neal said, many whom she said would frequently quit by the end of their first day.

“I’d never seen teachers so young,” she said. She said she doesn’t remember any of their names, there were so many that passed through. Some of the students were the same age as the teachers.

There were constant yelling matches between teachers and students, and the teachers’ solution was to call the security guards or police, she said. The National Guard also had a presence at the school at that time.

Editor’s note: Since the publication of this article, representatives from Teach for America have contested O’Neal’s recollection of the make up of teachers in the school. According to an email from Danielle Montoya, Regional Communications director: “In 2007-2008 we only had 4 TFA teachers, as part of an instructional staff of 35, teaching at Cohen. Two of those teachers taught the same subject, but in different grades so it isn’t possible that all of her teachers were from TFA or that there was a strong TFA influence at the school.”

O’Neal saw many kids get arrested. “They treated us like animals,” she said.

The teachers were insensitive to their culture as well as what they had just endured with Katrina, O’Neal said.

“They didn’t understand the full mental scope of what everyone had just been through. The classrooms were never in order. There was a lot of trauma.”

The teachers often pronounced names wrong, but they didn’t care about being corrected, she said.

They wanted “us to change our culture to fit their culture,” O’Neal said.

And they had no clue — or apparent sympathy, that many of the kids were living on their own, working, and taking care of siblings, she said. “Some days we didn’t eat.”

There was a 5 p.m., curfew, and O’Neal often had to walk from the school on Esplanade Avenue to her house in the Garden District to make it home on time.

“They didn’t put any of that in perspective,” she said. “We’re out here struggling and have been through all this, and they didn’t care.”

At John Mac, the first hour of every day was spent going through the security line. After the metal detector, every backpack and purse was searched. Every student was patted down, shoes removed, and hair checked for anything hidden.

Once in the building (they would be suspended if they were late, which was a constant problem because the buses were always late and public transportation hadn’t resumed), they were not allowed to leave the building.

“There was still mold from Katrina — and a horrible smell,” she said.

“The first semester we didn’t do any work,” O’Neal alleges, and the teachers only cared about collecting “data.” She said they wanted to know where she had gone to school in the past, and what grade level she was at. “They wanted to group us into different groups — the good kids, the bad kids, and the smart kids,” she said.

However, according to O’Neal, there was one question they failed to ask while collecting their data and that was if she had any special needs or disabilities. O’Neal is blind in one eye and has partial vision in the other. She has to have larger print in order to read, among other needs.

O’Neal said one boy who suffered from serious mental illness spent two years in the classroom with all the other kids.

During the middle of her second year, they finally got a counselor, she said.

And it wasn’t until the middle of her 11th-grade year she said that the teachers started presenting anything resembling an academic lesson. “We didn’t have any books until the end of 2007,” she said.

In the middle of the 2007-2008 school year, O’Neal said they started giving out worksheets. While the kids worked, the teachers spent a majority of the class time talking and texting on their personal phones, she said.

O’Neal alleges that none of her teachers were qualified to teach in their assigned subject .

O’Neal started out in the “good kids” group. That was until she and fellow students started organizing, and trying to bring light to some of their needs — books, qualified teachers, services for kids with special needs, and lunches that weren’t served frozen. Then she moved to the “bad kids” group.

That’s when she got angry. Many of her peers had been angry all along, she said. But she wasn’t always a fighter. It was at John Mac she got into her first fight. And it wasn’t her last.

“I was already angry because of Katrina,” she said. “We were mad about being lied to. We missed our teachers. We missed our schools.”

O’Neal directed her anger into the group formed by about 80 students from a handful of public and private schools — Fyre Youth Squad.

The teachers took the organizing as an effort to get them fired.

That wasn’t their goal, O’Neal said. “We wanted to make our schools better.”

The kids in the organization were suspended, she said. After that they were told they could stay at school, but they wouldn’t pass.

The student group held press conferences, wrote petitions, held assemblies, and travelled to Baton Rouge to take their concerns to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Things changed, she said. They got more books, and eventually more (three) certified teachers. The school began allowing the community and parents — previously shut out — to get more involved.

“We got a lot of things on our list,” she said. But not everything — like lunches that weren’t served frozen.

Now 23, O’Neal left John Mac after that second year and got her GED. She was the only one voluntarily in the GED class and not wearing an ankle-monitoring bracelet, she said. It was stressful, but it was better than John Mac — and she could get the resources she needed at home to deal with her eyesight problems.

“None of the schools offered the help I needed — I was already doing it on my own,” she said.

She is working full time now, and still hopes to go to college.

What happened to O’Neal in her 10th, 11th, and 12th grade years is not a unique experience for high school-aged kids in New Orleans following the storm.

And those lost years—years crucial to her future—illustrate the heart of a growing nationwide movement speaking out against Teach for America.

In July, a group was formally organized — largely born out of the New Orleans experience—called “Resistance to Teach for America.”

Once they started communicating their concerns and connecting with others, groups started popping up all over the country — in California, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and Washington D.C.

The groups are made up of community activists, parents, students, veteran teachers, and TFA alumni.

Hannah Sadtler spent two years as a TFA corps member in New Orleans after Katrina.

She said the experience was both dehumanizing to her, and to her students. Sadlter said she was unprepared to deal with the level of trauma her kids were going through, and she herself became traumatized by the boot camp like mentality she was required to enforce.

Sadlter said that there was far more emphasis from her superiors on uniform violations than lesson plans.

Sadlter was also shocked to learn about the mass firing of teachers. “I believed what they [TFA] told me at the time — that there was a shortage of qualified and dedicated teachers, and that TFA was a response to the shortage.”

After she left TFA, Sadlter knew she needed to better understand the context of education reform in New Orleans. She connected with community members and veteran teachers, and started the New Teachers Roundtable, a discussion group to give support and share experiences.

She is also involved in the Resistance movement.

“After Katrina, if at any time, it was that moment that kids needed to be surrounded by, and supported by, things that were familiar,” said Kristen Lynn Buras, Director of the Urban South Grassroots Research Collective and Assistant Professor of Educational Policy Educational Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

Instead, about 4,500 teachers were fired without due process. A judge ruled in favor of the teachers in the wrongful termination lawsuit, but a verdict is still pending. The ruling was based, in part, on findings by the court that “documents misrepresentations of school and teacher performance prior to Katrina and local and state government entities misspending (not spending) funds from FEMA to retain teachers. Orleans Parish public schools were the only schools in the Gulf region affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita to not use the funds secured from the federal government for this requested and required purpose,” said Jim Randels, vice-president of the United Teachers of New Orleans.

While TFA proclaims a mission of social justice, they were standing by to accept millions in taxpayer dollars to “enter a contract with a district that unlawfully fired all of its teachers,” Buras said. “None of this is accidental. It’s part of a larger plan to privatize public schools,”

In Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Dis­aster Capitalism, Klein draws numerous parallels between the companies subcontracted to do work in Iraq and companies working in New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina.

Klein writes: “Washington could have easily made it a condition of every Katrina contract that companies hire local people at decent wages to help them put their lives back together. Instead, the residents of the Gulf Coast, like the people of Iraq, were expected to watch as contractors created an economic boom based on easy taxpayer money and relaxed regulations.”

Buras identifies TFA as a union-busting mechanism, and a redirecting of resources from one group of people (black veteran teachers) to another (TFA employees).

Klein writes: “Not so long ago, disasters were periods of social leveling, rare moments when atomized communities put divisions aside and pulled together. Increasingly, however, disasters are the opposite: they provide windows into a cruel and ruthlessly divide future in which money and race buy survival.”

Buras also points to the language used as providing the justification for the firings.

The public officials blamed and demonized the veteran teachers for the state of education in the city, she said. They defined the problem as the veteran teachers, she said, and “That definition of the problem opened the space for TFA to enter.”

But you have to go back much further than that, she said. At least 100 years.

“That fails to account for a longer history.”

That history, Buras said, is one of disinvestment by the state into the public schools. Many of those fired teachers spent decades fighting for equitable resources, she said. “They are scapegoating that same group of teachers for problems those teachers spent their lives fighting against.”

A judge ruled in favor of the wrongful termination lawsuit filed on behalf of the teachers, but a verdict has yet to be released.

Buras also notes the impact of the firings on a significant segment of the black middle class — and a critical professional pathway out of poverty.

In an email interview Jim Randels described the changed relationship between the union and TFA.

“Pre-Katrina, Teach for America as an organization was clearly a partner in public education in New Orleans with all teachers. Veteran teachers frequently mentored TFA teachers and included them in community and even family events,” Randels wrote. “In the last eight years TFA has set up a much more distant relationship with veteran teachers. TFA’s role since Katrina has shifted from being a collaborative partner with all teachers in education to a much more complex and in some cases contradictory role. TFA has in many ways become much more independent and separate from veteran teachers and much more exclusively aligned with schools run by organizations and school leaders concerned with replacing rather than working with those of us who have taught for years in the challenging and invigorating conditions of public education in New Orleans.”

Kira Orange Jones, a TFA alum, executive director of Teach For Am­erica Greater New Orleans Louisi­ana Delta and member of BESE, only describes a positive post-Katrina impact. In an email interview, she wrote: “As a greater New Orleans team, first, and most importantly, we contribute diverse, effective teachers to schools that serve low-income children. . . As part of our continuous improvement plan, Teach For America regularly conducts surveys of the principals of schools where corps members teach. Similar to previous surveys, the 2013 survey asked principals about their satisfaction with the performance of the corps members in the school and to provide ratings of corps members’ teaching skills and their impact on students’ academic achievement. The survey also inquired about each principal’s experience with Teach For America program staff. Additionally, it asked principals to anticipate future hiring needs and why they would or would not continue to hire Teach For America corps members. Of over 60 school principals surveyed in the region, 98 percent were satisfied with the corps members in their schools.”

Orange Jones did not respond to a question asking if the students’ needs — especially those suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following Katrina — were met by the influx of TFA teachers.

O’Neal recalls her pre-Katrina school years in New Orleans as very happy ones. The teachers, mostly her grandmother’s age, knew her whole family, she said. Her classmates were also her neighbors. There was tutoring before and after school, and in middle school the kids were taken on trips to visit colleges. “I was always learning something,” she said. And she had a specialized plan and extra help for her vision challenges.

But Sadtler and Buras have noted that it isn’t only the kids being exploited and hurt for the gain of the TFA recruits — the teachers are being exploited for the gain of the larger TFA management structure.

The charter schools, which set their own rules with a proven (by state audits) lack of accountability and oversight by the governing Recovery School District, make inordinate demands, requiring the teachers work 12 to 15 hours days and preventing them from having any life outside the school.

While many of young teachers may have a genuine commitment to raising achievement, they are unprepared to teach, put into unfair situations, and are emotionally distressed and overwhelmed, Buras said.

The voices against TFA are growing.

In July, Chicago veteran teacher Katie Osgood wrote an open letter to the 2013 class of TFA recruits. Osgood calls on them to quit. “Do not partner with the very people trying to destroy public education for their own personal gain,” Osgood writes, following a lengthy outline of where the money comes from, where it goes, and the political interests.

“Teach for America likely enticed you into the program with the call for ending education inequality,” Osgood writes. “That is a beautiful and noble mission. I applaud you on being moved by the chance to help children, of being a part of creating equality in our schools, of ending poverty once and for all. However, the actual practice of Teach for America does the exact opposite of its noble mission. TFA claims to fight to end educational inequality and yet ends up exacerbating one of the greatest inequalities in education today: that low-income children of color are much more likely to be given inexperienced, uncertified teachers. TFA’s five weeks of Institute are simply not enough time to prepare anyone, no matter how dedicated or intelligent, to have the skills necessary to help our neediest children. This fall, on that first day of school, you will be alone with kids who need so much more. You will represent one more inequality in our education system denying kids from low-income backgrounds equitable educational opportunities.”

In a July interview with the Washington Post, former TFA manager Wendy Heller Chovnick describes the progression of her disillusionment.

“When I saw where the money was really going, which was to a lot of national teams, national staff members, and national infrastructure, that was not providing much support to our region and was definitely not translating into improved educational outcomes for students, my opinion of the organization fell drastically,” Chovnick said. She also described frustration with the organization’s unwillingness to listen to, and active campaign against, any criticism. “Unfortunately, the organization seemed to care more about public perception of what the organization was doing than about what the organization was actually doing to improve education for low-income students throughout the United States.”

For O’Neal, she’ll never get back those years. Hard-working and resourceful, she will likely find a way to go to college — no thanks to the high school education provided to her by the RSD — the district tasked with “saving” New Orleans public schools.

An intelligent young woman with a kind heart, she may one day forgive the forces that used her and her peers to experiment in privatizing education and using the least-qualified teachers to guide the kids with the greatest needs.

But she won’t forget the trauma. And she won’t forget the lesson learned that even when threatened with suspensions and failing grades, speaking out about injustice was the right thing to do. And it made a difference.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect the following corrections: 1. It was previously stated that the teachers at John Mac High School were all Teach For America instructors when O’Neal returned in 2007. It was actually Walter Cohen that O’Neal returned to that employed TFAs. It was also implied that there riots and fights at John Mac; that statement was also made in reference to Cohen High School. Since the publication of this article, representatives from Teach for America have contested O’Neal’s recollection of the make up of teachers in the school. According to an email from Danielle Montoya, Regional Communications Director: “In 2007-2008 we only had 4 TFA teachers, as part of an instructional staff of 35, teaching at Cohen. Two of those teachers taught the same subject, but in different grades so it isn’t possible that all of her teachers were from TFA or that there was a strong TFA influence at the school.”

This article originally published in the September 23, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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