Filed Under:  Education, Local, News

OPSB wants to take over John McDonogh

28th July 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

If the community wants John Mac back and the Orleans Parish School Board wants John Mac back—it begs the question of the Recovery School District: Why not?

On Tuesday, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) approved a resolution requesting that the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and the Recovery School District (RSD) “return control and use of the John McDonogh High School to the Orleans Parish School Board.”

Now all it takes is a simple “Yes” vote from BESE at its July 30 meeting at Lake Area High School in New Orleans.

After all, the RSD under BESE oversight had more than eight years to turn around the school.

It failed on every front.

As a direct-run school, the students were systemically under-resourced, over-policed, and trapped in a hazardous and rotting building with plywood and plastic covering most of the windows.

There were three different principals in three years.

The RSD made it clear that they wanted out – that they did not want to operate the school and demonstrated this through neglect, said Shawon Bernard, who was assistant principal at the time.

“They were just holding on to it until they could give it away,” she said. “They never worked to improve the school.”

Then, in the care of John White’s hand-picked charter operator from California, Future is Now Schools (FINS), the children of John McDonogh were grossly exploited on a reality television show in which leader Steve Barr proclaimed himself as the school’s savior from its own community.

Under Barr (who paid himself an annual salary of $250,000), John Mac received a shockingly low School Performance Score of 9.3 out of 150, far lower than prior to FINS and prior to Katrina.

When parents and students signed release forms for the Oprah Winfrey Network show, they were lied to about the title – “Treme High” became “Blackboard Wars.”

The reality show preyed on students with mental illness, a gay student, and a pregnant student, and epitomized the injustice and ineffectiveness of putting an inexperienced and incompetent Teach for America 21-year-old in a classroom with students with the highest needs.

The kids were too young to know what they were signing up for, and “that kind of betrayal of the students cemented the deep distrust of the RSD,” said New Orleans archivist, preservationist, and pastor Brenda Billips Square. Square is the spokeswoman for the John McDonogh Steering Committee, the group of alumni, parents, students, former faculty members, and community members leading the fight to get John Mac back under local control.

And, as the city’s other charter high schools habitually pushed out any child they deemed too challenging or expensive to educate, John Mac filled the role of the privatized system’s dumping ground.

Now, after more than eight years of negligence, broken promises, and manipulation, the community has had enough of the state’s supposed effort to improve the school that has a rich history and fiercely devoted alumni and advocates.

According to the petition being circulated by the McDonogh Steering Committee, “If we win, our children will win. The school will rejoin its original school district that has an A for its district performance score. The students, their families and community will not have to be concerned with management changing every two years. They will not have to worry that the school will shut down. If we win, we can attend the local school board meeting and not have to travel from New Orleans to Baton Rouge and sit all day to be heard by BESE members who have not experienced a never-ending state takeover of their hometown schools. If we win, the local school board will be responsive and accountable to the community. If we win, we will have board members who we elect – not select.”

The online petition currently has about 400 signatures.

The community has good reason to distrust State Superintendent John White.

To a gushing national television reporter in 2012, White boasted about the $35 million designated for the renovations, turning the school into a “world-class” culinary arts school, and Barr as a “fantastic” leader.

The renovations have yet to begin, leading many to speculate that officials have other plans for the promised dollars.

White continuously refuses requests for an interview about John Mac’s past failures and its future, as well an answer to a question regarding his vow to give the community a culinary arts-focused school.

Louisiana Department of Education spokesman Barry Landry instead gave the following statement: “In recent years, RSD high schools have dramatically improved graduation rates, ACT scores, and the number of New Orleans students achieving TOPS. Those improvements were made because the district made hard choices and did not accept failure. The RSD has made two important commitments to the John McDonogh community. First, the building will be fully renovated. That renovation is starting immediately, in spite of significant funding challenges to the city’s facilities plan. Next, a school that serves its kids and community well will exist in that building. On that mission, we have not yet accomplished what we set out to achieve. But we are not settling for failure. We made a hard decision to end the term of a struggling management organization and will not stop trying until we have a good school in the John McDonogh facility.”

Before the FINS disaster, White told the John Mac community that chartering the school was the only way to get the renovation money, Bernard recalls. He also told them that they would be matched with a charter organization that would work hand-in-hand with the community, she said.

Instead, Bernard said that FINS dropped nearly every program the community valued (mentoring, health, arts, gardening, cosmetology, increased access to social and mental health services) and locked the community out of any decision-making.

Square said it was the “distrust and deep sense of betrayal” that fueled the steering committee and the movement to get the RSD out of John Mac. She said the RSD used bullying techniques, while “we teach are children not to bully,” and treated the community with disdain.

“We did everything possible to help the children,” Bernard said. “And they treated us like we have no value to add.”

While Square’s primary work (in New Orleans) relates to the preservation of historic education buildings, she said she also got involved because “I’m very concerned about the experiment on children. It’s unethical and immoral – you do not experiment on children.”

But Bernard, Square and the steering committee aren’t focused on the past. They are instead doing everything in their power to ensure that the school has a successful future, and that decisions from here on out are made in the best interests of the children not in the interests of self-serving politicians.

“The record will show that some people stood up on behalf of the children,” Square said.

“Why wouldn’t we return schools to local governance?” said BESE member Lottie Beebe. She called the existing mechanisms for which charters can return to the local board “quite flawed.”

No one is looking to go back to the OPSB of old, Square noted. “It is a new era.”

The OPSB still owns the John McDonogh building, but the state has use of it indefinitely — until it decides it no longer wants it.

As is, the only way for an eligible charter school to return to local, democratically elected control is through a vote by the unelected charter boards.

Not a single school has yet to return.

When several schools on the West Bank pleaded with their charter board to return to OPSB, the Algiers Charter School Association voted “No.”

There is nothing in the law that ever requires the return of schools to local governance – it only includes statements giving permission.

And considering that as a district, the OPSB is rated significantly higher than the RSD, (79 percent of whose schools have a “D” or an “F” grade), why wouldn’t the state want to afford the children the best possible academic opportunity available?

Which begs another question in regards to the RSD as the country’s first urban all-charter district: Was the promise to return schools to local control a lie from the beginning?

Attorney Willie Zanders said that he believes that the state does not have the right to take property that belongs to taxpayers. “They cannot legally transfer ownership to charter school operators through indefinite leases or contracts,” he said. “Which needs to be and will be litigated in court.”

Zanders said that he also believes that private entities – the charter boards – should not have “veto power over whether or not public property and buildings and the federal and state funds that go with the students can be returned to the local board.”

That’s a decision that should be up to the schools, parents, communities, and voters, he said.

Beebe also said that she has been asking, now that the RSD has relinquished all of its New Orleans schools to private charter operators – why does New Orleans even need the RSD’s well-paid superintendent and staff?

The RSD says their continued role has to do with oversight and enrollment.

Zanders says that the RSD’s role in New Orleans is now “all about buildings and money.”

BESE is supposed to hold the RSD responsible for its failures and John White accountable for his broken promises to John Mac, Beebe said. “We’ve failed the McDonogh students,” she said.

BESE should return John Mac to the OPSB, Beebe said, however, “John White has a rubber-stamp BESE.”

At Tuesday’s OPSB meeting, the resolution to request the return of John Mac was voted for affirmatively by all six of the board members present.

Board President Nolan Marshall, Jr. said that he voted to request the return of the school because not doing so would be to abdicate his responsibility to the people by whom he was elected.

The only board member who didn’t vote was Sarah Usdin. She was present for most of the meeting, and somewhere in the building at the time of the John Mac vote.

Usdin’s disappearing act was amusing to those critical of her blatant conflict of interests as founder and board member of New Schools for New Orleans, a staunchly pro-privatization organization which controls the purse strings for millions of private and public dollars designated for “public” education.

But dubious conflicts of interest among education board members are by no means unique to Usdin.

Marshall is currently under fire for a lucrative OPSB construction contract that includes a company owned by his siblings.

BESE member Kira Orange Jones (whose district includes John McDonogh) is also executive director for Teach for America Greater New Orleans-Louisiana Delta, which has been issued more than $3 million in contracts.

BESE President Chas Roemer is the brother of Caroline Roemer Shirley, who is the executive director of the Louisiana Charter School Association.

And, as recently reported on the Louisiana Voice blog, BESE member Jay Guillot’s “company has reaped more than $1.5 million from contract work his company performed on behalf of a dozen South Louisiana school boards and the Recovery School District in 2013 and 2014.”

Orange Jones did not reply to an emailed request for an interview. Usdin did not respond to an emailed question about her reason for not voting.

Conflicts of interest aside, all the John McDonogh Steering Com-mittee wants is for BESE to do their job and hold John White and the RSD accountable for their failure, just as the RSD claims to hold their charter schools accountable.

The committee feels that the RSD doesn’t deserve another chance after more than eight years of failure, despite being granted unprecedented autonomy and funding.

The petition states: “If we lose, we will get another charter school operator. One who may not be responsive to the wishes of the community. One who holds meeting during the day when parents are at work. One who selects their board members. We may get an operator who stays for two years and then quits . . . Our children must not be used as subjects in an experiment as the charters seek to manage a high school. We will continue to lose our children to the streets of violence and prison if we cannot provide stable and quality education.”

Marshall said that he continues to advocate for a “true partnership between the community and the leadership of the school.”

Despite a recently signed Cooperative Endeavor Agreement, Marshall said that the OPSB has not met with the RSD leadership for several months.

In terms of the $35 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) money , Marshall said that there is nothing contractual about White and the RSD’s promise to use it to renovate John Mac, and that the money potentially could be spent elsewhere based on demographics and need.

Square said she is aware of investors interested in the desirable Esplanade Avenue address, people whose intentions “have nothing to do with children or education.”

“We want to hold on to what we have left of our history,” Square said.

At their July 30 meeting, BESE can easily say that now that John Mac is closed, they have no problem with the OPSB taking back the property, Zanders said. “That’s the right thing to say.”

To not give it back has only to do with politics, profits, personal power, and real estate deals, Zanders said. “If you care about children as you claim, then why not put the school in the hands of the school board that does a much better job of educating children?”

Corrections: The July 30 OPSB meeting will take place in New Orleans, not in Baton Rouge as was stated in the print edition; Brenda Square is an archivist, not an architect as was stated in the printed edition of the paper. Ms. Square’s name was also incorrectly printed as Brenda Star.

This article originally published in the July 28, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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