By Alexis Martin
Not unlike most things in New Orleans, the recent history of its school system champions the city’s legacy for institutions as unique as they are complicated.
Following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the city’s schools experienced a full reconfiguration, shifting from its “failing” system of traditionally-operated public schools, to one comprised of 98% charter schools as of the 2018-2019 school year.
This monumental transformation of K-12 education, spurred by the “radical opportunity” presented by the storm, however remains a sharp point of contention, garnering reactions ranging between national acclamation and local denunciation.
“I think the best thing to happen to the educational system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in an interview in 2010. “That educational system was a disaster. And it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that we have to do better.”
The experiences of students and families currently serviced by this iteration of education reform however, vastly depart from this “blessing in disguise” narrative.
After Katrina, many opportunists saw rebuilding the city as a chance for a clean slate for New Orleans, both in regard to building infrastructure and public services — including the education system. Often the language used to describe this transformation in education happening in the city struck folks as antithetical. Frequently described as a “laboratory” or “experiment”, it was not difficult to discern why many locals like Ashana Bigard felt and continue to feel the frustration at their communities becoming collateral in this pursuit of the autonomous education.
“We had one child who was expelled… he got his first suspension because he was dribbling a ball outside when he wasn’t supposed to be. His second suspension was because his shirt kept sticking out of his pants and his third was for selling candy. Now here’s the kicker — his shirt kept sticking out of his pants because he had hit a growth spurt, and because his mom was homeless and jobless she couldn’t buy him another shirt… She bought him the candy with her food stamps to sell so he could buy another uniform shirt that could fit him… She explained this at his expulsion hearing, and they still held it up.”
As an organizer and long-time advocate for educational justice, Ms. Bigard could share many stories, often at the drop of a hat. Her work had granted her a wealth of information, not free from the taxes of emotional labor. As a mother herself and lover of education, her stories were colored with passion, sincerity, and concern. In her eyes, the cracks in the facade of a promising education in New Orleans were glaring. Not surprisingly however, it was a lonely perspective for a long time.
“I don’t know what it’s an experiment in, but I often tell people it’s not an experiment in education… what we have is a lot of children being suspended and expelled… expulsions were happening for frivolous things…a lot of children get suspended for something called ‘willful disobedience’ which can be anything because it’s subjective.”
Advocates of charter schools and “personalized education” often cite autonomy and the freedom to “cater” to a child’s primary education as opportunities worthy of undertaking. However in practice, this autonomy appears all but aspirational.
According to recent data from the 2018-2019 school year from New Schools for New Orleans, of the 49,000 students served by the public school system, 91% are students of color with 82% additionally classified as “economically disadvantaged”.
“Every place you look it’s like, ‘oh my god, this is a setup. This is not working.’ And, a lot of times it feels hopeless. The way I’m fed is that I see more and more people seeing through this and not buying it”, said Ashana. “A lot of times it was like ‘Oh New Orleans is the model, everything’s going great. But then you talk to teachers, and you talk to parents and you talk to students and they’re like no. We have to fight this. We want good schools; that’s not what we have now.”
In a system dominated by schools run at the discretion of their principals, questions arise regarding not only how the specific needs of students are being met, but who is really benefiting from this independent public school format of education. A substantial degree of cognitive
dissonance necessarily emerges between the opportunists, charter school advocates and their good intentions.
“Imagine what’s happening to kids all over… But it’s [not] only that, it’s people ignoring best practices with this New Orleans experiment.”
The difficulties which compound the already complex nature of the city’s educational system are not exclusive to the Recovery School District and Orleans Parish School Board schools. The systemic issues which create challenges to the schools also pose challenges to community organizations like 826 New Orleans, whose work “cultivates and supports the voices of young writers… through creative collaborations with schools and communities.”
“[The students at 826 New Orleans] all go to high-needs schools that honestly don’t serve them very well,” said Kelsey Reynolds, an educator with the organization’s after-school program. “They are very beautiful, so much fun, and have so much joy because they’re little guys. All [are] pretty behind in writing and reading, like grade-level wise.”
Though not a local of New Orleans, Kelsey often experiences the challenges posed by serving students from privately run public schools in New Orleans alongside the students and their teachers. Her position has allowed her to observe how the decentralized nature of schools not only makes accountability to students difficult, but also perpetuates rigid and unproductive learning environments for the youth.
“I’ve noticed a lot about how homework is detrimental,” she said. “I’ll see kids come in crying cause they forgot their homework. And these are like, little guys…”
While her job description does not explicitly include providing homework help, sometimes that’s what it entails. Often the homework assigned to students pose challenges beyond academic rigor.
“A lot of my students have the phone numbers and emails of their teachers, and they’re allowed to call them for homework help,” she said. “…which is like valid, but sometimes i’m just like don’t give them homework…”
Unfortunately the obviousness of lessening gratuitous amounts of homework continues to fall on deaf ears.
She related a story about one of her first graders. Their mother had been late picking them up because of a meeting called by parents to organize a group that would meet with teachers who could teach them Common Core Math so they could help their students. The mother and her first-grade son had previously been up until 10pm because they could not figure the math out.
This was just one of endless anecdotes revealing a similar issue.
“I was trying to talk to the teachers about — like, there’s no where to do homework at his house! There’s no dining room table. It’s dark. There’s one TV on and seven people amongst like two bedrooms. And they send home a packets and tell me it’s not busy work…”
The effects of strict academic and behavioral expectations on students throughout their time in primary and secondary education create unnecessary stressors for the youths. Within schools that predominantly serve black, lower-income communities, these stressors
disproportionately disrupt the education of black students in the charter system — students just like the ones Kelsey works with and Ms. Bigard advocate for.
Punitive behavioral policies in schools disproportionately subject black students to additional scrutiny beyond their academic performance. Often disrespectful classroom behavior or inappropriate grooming are cited as reasonable offenses warranting disciplinary measures ranging from demerits to suspensions, depending on the charter’s school policies.
“I was looking through their handbook before I went and had this meeting with the teacher, and I was like ‘what do kids get demerits for?’ and something I noticed was, kids — like little guys — can’t have nail polish, can’t have colored extensions in their hair, and I just think you could really talk about how policing that is, of Blackness.” she said. “They don’t allow scarves or do-rags, which is kinda real. But I’m like, I don’t know, maybe you’re having a bad hair day. Whatever. But I guess it’s a professionalism thing slash like, respectability politics.”
Back in August, Faith Fennidy, a young Black elementary student, was dismissed from class because her hair was considered not in compliance with the Catholic school’s new policy requiring “natural hair”. That day she wore her extensions in a ponytail, as she had done in the past. But because of the implementation of this new, usually specific policy, her education mandated interruption.
Uniform and grooming policies in schools have long enjoyed a history of disrupting the learning of students in the pursuit of creating an “equalizing” and “distraction-free” school environment.
However, with a growing frequency of stories like Ms. Fennidy’s shared — where black students are denied presence in the classroom because their “black” hairstyles and/or fashion is inconsistent with what’s appropriate — a pattern emerges where uniform policies are effectively operating as discriminatory practices upheld and legitimized by the schools.
Uniform and grooming are not the only areas where students are policed for their blackness. In my conversation with Kelsey, she also brought up the topic of “Tone Policing” as yet another avenue of policing blackness in educational environments.
Tone Policing refers to the ways in which one speaker, fixated on the “way” someone speaks usually because it is perceived as aggressive, loud, or rude, undermines the other speaker of which considers themselves to be speaking normally.
“Something I grapple with is like, how do I teach kids… like I hear your sass and I love it, and I love that you’re coming back at me…” she said. “But also like, that tone won’t be respected in most places.”
She explained just how punitive academic spaces can be for black children because of tone policing, and spoke to her own challenges with tone policing and the potential impact it has on the kids she works with.
“I’ll be like, ‘Hey you’re yelling’ and they’ll be like ‘No I’m not, this is just how I talk.’ and I’m like… damn, that is how you talk. And I’ve met your parent and that’s how they talk… these kids have really taught me this… it’s just normal to them. Them having this sassy tone, or sassy comeback is like usually not actually that bad. Like it’s really not that bad.”
But what happens if this child is in the care of a teacher and class environment less empathetic than Ms. Kelsey’s? Are they simply subjugated to the status of a troublesome student or classroom nuisance up for removal from the learning space? Where does that leave them? And what does this teach students about themselves and the value of their education?
In a precarious position to say the least.
According to a clause in Section A of the 2006 Louisiana Laws RS 17:416 — Discipline of pupils; suspension; expulsion:
When a pupil’s behavior prevents the orderly instruction of other pupils, or poses an immediate threat to the safety or physical well being of any pupil or teacher, or when a pupil exhibits disrespectful behavior toward the teacher…the teacher may have the pupil immediately removed from his classroom and placed in the custody of the principal or his designee. A pupil removed from the classroom pursuant to this Subparagraph shall not receive credit for school work missed.
The inclusion of ‘may’ then opens up an increased potential for teachers to exercise their right to remove students which “disrespectful”. How each teacher defines “disrespectful” however, remains subjective in light of concepts like tone policing. The consequences of removal even reach beyond the initial disciplinary measure, as the student is refused credit for whatever school work might be missed.
When confronted with realities such as these on a daily basis, the apprehension and frustration felt by educators like Kelsey and advocates like Ashana is not unfounded. The gaps in educational equity that they witness everyday alongside these children and their families are not inconspicuous. The cracks felt are in fact gaping holes.
“So many children are falling through the cracks who could be brilliant and participate in this society in incredible ways. But they’re not given the platform or opportunity or even belief that they can.” said Ms. Bigard. “I wish more people understood how much better society would be — we would be — if we loved learning and were open to learning different things and different ways.”