My School Is Closed for Business: A Graduating Senior Reflects on More New Orleans School Closings
The education system has been the main thing on many people’s minds over the past three weeks. While my friends and I are counting the days to prom and graduation, a lot of other people are waiting as the Orleans Parish School Board makes decisions about “what to do” with the last five public schools in New Orleans.
I’m a graduating senior at Algiers Technology Academy (Algiers Tech); it’s has been my school home for the last four years. Early this year I learned that my class, the class of 2017, would be the last class at Algiers Tech. My school is closing in June of this year . Many students who attend my school, those who won’t be graduating with me, are upset that they won’t be graduating from Tech and won’t be able to graduate at the top of their class. For me, being in the Top 5 of my class is a huge accomplishment and I know many students wanted to have that opportunity at Tech. Now they will have to compete for a spot at schools with hundreds of students, instead of a school like Tech whose student body was never more than five hundred. And, because of school rules around being four year students, won’t be eligible for top honors at their new schools. I feel like this is unfair. So, for the last month, I have gotten more involved in education conversations in New Orleans.
On March 30th, 504ward—an organization designed to support young (25-35) “talented” middle class professionals in New Orleans—hosted, A Panel on Public Education in NOLA. At first I was confused why a group of mostly childless, mostly white folks were hosting a whole event on education and then I learned that Leslie Jacobs, “architect” of Louisiana’s school accountability reform and one of the creators of the Recovery School District was also one of the founders of 504ward. She was one of the main people to take control of schools and education out of the hands of parents, like my mother, who has and is raising five brilliant children and put education into the hands of outsiders and the Recovery School District (RSD).
The charter schooling system doesn’t allow my mother to come check on me at school because it's “dangerous”. Organizations that claim to be “for youth and parents” but support charters are taking control and taking choices from families. School choice is a myth. 504ward’s panel on public education seemed to be designed for people who don’t know much about the state of education in New Orleans. And the event, not surprisingly, didn’t look nothing like the 10th ward community that it took place in and there were very few people who identified as parents of school age public school students.
When I, and about 40 other youth who are part of Rethink, showed up at this event and the adults seemed first surprised, then confused and then unhappy. I sat through four presentations where educators talked about what happens to youth in New Orleans and told some of “our stories” without addressing us or acknowledging that we had vital knowledge about public education in New Orleans. We [Rethinkers] know that we are the experts because we attend these schools on daily basis.
At the meeting, we made comments and questioned the theories of these adults when they talked about “what works in schools”, and got nothing in return but backlash and the regular questions like “who are experts in this?” “who worked through pre and post Katrina?” They act like we have no expertise. We are the people who actually experience all of their experiments in schooling. We know that charter schools mean privatization and control over every aspect of youth’s lives. Schools becoming charterized means that students, teachers, and parent voices are silenced. We left the meeting knowing that this wasn’t going to be an easy fight. But we didn’t go home. Instead all of us students met together to debrief what we just experienced and came up with strategy for how we wanted to move forward.
This very serious and unfortunate issue of charter schools has caught people’s attention countrywide. A week after the 504ward meeting, representatives from the national NAACP came to town to host a public hearing to collect evidence on the State of New Orleans schools as part of a nationwide project to investigate the impact of charter schools on youth and families. If I had a dollar for every person who comes to New Orleans to “collect evidence” and “study the effects of charters, or poverty, or inequality" I would be able to fund free college education for all students in New Orleans. Maybe we should keep that in mind as a strategy to replace TOPS.
The NAACP event was once again centered around lots of adults who ran CMOs, were principals, lawyers, etc. talking about the state of New Orleans Schools. Only about fourteen youth attended the event and ten of them were my fellow Rethinkers. We attended the Education Task Force Hearing to provide our thoughts, research, and analysis to the meeting. We were concerned because we remembered when the local NAACP voted in favor of charter schools and wanted to make sure that the National Task Force was clear that most Black New Orleanians want public schools and public control instead of the harsh discipline, extreme testing, and lack of accountability to families that our current charter schools operate with in this city.
The hearing was lit from the beginning and my friends, at one point, asked an adult to give them his public comment time to talk to the Task Force about how adults are failing youth in this city. We TOOK the time we were given and then some. We really wanted to share what happens in our schools; how the few permanent teachers we have work so hard for us, how so many classes are ran by short term substitutes, how food runs out at meal times, and how we worry if our school’s reputation is good enough to support us in getting into the college or careers we want. We shared how we face two hour commutes to and from school, are forced to experiment with digital learning with systems like Odyssey, are punished for having the wrong color sweater, or how we worry about being able to attend a school that will give us the education we need.
This meeting escalated quickly as audience members (New Orleans residents), were chastised for being too emotional with their truth. I couldn’t believe that in this space, our behavior was being controlled. But that’s the story of oppressed people, right? We’re supposed to take all the oppression and then "behave” accordingly when we are telling the truth of our experience.
After being asked to sit down by an adult moderator, 1 of the 3 young students stood with dignity and stated, “You don’t attend the school, you’re not there everyday. The Teach for America teachers don’t care about us, charter schools don’t care about us, and our futures are at stake."
As people came to remove students from the microphone, their elders and adult supports in New Orleans community, yelled ” Don’t You Touch Them" and “Let Them Babies Speak."
One of the Rethinkers in the audience then began to lead everyone in the freedom song, "Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around."
Emotions broke through as these young people shared that they are afraid for their futures as their school, McDonogh 35, faces privatization and New Orleans becomes the first all charter school district in the country. We promised one another to get together again one week later to attend a meeting hosted OPSB on the future of 35 and New Orleans last 5 public schools.
This last meeting was perhaps the strangest of all. I think it was supposed to be a meeting about what to do with the last five public schools but instead became largely a pep rally for two competing CMOs; ExCEED and InspireNOLA. The School Board didn’t talk about how they might keep the last five schools public, how students and parents might have a larger say in education or about the failings of charters; they didn’t talk at all. Through all these meetings I keep thinking, who is profiting? Who wins when my school is closed? Who succeeds when conversations about education don’t include and aren’t centered around students, families and teachers? Who benefits when groups are examining the damage of privatized schools on students without any plan on how to stop that damage? Who is aided when discussions become pep rallies? Who makes the money when schools become sites to make a profit?
This reminders me of a conversation started by Rethinkers way back in the Fall right before the school board elections. We held a youth centered school board candidate’s forum for over 200 youth and some of their families.
At the forum we announced our petition to lower the local voting age to 14. One of the main reasons for our petition is the unfairness of a school board elected by people who aren’t students. I know our school board would actually have to show up differently and represent youth interests if we were the ones that put them in their positions.
Youth lives, voices, and futures are not being valued. A stand for justice needs to be took and the time is now! Youth are the experts and we deserve to be treated like we are. I am one student. I am one of over 100 students at Rethink who want an education for all youth that includes analysis of the systems that run society and that teaches us our true history and the role that it plays in our current lives. We want curriculum that represent us and people like us. We want input from youth of color on curriculum and teacher trainings. We want educational infrastructure to support youth entrepreneurship, youth cooperatives and business opportunities that support the communities we come from. And we want real youth and community input and veto power on all decisions regarding school openings, closings, leadership, and locations.
We can and will do it. We will take our education in our own hands because we are the experts of our experience.