Education Reform is Working in New Orleans – Just Like White Privilege

Trenise Duvernay talks to Miracle Lee, left, and Danny Dinet, center, as she teaches fourth grade math class at the Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans.

Trenise Duvernay talks to Miracle Lee, left, and Danny Dinet, center, as she teaches fourth grade math class at the Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans.

Education reformers are not some monolithic group of privatizers, aiming to purchase the voices of black folk.

Overwrought critiques of New Orleans education after Katrina actually do more to erase the positive contributions of black educators. The critical conflagration of New Orleans reform burns the folks who are doing positive work and uplifting real communities. Having a critique of education reform should never make black folk invisible.

While I constantly push for inclusion in education reform, I persistently state that real gains have occurred as a result of reform. The breaches in the levees only exposed the public policy disaster that was decades in the making. Black folk need public systems to radically change.

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White critics of education reform should especially include themselves in the power structure. Yes, the neo-liberal, market-driven, corporate anti-reform critique isn’t the only frame that robs black people of their voice.

I wish white folk would hear me when I say the pro-/anti-reform frame doesn’t work for black folk. If anything, our position in the social world makes us reformers. Black folk never had the luxury of defending status quo. New Orleans needed to make radical changes in education as part of larger hurricane preparedness plan. Getting a college degree is the kind of protection black people need. Cynicism isn’t protection.

I co-authored the upcoming paper, The Transformation of New Orleans Public Schools, published by The Data Center of New Orleans as part of a series of updates for the 10th anniversary of Katrina.

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Because college degree attainment is the real preparedness poor folk need, we have to always examine how many are attending and succeeding in college. We found that approximately 60 percent of the class of 2014 enrolled in college both in- and out-of-state in the fall of 2014. Before 2012, the Louisiana Department of Education only reported on students who went to college in-state. From the respective in-state reports, 48 percent of public high school graduates from the class of 2014 enrolled in in-state colleges and universities in the fall of 2014 as compared to 37 percent in 2004. That ten point jump is real opportunity, but it’s not enough.

An attack on reform should never ignore the gains that many educators (many who happen to be black) are making. Black people are driving successful schools, and we are improving the system.

Rene Lewis-Carter, principal of Martin Behrman Charter School, just won Louisiana Middle School Principal of the Year. According to the New Orleans Parent Guide, her school like many others in New Orleans is 95 percent black and 88 percent on free and reduced lunch. By Lewis-Carter’s count, of her 56 teachers, 47 are black and “seasoned.” Behrman, which is a “B” school according to the State, has consistently ranked near the top among all elementary schools in the city and consistently scores above the state average. Behrman can boast of 100 percent passage rate on the Algebra I year-end test. It’s a black, local school that essentially “saved” itself. She doesn’t fit in your anti-reform frame.

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Doris Hicks, CEO/Principal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology helped bring hundreds of families back to the city by demanding her school open. It’s also one of the best schools in the city. Sharon Clark, Principal of Sophie B. Wright turned around a formerly failing school by leveraging the autonomy given through a charter. Let me find out that Jamar McKneely and his InspireNola Schools Network is blowing up the charts. And I was a moderately successful leader—all that to say, black folk are the system too.

And yes, I always point out the problems of our early decentralization efforts. The lack of special education services, a continuation of high suspension/expulsion rates immediately after the storm and parents’ confusion around enrollment show weaknesses of a highly decentralized system. The criticisms on these issues from parents, advocates and press influenced adjustments to the New Orleans charter system. The adjustments are a reflection of design flaws. But we also have to acknowledge that in the last three years the Recovery School Board Superintendent Patrick Dobard, who happens to be black, led the charge to reduce suspensions and expulsions and responded appropriately to the call from advocates to address special needs students’ concerns. Dobard is also solidifying enrollment (if only Orleans Parish School Board charters would get their acts together). We must name inequalities and make improvements to them. I salute Dobard.

New Orleanians don’t need an all or nothing, slash and burn system. We have inevitable hurricanes for that.

Black folk are always the collateral damage of privileged people’s broad stroke critiques. And the white criticisms of reform always negate black involvement and dare I say positive contribution toward change. We should validate the suffering, death and destruction that occurred during and in the aftermath of Katrina. But “awfulizing” isn’t the way to get there.

We don’t need the white, privileged anti-reform framework developed by three or four white critics to deny the voices we need to uplift.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).