by Anitra Brown
by Anitra Brown

“Blackboard Wars” – the title of Oprah Winfrey’s OWN documentary about John McDonogh High School – insinuates that the hijacking of schools since Hurricane Katrina has actually been about improving the education of public school students in New Orleans.
Those closer to the battle know the truth.

Documentaries—even those produced by Oprah Winfrey—can lie. But numbers don’t.

The overwhelming majority of schools in New Orleans that have been taken over by the Recovery School District and then turned over to outside management organizations (charter school operators) are still failing while these organizations, their leaders and financial backers raid the public kitty, raking in hefty management fees, salaries, and doling out lucrative contracts even as they recruit what in many instances could possibly be the least prepared individuals to take on the task of teaching students most in need of experienced, caring educators. And when one charter school fails for too long, the RSD’s answer is to simply turn it over to another charter manager.

When the Louisiana Department of Education released the 2012 School Performance Scores last fall, the numbers did nothing to indicate that the many charter school operators that have been brought into New Orleans to save schools have proven their worth. As a district, the RSD-New Orleans earned a “D” in the latest SPS ratings. Of the 56 local schools in the Recovery School-New Orleans, 39 or just below 70 percent received a D or an F in the 2012 SPS ratings. Only nine RSD schools, or about 16 percent, received letter grades of B or C. And no public school operated by the RSD-New Orleans, either as a direct-run school or by a charter manager approved by the RSD, received an SPS performance score of an A.

And there is no reason to believe that Future is Now, the charter organization brought in to run John McDonogh, will provide anything more than the same mediocre if not sub-par results when the state does get around to ranking the school.

When the 2013 numbers are released, John McDonogh will likely be given a “T” to denote that it is in transition. And the same likely will occur in 2014. By the time the school is rated, it will be too late to make a difference for the thousands of students impacted by the RSD and the state’s failure to heed concerns about improving the quality of education at the campus without turning it over to an outside charter operator and a governing board with no real connection to the students or the communities they call home.

The Takeover

Of course, community members and officials at the school learned in October 2011 that John McDonogh was fated to go the way of other once-traditional public schools in Orleans Parish now under the control of the Recovery School District when then-RSD Superintendent John White announced during a press conference at the campus that tens of millions of dollars had been found for the renovation of the historic, but aging school on historic Esplanade Avenue. The hitch was that the money would be allocated only if John McDonogh was turned over to a charter school operator. John McDonogh now has its charter overseer, while plans for renovations of the campus appear less concrete.

The Real FightAs for “Blackboard Wars”, the first part of the six-part series aired in mid-February, a few weeks earlier than the previously scheduled March premier. The program tries hard to sell itself as a serious documentary that chronicles Future is Now’s takeover of and crusade to save a troubled John McDonogh High School. But it comes off as little more than bad reality TV, with scenes that appear to have as much instigated drama as “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”.

Steve Barr
Steve Barr

Future is Now is a charter operator founded by Green Dot schools founder Steve Barr, who has perhaps become best known for that fact that he is not above using aggressive, if not antagonistic tactics, to gain control of a school as demonstrated by the hostile takeover of one California public high school. Future Is Now is also led by New York City real estate developer Gideon Stein. When school board leaders, administrators and the teachers union at Alain Locke High in Watts, Calif., refused to allow Barr’s Green Dot to take over their school, the former Democratic Party operative who now seems to fancy himself as the maharishi of education, sidestepped the process by riling up parents and some teachers to instigate a secret petition effort.

An experienced politico, Barr has also become known for his ability to assess and evaluate the communities he hopes to enter to find convenient opportunities to induce support for his chain of charter schools.

Glad handing notwithstanding, Barr would not have to work so hard to seize control of John McDonogh. The vast majority of public schools in New Orleans are under the control of the Recovery School District, whose book for so-called education reform has only one play—let the worst schools flounder as direct-runs for a few years before turning them over to outside, often unproven charter operators. Moving his charter school operation into Orleans Parish was quick and easy work for Barr. Months before the start of the current school year, New Schools for New Orleans and the RSD allocated $800,000 to Barr’s group. NSNO is a local outfit founded by former Teach for America recruit and administrator Sarah Usdin, that has raked in millions in federal grant funding and funneled much of it to charter operators. In addition to her influence over the largely RSD-charter school movement, Usdin has now secured a position on the Orleans Parish School Board.

While local education reform leaders seem to have no problem turning over schools and hefty sums of money with little oversight to charter operators it is unclear whether RSD or NSNO leaders knew prior to this decision that Steve Barr had to repay Green Dot more than $50,000 in 2009 after an internal review determined that expenses he had charged to the organization were undocumented or unjustified. The issue was dismissed as nothing more than an accounting error.

But with charter schools not subject to the same strict fiscal oversight as traditional public schools, it is no wonder many taxpayers wince at the thought of the nearly-unencumbered freedom and considerable public funds given to the quasi-private management groups known as charter school operators.

So now and in what could only be complete obliviousness to that fact that education reform in New Orleans has been little more than a commandeering of resources and facilities with little attention to the needs of students, OWN filmmakers descended on John McDonogh High School last year to shoot footage for a documentary that dares to depict the charter operator (one created by Barr on the heels of his break with Green Dot) that now manages it and the principal and staff it has hired as the school’s saving grace.

The Real War

To suggest that John McDonogh has not had its share of troubles would be disingenuous. Still, its problems have not been unique nor have they stemmed solely as a result of some failure of John McDonogh students or past staffs.
To name a few:

• The OWN documentary practically sets itself up by referencing the on-campus shooting that claimed the life of a student nearly ten years ago.

• A neighborhood school not part of the Orleans Parish’s small cadre of magnet programs prior to Hurricane Katrina, many students at John McDonogh struggled academically despite the school’s proud history. Long before the Katrina, John McDonogh was one of the many neighborhood schools allocated scant resources, while city-wide magnets such as Ben Franklin, Eleanor McMain and Lusher flourished.

• The school continued to struggle academically under the RSD, which ran John Mac directly until the end of the 2011-2012 school year. With most other public schools under RSD control run by charters, John McDonogh had, in the eyes of some, become a dumping ground for those students denied entry by the charter operated schools.

• During the 2011-2012 school year and despite vehement community protest, Renew Schools was allowed by the RSD to place its program for over-aged students on the first floor of John McDonogh High School—a recipe for disaster to those who considered it high risk to put older, even adult-aged students that have for one reason or another not been able to matriculate successfully and were as many as three to four years behind grade level in the same building with younger students attending a school that already struggled to meet the needs of its students.

Still, OWN’s production and airing of “Blackboard Wars” has set off a fire storm of controversy. And local community members who have been leading the fight to have a say in the shape and fashion that public education will take in New Orleans have met with disappointment after disappointment as they watch outside charter groups gain control of local schools.

As far as some critics are concerned, the documentary does more to showcase the failure of John McDonogh’s new administration and staff than to depict them as fighting for the future of the students they claim to serve.

Frank Buckley, a local educator, coach and 1982 graduate of John McDonogh was especially unnerved by a recent episode in which the school’s principal searches a student identified as “Courtney” for drugs. After checking his pants and jacket pockets and finding nothing, Dr. Marvin Thompson tells Courtney to take off his shoes—a request that is not immediately responded to. And when the student does, it appears no drugs are found in the his shoes either. Still, the exchange leads to the student feeling disrespected and to Thompson and Courtney engaging in a brief tussle when he demands his shoes back and Thompson blocks him from reaching for them.

Buckley says such scenes are a slap in the face to the people of New Orleans in general and the John Mac community, specifically.

“Treating students like criminals” is not educating them, he says.

The takeover of John McDonogh and now the OWN documentary has other community leaders convinced that past efforts by RSD officials to reach out to and include community members in the reshaping of public schools has been nothing more than a farce.

Filmmaker Phoebe Ferguson remembers early efforts that date back to the arrival of former RSD Supt. Paul Vallas, specifically recalling a tour she and other members of the Downtown Neighborhood Improvement Association took with Vallas to visit and discuss the historical and community significance of four neighborhood schools.

“We met every week for three years,” Ferguson says. “We were busy being spun around while they were doing this thing. They were keeping us busy, thinking we were so involved.”

As for John Mac, Ferguson says she and others have “particular concerns” about the charter group now managing the school as well as what they see as the “shutting out of the community.”

Future is Now also sparked concern among students at Walter L. Cohen last fall when it was announced by the RSD that the charter chain would be taking over the management of its school despite the fact that it had only been placed in charge of John Mac a few months before the RSD decided to hand the management of another local school to it. Future is Now’s first move was to fire the school’s current administration and staff. The students staged walkouts in protest.

John McDonogh is one of the latest neighborhood schools to fall under the control of a charter operator. And if that hasn’t been a hard enough pill to swallow, OWN has produced a documentary that describes John Mac as “the worst school in America.”

What has many close to John McDonogh—former teachers, community members, local education experts—especially unnerved about the documentary is that it appears to paint the worst possible picture of the school in order to make Future is Now and the current administration and staff look good. As a result, they say the truth about John McDonogh is not being told.

“If John McDonogh was one of the worst schools in the nation, Steve Barr wouldn’t be able to walk through there,” says Buckley, who is a part of a local community group that has been working to challenge and question the RSD and many of its decisions related to local schools.

When the group Conscious Concerned Citizens Controlling Community Change met late last year for a community meeting OWN’s cameras were allowed in and participants like Buckley signed releases allowing their meeting to be used as part of the documentary. At the time, the working title for the production was “Treme High.” Buckley says had he known it would ultimately change to “Blackboard Wars” and that the documentary would depict the school and its students in such a negative light, he “wouldn’t have had any part of it.”

“It’s like they don’t want to hear the truth,” he says. “They’re telling the story they want to be told. It’s all about money. It’s not about educating these children. That’s not the John McDonogh I know.”

Buckley is also disturbed by the hiring of so many unproven teachers even as veteran educators from Orleans Parish ousted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina don’t have jobs or have had to take jobs in neighboring parishes. He watches as inexperienced teachers struggle to manage a class of eight students in scenes of “Blackboard Wars” and thinks back to when the very educators dismissed post-Katrina did the best they could with 35 or more students in the class.

“If those veteran educators could have had a class of eight or 12 students, they could have worked miracles,” he says. “Why would you bring in a lot of young first-year teachers in a difficult environment and expect them to succeed? You have highly qualified teachers in New Orleans that don’t have jobs, but you bring in young people that can’t relate, that teach.”

The idea that Future is Now and John McDonogh staffs have seized the documentary as an opportunity to shine to the detriment of its students is bolstered when one considers the scenes that have or will air as a part of the documentary.

In one preview for an upcoming episode of the documentary, a pair of counselors deal with a student committing a dress code violation only to learn that the young man was out of uniform because he was homeless and had no place to wash his clothes, which amounted to a few garments he carried with him in a bag he brought to school.

Their response was that they had no idea he was homeless.

Indeed, it seems odd that not one teacher or counselor before this episode of Blackboard Wars was filmed had an inkling that maybe this kid who comes to school disheveled is dealing with problems deeper than a uniform before OWN’s cameras started to roll.

Dr. Barbara Ferguson
Dr. Barbara Ferguson

Dr. Barbara Ferguson, a veteran educator and administrator who also works with the local Research on Reforms, an organization committed to improving public schools in New Orleans by conducting research on the current reform movement and urging the elimination of failing practices, is concerned about the impact of the documentary.

A former principal at Warren Easton High School, Ferguson says she cares passionately about the children of New Orleans who she thinks are getting a “raw deal” as a result of the state takeover.

Ferguson says it is “tragic” that the OWN documentary “uses John McDonogh and community to put such a negative light on the school so that viewers will tune in and to highlight the new charter operator.

She calls the documentary a “one-sided picture of John McDonogh that does not discuss the failure of the RSD to do anything to improve academic outcomes there or at some of the city’s other lowest performing schools during the seven years they were under its control.

“What needs to be pointed out to Oprah Winfrey and her show is that this state takeover as caused more problems than it has fixed,” Ferguson says. “What needs to be said is that the RSD incompetently came into the public school system and did nothing innovative to make a difference. What needs to be said is that the worst performing schools are equally as low-performing if not more so under the RSD as they were before Katrina. And what the documentary shows is the lack of understanding in how children learn and schools improve. When the RSD took over John McDonogh, they hired 30 security guards instead of well-qualified teachers and counselors.”

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