by Mikel Holt
Washington, D.C.–The devastation of Hurricane Katrina cleared the way for an educational renaissance in New Orleans in the form of multi faceted charter school system that replaced what had long been recognized as one of the nation’s worst traditional school systems.
Remarkably, five short years later, the New Orleans school district has been transformed from a system known for its academic failure and political corruption, to one of the better large city districts in the country.
The Louisana Legislature achieved that remarkable status by closing over 100 failing schools and converting 75 to innovcative charters. The ‘experiment’ has cut the city’s dropout rate in half, as student achievement, rated by academic tests, has soared, as has parental involvement.
Yet even with that remarkable turnaround, some traditionalists and special interests groups have sought to undermine the successful new system.
Led and encouraged by resistant teachers (the New Orleans school board fired most of the teachers, and ecnoruaged an influx of younger educators based on merit) who fear the charter movement threatens their seniority and classroom autonomy, a small group of parents have complained the new system is not inclusive enough.
They have voiced frustration because the best charters have extensive waiing lists. But instead of fighting for expansion of those successful programs, they have called for a return to the failing status quo.
James Shelton, assistant Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education could only shake his head in frustration and bewilderment at the protesters’ suggestion to return to a system that prioritized teachers or students and failure over success.
The closing speaker for the 12th annual Black Alliance for Educational Options Symposium here recently, Shelton encouraged the disenfranchised to reassess their positions, look at what’s best for the city versus the needs of a few.
Shelton did not go so far as to say the small, but vocal group of parents were pawns of a union effort to abandon the charter movement, but suggested logic and rational thinking in place of emotionalism.
Shelton noted that oftentimes not everyone immediately benefits from civil rights struggles, but stressed much more would be lost if they abandoned their course.
Though not every student can avail themselves of the best charters, Shelton said every child at least has a better opportunity, and the system in place is working.
“We can’t turn back,” Shelton declared to over 500 people attending the three-day convention at the Grand Hyatt Hotel.
The charter school renaissance in New Orleans is a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s educational reform movement, instituting autonomous magnet and specialty schools for traditional schools with long histories of failure.
From New Orleans to New York, the presidential agenda is proving to be highly successful, providing parents with greater options and students with greater incentives to achieve and succeed.
Obviously, in a some scenarios, some families have not received their first choices, as the most successful and acclaimed charter schools have been besieged with applicants. But the solution to that problem is to replicate the charters, not to abandon the movement, Shelton said.
“We are about investment and innovations,” Shelton said to a packed house of educational activists and parents. “We see ideas that work; and this is the way government ought to work.”
Unlike traditional schools, charters are unique specialties covering the spectrum of educational curriculums. They are public schools run by an established organization or the local school district and enter a contract with a governmental body with identifiable academic achievement measurements.
If they do not reach their targeted goals, their contracts can be terminated.
“We continue to close schools that don’t work;, that aren’t performing (up to our expectations),“ Shelton explained, stressing that students are not trapped in programs that do not work.
At one recent New Orleans school board hearing to evaluate specific charters, Shelton said he paid particular attention to a Black woman whose child wasn’t able to enroll in one of the premiere schools because of space limitations.
“She was highly emotional,” he said in describing the woman, which was understandable given that she wasn’t able to get her child in the school of her first choice.
“She said the high performing schools are not serving enough children, and the system was more (equitable under the old system).”
The exchange sent chills up Shelton’s spine, not only because of the strong emotional outburst from the mother who wanted the best for her child, but moreso because the ‘old system’ was a failure.
“We were sending our kids out to these schools and most were on the (No Child Left Behind) failure list. Now that figure has cut in half.”
New Orleans is on the cusp of providing a model school district for the rest of the nation. The key to the New Orleans’ educational renaissance rests in providing parents with educational options for their children, and their ability to choose from a variety of schools that are under the microscope.
“This is the way government should work,” Shelton told the enthusiastic audience. “We are on the path to closing the (academic achievement) gap.”
In reference to the disgruntled parent, Shelton encouraged her to continue fighting for her children to get into the school of her choice, but said it would be counterproductive to tear down the entire system.
“It takes a while to establish a system where all schools are high performing. “In the mean while we must continue to be advocates for our children.”
Similar educational revolutions are taking place around the country, supported in full measure by President Barack Obama who is intent on leveling the educational landscape through innovations like charters.
“(The president) has (allocated) $100 billion for education, $10 billion put in competitive programs to spark innovation. But the states control the resources and that is where we must focus (our activism).”
More innovative schools are but part of the solution, he continued. There must also be teacher accountability. “Everybody (teachers) must be judged on how they (students) are doing.
“We are going to change the game. We have increased Pell Grants and now we are seeing the highest number of Black males going to college.
“But we learned you can’t play the pieces, you have to play the board. For too long we’ve had people speaking on our behalf, but not to our interests.
“Our whole conversation now must be about providing our children with access to excellence,” the deputy secretary said to thunderous applause.
The 12th annual BAEO Symposium drew over 500 parents, educators, community activities and politicians from around the country.
Workshops and planning sessions focused on educational innovations, expanding educational options and mechanisms to empower parents to bring about change in their respective communities.
One workshop that drew a large audience dealt with the BAEO led summer reading project in Milwaukee over the last two summers.
The project grew out of a report that revealed Milwaukee’s fourth grade Black students had the worst reading levels in the country.
Members of BAEO worked with a coalition of community activists to create an intensive summer reading program that elevated the students’ reading ability by one full grade level.
Over 100 people from Milwaukee attended the symposium, including state Senator Lena Taylor and state Representatives Jason Fields and Elizabeth Coggs.
Deborah McGriff, former deputy superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools and superintendent of the Detroit public schools, chairs the Milwaukee Chapter of BAEO.
BAEO was born out of an educational symposium organized by former MPS Superintendent Howard Fuller in 1999.
It’s founding members include former Rep. Floyd Flakes, Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker and Milwaukee’s Rev. John McVicker.
The organization is the premiere advocate for educational options for Black children.
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