Charter Schools: Championed as Improving Schools in New Orleans But at What Cost to the Black Community?

In African-American neighborhoods of New Orleans, there is no question that schools anchor communities.  This is a no-doubt-about-it fact of NOLA life. Schools are the polling places during political season.  Schools are the festival grounds for celebrations.  Schools house the legacies of progress and pride for many generations of local residents!  Celebrities and powerful people are identified more quickly by their school affiliations, rather than accomplishments.   A common New Orleans truth:  without neighborhood schools, Black New Orleans doesn’t make progress.   And for nearly the entirety of the 20th century, black schools were the fuse boxes of such progress; educationally, politically, and culturally.

Then came Katrina, with her ill winds and poisoned waters—decimating scores of schools.  For the first few years of post-Katrina recovery, many buildings lay untouched, fated to never be rebuilt.  As citizens of neighborhoods endeavored to rebuild their communities, having schools open for the children became a mission.  Would the Orleans Parish School Board be a supportive partner in this goal, helping schools to rebuild neighborhoods—and keep vibrant black neighborhoods “in the black”?

Part of the answer lies in a flashback from a few months before Katrina.  The OPSB was already on a draconian, cost-cutting course to bring balance to its own budget—and with it came the reduction of staff, resources, and assistance from schools (an ugly story to reminisce).   Fast-forward to the years of 2005 through 2008—and as communities struggled to get homes and businesses opened, it became apparent the OPSB was apprehensive about helping many black neighborhood schools reopen.   Also affecting the situation was the Louisiana legislature’s decision to turn over “failing” schools (yet another ugly story) to the Recovery School District (RSD).  The RSD is a governing body who advocated for and supported “non-traditional” community and business groups to form charter management organizations (CMOs) thereby forming charter schools.  These schools operated with less government scrutiny and more autonomy in hiring teachers and personnel, equipping schools with resources, and servicing students closer to their homes.   At the time, it seemed the “better alternative” between having no schools in the neighborhoods and waiting on OPSB to fix its own perilous situation and be ready to fully manage schools.  So the neighborhoods welcomed the charters and allowed them to nestle into their lives.

Yet quietly, almost stealthily, there came a trade-off of sorts with this arrangement.

—Put Some RESPECT On Those Names! The loss of a name; the loss of an identity.—

While the buildings were renovated, and students were allowed to enter, the names of the schools became casualties of the new ventures.  Gone were the familiar nomenclatures of schools like Marion Abramson, Sarah T. Reed, Francis W. Gregory, and others.   In its place were the “fresh-faced” CMOs that rebranded schools in their own images even though they operated in buildings formerly managed by the Orleans Parish School Board.  Some of these operators’ names read like an A-List of CMO superstars.   FirstLine Schools.  Collegiate Academies.  Inspire NOLA.  New Schools for New Orleans.  New Beginnings School Foundation. K.I.P.P. (Knowledge Is Power Program) and many others.  These “re-invigorated” schools would have names that would often read like, “Ascension Academies at John Washington School”.  (Just an example, no such entity exists in New Orleans).   A state law passed that said while charter schools could be named by the CMOs, the name of the former OPSB buildings they occupied (if that was the case) had to be included in the schools’ names… for two years.

While this accommodation seemed harmless to the new operators, it left a sour distaste to the psyches and memories of some black citizens who believed that their schools would never come back as they knew them. Quiet grumblings of, “that’s not my school” and “I don’t recognize that new school” seeped through the conversations among the alumni of certain old-line schools.   The prevailing sentiment was that OPSB sold out their schools to outsiders who had no respect for the names (and therein the important identities and histories) that graced their old campuses.   For some African Americans, their identities were forged at those old schools, especially during the struggles of the Civil Rights era and Integration.  Legends and legacies (and memorable rivalries) were proudly born at those legendary schools.   It wasn’t just about being “Bobcats”  or “Tarpons”.  It was the pride of being the NICHOLLS Bobcats! Or the FORTIER Tarpons!  Maybe it was information that should have been shared, but it is not a good thing to disrespect black New Orleans communities by doing away with the iconic names of schools that defined their communities and legacies.

—Oh, You’re expecting a new Charter School Baby?!—

It’s common to hear news of schools (failing or not) being “picked up” by CMOs and added to their networks.   With every acquisition, CMOs display their “family” of schools like parents who overshare photos of their children to show everyone how big the families have grown.  “Oh, look, there’s our oldest one, ready to show the world its power.  And there’s the middle one, who just made the CMO Honor Roll.  And here’s our newest addition!  Yeah, it’s little now—but, oh, are we expecting big success from it!”  It may seem like a strange metaphor, but it is apt.

Charter schools (and their CMOs) are growing by leaps and bounds, with one CMO network outpacing the others.  K.I.P.P. arguably boasts the largest portfolio of charters in the city; eleven schools with campuses stretching from Uptown to Mid-City, the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East.   Their names are familiar within the city:  KIPP Believe, KIPP Leadership, KIPP Central City, KIPP Renaissance, KIPP Morial – and more will probably KIPP coming.  (Yes, I went there).   Given time, it’s probable that the K.I.P.P. brand could rival the fame of the venerable MCDONOGH brand that has symbolized the dominant name for schools for over a century.

So what’s the major difference with the two?  MCDONOGH (named for the notable 19th century businessman and philanthropist John McDonogh) is local and steeped in the traditions of local neighborhoods.   He lived here and made his fortune here until his death in 1850.  He willed half of his estate to establishing public schools in New Orleans.  A note for newcomers: The McDonogh name on schools is respected.  Mr. McDonogh himself is another story.  Prior to Katrina’s invasion, there were twenty-two schools emblazoned with his name.  You couldn’t drive in any neighborhood (black-dominated or not) without seeing a McDonogh school.  It was as “naturally New Orleans” as is Popeye’s, Schwegmann’s, or K&B.   MCDONOGH belonged to New Orleans.

Now K.I.P.P. has the “popular” brand name—but not the benefit of local connection or cultural legacy.  Who is this K.I.P.P.?  Who are their people?  What business do they want with our schools?  New Orleans folks always ask, “who are your people, and what’s your business with us?”—it’s our thing.  K.I.P.P. was the “X Factor” in the school-recovery phase of post-Katrina NOLA, and it made an immediate impact when it “claimed” a number of schools (specifically buildings) that were once predominately-black populated (students, teachers, and culture).   The K.I.P.P. CMO superseded its name on all of the buildings they acquired.  Woodson Junior High (as in CARTER G. Woodson Jr HS) became KIPP Central City at Woodson.  Francis T. Nicholls or Frederick Douglass HS (depending on the year of graduation) became KIPP Renaissance.  This KIPP replication process seems to move at Usain-Bolt speed, and K.I.P.P. could become the “Duggars” of charter schools—like McDonogh was decades ago.  The next charter-school birth announcement could come “any minute now”.

—Requiem For A Neighborhood School:  Valena C. Jones School, 1904 – 2008—

            Down in the Seventh Ward, located in the square-block area of North Miro, Annette, North Galvez, and St. Anthony Streets, is a school that is one of the oldest African-American schools in the city.  It was originally called the Miro School, built in 1904.  In 1917, it was renamed for Valena Cecilia MacArthur Jones, a Mississippi-born educator who helped bring education to New Orleans in the early 20th century.   It was built by the neighbors:  the church, homeowners, and community organizations.  Every brick, every layer of asphalt, every playground structure was built by local neighbors’ hands; A red-brick mecca of pride for the 7th Ward.

Black children attended this school and were prepared to succeed at other schools like McDonogh 35 and Booker T. Washington High Schools.   Black teacher candidates cut their “training teeth” at this school.  The school’s supporters lobbied the OPSB to give them the resources needed to give the children the tools to succeed, which in its early days included radios, refrigerators, and ovens for its domestic science classes.  The celebrity visitors to this school read like another A-List of superstars:  a First Lady, Harlem Renaissance icons, an Olympic gold medalist and Dale Carnegie.  Yes, Dale Carnegie, the ultimate American guru of positive thinking and self-improvement paid a social call to the “lil’ black school in the “hood”.   For the entire century before Katrina, this school grew from small structures and rooms to one of the most-brilliant jewels in the Black Schools Crown.  Many generations of residents could walk with their children to this school.  It was a true neighborhood school.

Then Katrina came and sullied it with rust, grime, and mold.    Left to crumble under the administration of both the RSD and OPSB, the school closed in 2008.  The grounds are littered with trash, overgrown grass, busted fences, shuttered windows and graffiti.   The building is a blight on the eyes, a scar on the soul of the 7th Ward.  Its only new feature?  A historical marker that boasts of its birth, glory days, and of its most valiant leader (who has a school named after her in another part of the city).  Its history is preserved by historians and old-timers who remember the glory days of the school.  However, there are no plans to reopen the school, especially after it suffered damage from a 2017 fire.  Without an organization daring enough to rehabilitate the building, not much glory will ever come back to this grand school, and with it could disappear all vestiges of its contributions to Black NOLA History.   So much for honoring the opening lyrics of its alma mater:  “Valena C. Jones School, we sing your praises as we should.”

While the slow death of Jones School may have little to do with the topic of charter schools’ impact on African-American neighborhoods, it is related to the evolution that is the “New Black School” in New Orleans, thus contributing to the “New Black Progress” in New Orleans.   Charter schools have already redefined how the history, and legacy, of African-American New Orleans education is identified and preserved.  There are many more angles to this movement that could shed light or cast some side-eyes, about them in time.  Maybe in that same time, K.I.P.P. will have birthed a new charter-school baby.

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