Comedian Chris Rock jokingly observed "And every town's got two malls: they got the white mall, and the mall white people used to go to." There are many schools like this in New Orleans. I believe that every school in my Mid-City neighborhood used to be white-only, until desegregation in the 1960s. During the 1970s and 1980s, I've been told, there was a pretty even balance of races in the schools. It seems to me that the ideal would be to have the public schools' demographics match those in the neighborhood, being that diversity of race and socio-economics is one of the most attractive parts of both New Orleans and Mid-City. But now the public schools in my neighborhood have less than 3% Caucasian students I would estimate. There are far more Caucasian students at the private schools in my neighborhood. Basically the more tuition costs, the higher percentage of Caucasian students you'd be likely to find. How did this happen? And the question that is more disturbing to me personally, why won't I send my children to my neighborhood's public school?
Last night Therese and I went to a wonderful party near the Fairgrounds. It was hosted by a teacher who was probably the first friend we made when we moved to New Orleans, as we put our daughter in the all French program at Audubon Montessori and this lady tutored Kalypso to bring her French up to speed. Like Therese, this lady has taught at both Audubon and Lusher, both of which are now charter schools. So I spent the night listening to dedicated teachers about public education in New Orleans. Everyone I spoke to voiced their frustration about the current model, where charters are hyped as the answer to everything. The teachers described how at a school like Lusher Charter, where they have a principal with vision and a unified board that supports her, the system can work for the students. But at other schools the teachers described situations in which the principal lacked leadership or vision, or much more common, the charter was governed by a board who knew nothing about the school. The board might consist of a neighborhood attorney, a business woman, and a tax specialist who didn't spend much time at the school, and they made poor decisions. These schools are not doing well in New Orleans at the moment. But the veteran teachers also described the gradual process which led to the current racial makeup of the schools. There was a general perception that Caucasian parents were less likely to put up with sub-standard schools, though many admitted that socio-economic background probably played a larger role than race on this issue. That is to say, the more money one had, the more likely they would not tolerate a bad school, and African Americans were more likely to suffer from poverty in New Orleans. Many cited lackadaisical principals. It seems that even one year of bad leadership could doom a great school. Others talked about a misconceived fear held by white parents that their children would be shot at public schools. There was also the sinking ship syndrome, in which if one or two parents pulled their kids out of the neighborhood school and got them into Lusher, then many others would follow for fear that the school declining, thus creating the situation they feared. One veteran teacher desribed how a great high school like McMain Magnet tried to keep its racial diversity by holding to two standards: African American students needed to have a GPA of about 3.4 to get in, but whites only needed around a 2.8. This of course didn't go over well, and it's goal of keeping white students failed, as now McMain has less than 2% Caucasian students, he said.
I continue to believe that the best strategy to improve public education in New Orleans will be to get control of the school board when the elections are held in November of 2008. Currently the Recovery School District is growing larger and more powerful by the week, and they now can't all fit into their large office complex on Poland Ave. This is supposed to be a temporary governing body, not elected but appointed. Actually "hired" is the better term in the current education-is-a-business model. And if we're not careful, all of the schools in New Orleans will be governed by for-profit education companies with no elected officials to hold accountable. So we talked about strategy and vision for a new school board. Everyone felt it would be helpful if the candidates actually went to a public school, as many on the current board did not. It seems the school board in many ways has become a society club where wealthy patrons bestow their bounty on the peasants, much like the elite who ride on Rex and now and then generously throw the big beads. That of course isn't true for all the members of the school board. But back to the "black & white" topic of this post: the new school board, in order to be effective, will need to represent the racial makeup of the New Orleans students which it serves. An all white school board could not be effective, nor could an all African American. The same debate about racial balance is taking place with City Council, as soon for the first time in 30 years, there is a strong chance that both at-large seats will be occupied by Caucasians. So last night these educators gave me many names from the African American community of people I should talk to about coming up with a shared vision for a new school board, and ways to recruit African American candidates. But what if the most qualified candidates are all African-American, or all white, or 50% Hispanic? Isn't the attempt to create a new school board that is racially mixed in many ways analagous to McMain's two-tiered admissions policy? I need to think through all of this.