Visit schools. Engage with parents and don’t ever ever forget that the centralized model of public school education is not yet done being transformed.
These were some of the points made Thursday night by Educate Now! founder Leslie Jacobs, Duke Bradley, founder of a new Lower Ninth Ward charter school, Benjamin Mays Prep, and Parent’s Organizing Network founder Aesha Rasheed. Speaking at an event sponsored by Social Entrepreneurs of New Orleans, the eclectic panel spoke to the growing pains facing students, teachers and parents as the city’s notoriously dysfunctional school system makes itself over.
The night’s discussion, held in a lecture hall on the Tulane University campus, touched on many of the hot-button questions of charter schools and education reform. Presenters talked about the unprecedented – and sometimes unforeseen- challenges of dismantling bureaucracy without creating service gaps and engaging parents in a school’s culture while at the same time possibly changing the school’s culture, traditions or even name.
“We are the dog that caught the bus,” Jacobs said.
Indeed, the school reformers who, like Jacobs, began before Hurricane Katrina to transform the school system by working to close failing Orleans Parish schools and transfer control of them to the state’s Recovery School District could not have predicted that wholesale transformation of the system that would come out of the storm. Now the city is a well-documented experiment in school privatization with more kids attending charter schools here — 58 percent of kids — than any other place in the nation.
“And that percentage is going to increase,” said Jacobs, calling the system the “most market-driven in the nation” in reference to competition for kids and employees created by having a diverse spectrum of charters and public schools operating within the city.
But while the experiment is certainly well underway, there are no clear signs of what its results will be. And that mystery was made evident throughout the night as all three speakers addressed the severe challenges they face.
Bradley, whose pre-kindergarden-second grade charter will take over those four grades at Benjamin Carver Elementary School in the Lower Ninth Ward, expressed frustration with the lack of communication between the Recovery School District that chose to close Carver and neighborhood parents, a vocal majority of whom do not want to see the school close. The charter’s enrollment caps mean that 11 children from the neighborhood will not have seats at the new, smaller school in the fall. In a traditional public school model, students zoned for a school would not be turned away, rather the school would have to add more desks. In the name of shrinking classroom sizes and allowing for more specialized educational programs, charters are allowed to cap enrollment.
“We will not take 11 kids from the community. When we have these conversations, it frustrates the community,” said Bradley. “At times, I feel like the RSD said ‘I am gong to put this school in the ninth ward and run away. And see if it explodes.’”
“We don’t know what community engagement is. We know its more than a crawfish boil. We know its more than fliers…but we don’t what it is… I understand the frustration and the angst and the anxiety of our parent community but I don’t know how to (remediate it),” he added.
Those frustrations are the bread and butter of Ayeesha Rasheed’s Parent’s Organizing Network.
But that doesn’t mean, she has the answers to solve them.“As we open up ways that parents can have more say, they will demand more,” said Rasheed, a former news reporter. “The work of PON is training parents to be at that table.”
Giving parents the choice of different school models and training them to communicate about their needs and the quality of education being delivered isn’t enough though, Rasheed said.
She implored everyone who attended the SENO event to visit schools, to better understand the challenges they face.
“Visit schools,” she said, “don’t just talk about them.”