By Chris O’Neill, The Lens contributing opinion writer |
Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas is undeniably a busy man. Reorganizing the New Orleans public school system after Katrina and all the years of pre-Katrina neglect is a Herculean task. There’s so much to do, it leaves little time to pause and listen to suggestions, to remember to include every stakeholder in decision making, to consider all the creative options that might make the new schools better than the old ones. Yes, it is difficult to do all this, but that’s not to say it shouldn’t be done.
The RSD’s focus on open-enrollment charter schools as key to the turnaround should result, at the very least, in a broader range of choices for parents who want to send their kids to public school. Choice has always been a pillar of the charter school movement. But, choice doesn’t seem to be winning out in the neighborhoods surrounding Colton School on St. Claude Avenue. In a draft school assignment plan now being tweaked through a series of public meetings, the RSD has recommended reopening the historic public school as a charter operated by KIPP, a national charter management team already in charge of two schools on the campus of the old Frederick Douglass School a few blocks away, not to mention the former McDonogh 15 school in the French Quarter.
KIPP’s regimentation and extended school days have proven remarkably effective with some children, but hold little appeal to many parents living near Colton, myself included. We envision a more flexible school schedule, and a classroom philosophy geared towards a diversity of learning styles and student needs.
Colton is at the nexus of three old New Orleans neighborhoods, Marigny, St. Roch and Bywater. These neighborhoods are still home to many families without the option of educating their children privately, the group New Orleans public schools have historically served, or, too often, underserved. But also within these neighborhoods are middle income families – both black and white — who are eager, to send their kids to a neighborhood public school if given a choice with which they’re comfortable. The demographic shift of middle-income families to these neighborhoods in recent years has gone unnoticed by a lot of New Orleanians in other parts of town but is readily apparent to those who live and work downtown. Anyone who frequents Markey Park in Bywater or Washington Square Park in the Marigny is aware of a middle-income micro baby boom. The presence of this critical mass of middle-income kids in the neighborhood now makes it possible for the first time in years for Colton School, when it reopens after renovation, to draw together a truly diverse student body from the surrounding neighborhoods. And this trend, which began prior to Katrina, is likely to continue.
Attracting middle-income families will enrich the public school system and set a positive example for other neighborhoods. But, it won’t happen if unilateral, un-transparent decisions are made by the RSD for the sake of expediency. The outsourcing of the majority of downtown schools to a single charter operator that has earned a reputation educating primarily underserved, low-income populations dishonors the idea that racial, cultural and socioeconomic diversity is possible in New Orleans public schools and that kids from different backgrounds can benefit by going to school together.
The RSD has congratulated itself for holding numerous public meetings about the design and layout of schools to be rebuilt or renovated, Colton included, but where were the meetings about the more important issue: who will operate those schools? Who will actually be educating our children and how will they do it?
As difficult and demanding as his job may be, Mr. Vallas must find the time to listen to neighborhood input. Why? Because in the modern history of the system, never has elected leadership been at a greater remove from local decision making. If he doesn’t take seriously the concern of parents in the community, many of those parents will have no recourse other than abandoning the public school system.
Now is not the time to conduct perfunctory meetings just to meet a statutory requirement. Now is the time to make the input at such meetings — particularly from parents — a fundamental part of the process of selecting charter school operators. Mr. Vallas should go out of his way to listen to concerned community members who live near Colton about the kind of charter operator to be awarded that school.
Chris O’Neill is a parent and a member of the Colton Group, which is advocating for neighborhood involvement at the former school campus.