One in a series of conversations with New Orleans educators
Andre Perry describes himself as an education “thought leader”. His work has run the gamut from advocacy for immigrant education rights to university professor to chief executive of a charter management organization in charge of K-12 schools. His commentary on the New Orleans educational landscape appears frequently in local and national newspapers and magazines and he has been interviewed on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” among other broadcast outlets. In May, after six years as a professor and administrator at the University of New Orleans, he began work as associate director of Loyola University’s education think tank, the Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education. Lens education reporter Jessica Williams approached Perry for his views on the city’s convulsive school reform movement, the intense focus on test scores and how he expects school governance to shake out in coming years. With his cooperation and approval, the exchanges below have been edited and condensed. Perry began by talking about the disconnect between higher education folks and K-12 educators, and what being on both sides has taught him:
While I talk about charter schools quite a bit, for me it’s still about how can I prepare students to graduate from college. It’s just a part of a process. And what I loved about the experience is that most higher-ed people don’t delve into K-12 matters, so they don’t know what’s coming. And I’ve also found that a lot of K-12 people, have no idea what’s in higher ed. So it gives me a very privileged position to know what’s going on in both worlds.
What were some of the most rewarding aspects of your years running charter schools as chief executive of the Capital One/New Beginnings group? Can you get specific?
To be in a city that was so explosive with change, I learned more about how people operate in times of stress with limited resources — like how can I clean up a building, and get kids in it, and run a school. I also learned a lot about the politics of education that I write about all the time. The experiences gave me a chance to feel it. And so, the emotional strength that I’ve gained from it is incredible. From picking up the newspaper and seeing test scores in it, to hearing when teachers are struggling with their own personal issues, to fighting for grants — all those different things. You develop a strength. And then there are the friendships that I’ve gained, friendships that I’ve lost. Overall it was just a rewarding experience, no question about it.
Can you name some of the challenges?
The challenges are always around getting people to see that this education thing is a continuum. Its not K-12’s domain, and its not higher-ed’s domain. It’s a continuum, and if we don’t work together in a real way, we’ll constantly fight each other for resources, and make things into these personal battles when really, it has to be about us making minor adjustments along the continuum for positive growth. For me, test scores going up means little if black kids aren’t graduating from college. For me, test scores going up means little if underserved communities aren’t getting hired. We’ve got to find a way to make this thing make sense in a very real way. For me, I always say, it’s about college graduation, it’s about college inclusion, it’s about safe communities, it’s about people getting hired. It’s not about raising the test scores. That’s just a measurement.
What do you think about charters and the wave of transformations that have gone on in the past few years? Give us the pros and the cons.
For me, community is the heart and should be the soul of why our schools operate and how they operate. And for me, it’s always been about inclusion, and upliftment. Schools have to uplift families and communities so that they can have the political standing, the economic standing, and the wherewithal to help themselves. What I love about charter schools is that they give opportunities for local folks to participate in their own upliftment. They give folks the raw skills to build themselves up, but also they can build themselves up through employment, through leadership, through political appointments. What I don’t like about the movement is that it’s too paternalistic. There’s too much of this, “I’m going to show you how to do it, and I’m not going to let go of the reins of this movement.” There is simply a lack of trust in the community. And for me, you can never truly become an educated populace until people are sustaining themselves. It’s not dreamy or unrealistic to think that communities can run themselves.
When you say I’m going to show you and I’m not going to let go of the reins, are you speaking to the Recovery School District, or are you speaking to the state?
I’ll get historic, I’ll give a comparison. At the turn of the century, W.E.B DuBois supported the American Missionary Association and other groups’ sponsorship of schools and them giving money and time and effort to blacks who were in the South who wanted to run schools for blacks. Because if you did not have an education there was no way you could actually thrive in a democracy. So DuBois absolutely wanted groups to help kick-start educational programs. And he endorsed the Freedmen’s Bureau, but he challenged the Freedmen’s Bureau to say, “Don’t participate so much that you extinguish the drive from the black members of the community.” They have to want education. Fast forward a hundred and some odd years to now. I wanted change. I wanted radical change, I wanted someone to show us change. But now we’re not teaching the people who use the system how to fish. I don’t see groups saying, “Hey, we want to teach this community how to write, and fill out a successful charter application and run a successful school.” I don’t see that good-faith effort to say, “Oh yeah, we’re going to make sure that the next hundred teachers we hire, are going to be from here.” That to me is the purpose of education. It’s not to do a sort of Bourbon Street-style educational program where people come in, have a good time, and leave. Education is a community-serving local institution that has to be built on the community sustaining itself.
I’m not from here. No question — so I’m not saying that you have to be born here. But I’m saying you have to invest significantly here, to where you have skin in the game. No pun intended, there’s a lot of black folks who’ve got lots of skin in the game. And they’re not getting the rewards. That model hurts a city. So I’m for reform. But I’m for reform that uplifts community.
What do you make of the RSD’s recent decision to combine enrollment for all direct-run schools and charter schools and to reserve a portion of seats for the immediate neighborhood? Good? Bad? Is that a violation of charter autonomy and an example of the heavy-handedness you’ve mentioned?
I think that as schools get better, we need to start to create areas that allow for choice, but at the same time enable organizations to be fiscally responsible. It doesn’t make sense to have kids to go from East Bank to West Bank. We’re transporting kids all over. One, it adds time, pollution, cars on the road. Folks should be walking to school. The ideal is always a community school. So an enrollment plan that is flexible enough to shrink the zones around schools, that’s what I’m for. But an enrollment plan is a mechanism when there’s not a lot of trust in the schools and what they’re doing. If schools are doing the right thing, I would want to see parents choose where their children go to school. But in this frenetic environment where there are no zones, then you have to have some kind of enrollment management because people are taking advantage of it. In the future, I would hope that schools are quality enough that people can walk to school, and that geographic barriers will help determine your enrollment status. Not completely, but, you know, I just believe in the ideal. Of having a good school in the community that people can go to.
Fast forward to now – how did you wind up at Loyola?
If I’m doing the same thing I did five years ago, that’s a problem. I know that for leaders there’s a time when you’ve got to move on. You’ve maxed out, you’re tired, people are tired of you. I didn’t see any change really in what I was going to provide in terms of leadership. I also felt at the time UNO was in flux. And so, I took a chance and left. It was more about who I am as a person and what I want. I think there’s a little bit of controversy, maybe, but it was really me who decided to make a change.
When you say a little bit of controversy, what are you referring to?
People asked, “Why would you leave?” There were some changes in our fiscal arrangement with the university, the schools, but that was not the main reason. The main reason was, I’ve heard that song before. At some point, I think leaders need to know when it’s time to move on. You can be in a position for two more years, three more years, and see the same thing. And I really felt that. I felt that I’ve served the best that I could in that capacity; let me try something else.
What exactly is the mission here at Loyola?
The mission is that we are to create educational initiatives and research initiatives that help the community understand the charter world. That’s saying it plainly. We are advocates, I would like to say scholarly advocates to help consumers understand what’s going on. And so, you’ll find me doing everything from moderating discussions to writing opinion pieces to doing research reports — all of those things, to help communities understand this complicated world of education reform.
When you say doing research reports, would a research report that you guys put out be similar to what the Cowen Institute would put out?
I would say it’s similar. Right now I’m working on a parental involvement study; we’re doing an inclusion study. I’ve been working on reports with the Brookings Institution and the Greater New Orleans Data Center. I do weekly commentary on education for WWNO, the Louisiana Weekly, and I contribute to the national online news outlet LOOP 21 as well. So I say every week there is some statement on education that comes out in some shape.
The parental involvement study – is there a link to other studies that you guys have released – I understand you just got here in May. Is this the first study you’ll be working on?
Yes, so that’s the first official study that I’ve carried over. And yeah, we’re doing an inclusion one, looking at inclusion in schools.
When are those coming out?
In the spring. Both will be out in the spring.
What are some of the gains you’ve made so far in this position? Can you show me some concrete examples?
I mean literally, every day I’m asked to do something. I mean every day. I really don’t have enough hands to help me do the things I do. So like today, I’m moderating a discussion on high school dropouts and pushouts for WYES. Tomorrow, or Friday, I’m presenting a new academic program that I helped develop.
Can you tell me about it?
Well, it hasn’t been approved yet, but we are presenting a new academic program for educational leaders who are not necessarily in schools. So people who are in youth prisons, after-school programs, juvenile justice issues, but not excluding schools. We really looked at the landscape and said, hey, there are a lot of educational things going on, but not in schools. Who’s educating those folks? The answer is a lot of non-profit organizations. We’re starting a new academic program. Saturday I’m speaking at the National Head Start Conference. And I just wrapped up a documentary on a mentoring program that I helped initiate.
What’s the name of the documentary?
“Close Ties.” We’re doing a new docu-series focusing on disconnected youth loosely. But I don’t like using that term. We always label the oppressed. I’d rather label some of these institutions that lose our youth.
Now that ties in with “The Angle,” the documentary on education that you’re involved with. Do you see “The Angle” as part of the center or is that a side project that you’ve worked on?
Basically I hired a documentarian to do a visual research project. So that’s what it is. I’m just using his modality, but I’m conducting the research. So I ask the questions, I distill the information. But instead of reading it you’ll be able to see it. I write a lot, but unfortunately a lot of people don’t pay attention to print. It’s a consequence of an anti-intellectual society. So I wanted to try something different. I wanted to say, hey, if we can put faces and words on a screen, will that help people understand? I don’t want to be seen as a guy that does things the regular way. I want to do things differently. We’re partnering with WWNO to do the American Graduate Series — a series of reports on the graduation process. That will come out this December. But probably the biggies are the new academic program.
Is this a new major available to all Loyola students?
No, this will be a master’s program.
Who’s impacted by your work?
I would say, I’m a voice for education. And that’s where I provide the most resource. When something happens, I have a response. I mean, between op-eds in The Times- Picayune, the Louisiana Weekly, the New Republic, WWNO, I provide pretty much weekly coverage of what happens but in a way that’s accessible. And if you know me, I’m very big on making knowledge accessible. Because I’ve done the traditional research thing, and it serves only the few policy makers who already know where they’re going. I really focus my attention on making things accessible, to the point where I wrote a quasi-fiction book on education reform, so that people could just kick back and read and understand what’s going on in New Orleans.
What is the center’s future?
Doing more research projects. Once we get a few dollars, we can start some research projects. So you’ll start to see research emerge in the spring. I also see us providing a stronger role in preparing future leaders through this master’s program. We’re going to have an academic side, a service arm, and a research arm. And that’s coming together nicely. You’ll see more and more as time moves on.
What are your future plans five years from now. Because you just mentioned you don’t want to be in the same spot in five years.
In five years? Man, I don’t know. I see myself in five years trying something different, for sure. But one thing I love is that I have a greater appreciation for Loyola University. The biggest transition for me has been moving from a public to a private university, in particular an Ignatian institution, because here you are constantly hearing things about goodness: God, ethics, morality. It’s very different from my public university upbringing. I mean, we’re getting prayers on email. And I didn’t really understand that explicit expression of values before. I get it now. You have to have a moral backbone. You have to have something to stand on.
What do you think the New Orleans educational landscape is going to look like in the next 5 years?
I think it will still be majority charter schools, but you’ll start to see some major centralizing features of it. Enrollment management is the first thing. Then when facilities come into play. How those are managed. How we distribute resources to schools. That’s going to be managed. So, yeah, they’ll be charter in name, they’ll still be autonomous schools, but in a more heavy-handed system.
Do you see the Orleans Parish School Board playing any role in the school system’s future?
I hope so. I mean, I think it’s also an ideal to have an elected board as your manager. I think it’s wrong when they get into the business of what goes on in the classroom, because that’s not their role. But as a policy decision maker or as a tax and bonding authority, yes. We need elected officials to be responsible. And so I hope they are there. And for anyone who feels that an elected board brings just too much baggage, they really don’t know the history of black people in the South. All we have is a vote, in a lot of ways. And I’m saying this as a black man. If I lose the power to vote for someone who will represent me, I don’t have much of a shot. So I’m always hoping that we produce quality people to run for elected office who care about community, who are invested in community. I know that there will be efforts to dismantle OPSB — to create an appointed board, or to split the powers of the board. I think the ideal is to have schools make school-based decisions, and for a school board to make tax and bonding decisions.