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John McDonogh charter board meeting explodes in tears and anger

A crowd of about 50 showed up for the charter board meeting. photo: Della Hasselle

John McDonogh High School’s charter board cut short its monthly meeting Tuesday night after a shouting match erupted between board members and an audience of about 50, including teachers, students and neighborhood activists.

Snippets of video promoting the Oprah Winfrey Network’s new program, “Blackboard Wars” proved especially provocative. They depict the school as deeply troubled.

“It was like two parents stuck in a divorce who put the kids in the middle,” Kwame Smith, an educator who ran unsuccessfully last fall for a seat on the Orleans Parish School Board, said about Tuesday’s  meeting of the school’s charter operator, Future Is Now: New Orleans.

An official goal of the meeting was for the board to sign a memorandum of understanding with the John McDonogh Advisory Committee, a community organization formed to support the charter organization and address concerns like those aired Tuesday, including lack of supplies and student resources.

“People are well-intended, but we won’t get anything accomplished if there’s no organized forum with which to address these issues,” said Clarence Robinson, a John McDonogh alumnus who chairs the advisory committee and is a member of the charter board.

Goals specified in the memorandum include augmenting staff and financial resources, organizing volunteers and holding  conflict-resolution meetings.

The signing was delayed, however, when public criticism of the board degenerated into tears and screaming among  students, parents and teachers.

“When you go through change like this, I expect opposition to the change that we have here,” school principal Marvin Thompson said. In a lengthy speech Thompson addressed controversies that have been brewing since last year, when the Recovery School District overruled calls to keep the charter in local hands and awarded it to Future Is Now Schools, a national organization.

“I’ll be frank with you and I don’t mean to be a smart aleck and I don’t mean this in any other way—I don’t care how you feel about me,” Thompson said, addressing his critics. “I really don’t. I didn’t come here for any grown-up in this room,” he added, by way of saying that students are his priority concern.

Thompson added that he finds it “appalling” that his efforts to turn around a failing and sometimes violent school have been met by backlash and criticism.

As the outbursts erupted, Thompson had just finished outlining a plan to improve attendance, which he said hovered between roughly 75 and 80 percent on any given day.

His goal, he added, was to get the attendance rate up to 90 percent. To achieve that number, he laid out a plan to help kids make up missed days.

Students will be able to make up lost time by attending an after-school program from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays; from 1:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays and on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon, Thompson announced. Every four hours will count as one school day.

Thompson said he was disappointed to discover how many absences some students have accumulated—15, 30, even 40 or more.

Thompson also announced plans for a new student advisory board at the school, as outlined in the school’s agreement with the charter organization. The board is meant to help teachers connect with students about issues such as study skills, conflict resolution and attendance.

The board also addressed plans to transfer a science teacher and a history teacher from John McDonogh to Walter L. Cohen High School. Future is Now runs grades 11 and 12 at Cohen while the school transitions to a charter held by New Orleans College Prep.

Many parents and community board members, eager to address issues not outlined in the board meeting’s agenda, stayed nearly two hours after the meeting officially ended.

The Oprah documentary, segments of which were shown at the meeting, drew considerable comment.

“You’re calling this school the worst school in America. There’s a racist factor here,” said Jerome Smith, a longtime community organizer who leads the Tambourine and Fan youth group. “Somebody should apologize to the student body because they are branded for being nothing.”

Parents also complained about the building’s disrepair and lack of library books. They said they wanted more input on spending.

At least two students spoke out in favor of Future is Now, however, citing an improved curriculum, more attentive teachers and better morale.

“You can get mad, but in the past year there has been a huge change,” senior Erick Dillard told the parents and community members.  “At some point you’re going to have to get off this high horse, and realize that the teachers here have been helping us.”

After a long night of heated discussions with community members, filmmakers, board members and former employees, at least one parent urged that the focus be brought back to the students.

“All I care about is the children,” said Cynthia Parker, whose grandson attends the school. “As long as they are learning, that’s all that matters – I don’t care who is running the show.”

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  • ALICE MIDKIFF

    Why was Marvin Thompson taking all the heat? I don’t know Mr. Thompson, but where was Mr. (Green Dot) Steve Barre who had to pay back $50,000 in questionable expenses so he could come to New Orleans and get the green light to run the campus from John White, BESE, RSD (yada yada yada). It’s all about the money, not poor people’s children (the students) whose choices remain limited despite all the PR that is put out by the Louisiana Department of Education.

  • bro keith X

    First of all, I went to John Mac years ago, and the school was in disreapair then. We tried to create a program for those kids, but couldn’t get any support from city officials, or school officials. Bro. Rob, and interventionist at the school was the only person recepted to our intention, but he was not in a position to change things at that school. The school was doomed to fail! Just like Cohen, and until city officials, state officials MAN/WOMAN-UP and admit their deficits, a lot more schools will go the route of John Mac & Cohen, because white-folks got what they came for: The hi-jacking of Fortier!!! The rest are just casualities of war. Its sad when a majority black city, continue to exist under Slavery conditions. John White/Kira Orange-Jones are plants by NY to guide the south toward northern slave-thinking!!!

  • http://chieforganizer.org Wade Rathke

    Steve Barr’s Charter School “Fake” Reality Show Outrages New Orleans Community

    This New Orleans high school on elegant Esplanade Avenue is called “John Mac,” short for John McDonogh High School. This was my “district” high school as a teenager in New Orleans. The imposing building isn’t two miles from Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, City Park, and Bayou St. John. But, somehow in the televised frenzy of serial exploitation of anything and everything in the name of “reality” and the profit from any viewer eyeballs that can be held to a screen, John Mac is about to debut on the Oprah Winfrey OWN channel in March as “Blackboard Wars” with a new sobriquet as “one of the most dangerous and under-performing schools in the country.”

    Why would any school district ever give permission to such a breach of their children’s privacy? Whose interest could this possibly serve?

    Well of course the school is a Recovery School District (RSD) operation run by the State of Louisiana and turned over only this year to a charter operation. No sign from the report on this mess in the Baton Rouge-based The Advocate that the state or even RSD had anything to do with this. They might have wanted such a show in some passive-hostile way to make the case that the school sucked, and they were bringing in charters to save the day. On the other hand the state education department people are from Louisiana and Louisiana is the home of a bakers’ dozen worth of weird reality shows, so truthfully they would have known that there was really no way that anyone ever comes out looking good from any of this, especially Louisiana. Ex-governor Edwin Edwards, recent out of prison and married to a new young blonde just announced one called “The Governor’s Wife” or some such: people do this for money – period!

    So, let’s look at the charter operator, because that might be the real angle.

    Steve Barr and his latest charter operation called Future is Now just took over John Mac. Barr is well known among charter reformers for work in California with Green Dot, which he founded and then left in recent years. Barr had the reputation of taking on the hardest schools in Los Angeles and making a difference. Initially, Green Dot also stood out because they were pro-union, rather than anti-union, and agreed to contracts to protect the teachers. Five years ago I talked to him on the phone several times about partnering with ACORN to do something with New Orleans schools.

    Nonetheless, it is hard not to believe anything other than that Barr agreed to John Mac taking a reality show beating in order to promote his new charter operations and for personal aggrandizement.

    In the donnybrook reported by Kari Dequine Harden from The Advocate, it is harder to avoid the facts that argue that case. Let’s start here:

    “Barr said the show’s producers approached him several years ago about documenting the turnaround of a high school under his management.”

    Barr just came on the scene at McDonogh last summer. At best only the fall semester is under their belt. If there were a turnaround, it wouldn’t have happened in a matter of a few months. Barr couldn’t be much clearer. This is about him, not McDonogh, its student body, and their challenges.

    Pure promotion? Sure! To establish that McDonogh is among the “most dangerous” schools in America, the filmmakers pulled a clip of a tragic incident that was 10 years old. The principal claimed on the air that several students were killed. In fact there was one killed, which was tragic enough that it needed be blown up for its more exploitative impact. Talking about McDonogh as “most dangerous,” former McDonogh administrator Shawon Bernard asked, “Based on what?”

    In fact it seems that the new co-principal, Marvin Thompson, was stumbling all over himself as he tried to put fact and fantasy together, and it seems Bernard nailed him repeatedly in the meeting:

    “Bernard asked producers to make sure that their facts are accurate. She pointed to inaccuracies in a YouTube video during which Thompson talks to a group of volunteers in the school’s auditorium three months following his arrival….In the video, Thompson said that when he arrived none of the students he encountered fit the stereotypes of being part of a violent and dangerous school, but they were frustrated with the image and negative legacy. However, Bernard pointed out that Thompson himself was contributing to the misconceptions in the video….Bernard, who said she was in charge of books at the school, took offense at Thompson’s assertion in the video that, ‘We are actually going to give them books for the first time.’ ‘We had books,’ she said.” (Emphasis added!)

    You get the picture. Reports from the meeting go on and on like this. The charter folks would make claims, and then community residents would dispute them with facts, and then Barr would accuse them of “trespass” and “terrorizing teachers.”

    A volunteer said she was “troubled by the exploitation of the children” and accused Barr by saying, “…you are here to profit from our children and our community.” Barr responded that he was not receiving money personally from the producers or the show and claimed that the school would “receive a per episode sum of money, but Barr said he could not confirm the amount.”

    What? Are you kidding me? Are we really supposed to believe that the producers reached out to Barr to do this show, that Oprah picked up the show, and that they agreed to a per episode amount, but that Barr is clueless about the exact number” Come on!

    Jerome Smith, a well regarded civil rights and community activist and leader for decades in New Orleans and in this area, was quoted saying that “the film makes it appear that ‘no one in the community can serve the community,’ and that ‘the political games played on the children are astounding.’” That’s just about a death sentence in terms of community support.

    Barr claimed the film would offered some rational for the film but most of his reported argument would be his standard rap for selling his charter program, which kind of brings us full circle in asking as so many members of the community did, “Who benefits from this mess other than Barr?” Certainly no one in New Orleans is uplifted by fantasy and stereotypes.

    I was left wondering as well because even though I had a clue about this weird docudrama reality show, I know people well who work with Barr and this operation. We had reached out and offered to connect them to community organizations. No follow-up. No reply. I had offered them space at Fair Grinds for training or staff meetings. No follow-up. No reply.

    Autonomy, unaccountability, and too much of this charter mess is simply not about education or the children, and the coming OWN series “Blackboard Wars” and its continued attack on New Orleans, the community, the students, and our schools is part and parcel of yet more gut punches at our struggling city and its people. Eventually it needs to be about us, and not about them. “Blackboard Wars” is shaping up as another tragic case study on that the constant colonial theme oppressing the city now and seriously depressing our future.

  • Raven

    These people,Old teacher& so called community leaders(SOME NOT ALL),made the meeting all about themselves NOT about the students of John McDonogh, those people came into our school pointing fingers & throwinf FOUL WORDS towards the wrong people, they were there because most of the people in that room either one was fired from the school before fin stepped in or two that thought & felt that they could or can get the job done better than ANY OTHER TEACHER IN THE SCHOOL, the meeting was suppose to be about the STUDENTS & the SCHOOL, & as a student & daughter of an alumni at John McDonogh High SCHOOL, I APPLAUDE what the TEACHERS, FACULTY & STAFF AT JOHN MCDONOGH HAS DANE FOR ME & THE REST OF THE STUDENTS AT JOHN MCDONOGH.

  • ALICE MIDKIFF

    Excellent!, Wade Rathke. Well worth the time to read it.

  • Jane Doe

    Has anyone looked into Marvin Thompson’s past? I teach in a district where he was the Superintendent for a whole year and a half, before he was run out of town in disgrace, along with all his henchmen.The man is a scam artist, in business totally for himself and his never-ending self promotion. It took the next Superintendent years to undo the damage he caused.