Promotions for future episodes of “Blackboard Wars,” the controversial Oprah Winfrey Network docu-series featuring John McDonogh Senior High School, will no longer describe the historic Esplanade Avenue high school as “one of the most dangerous schools in America.”
Steve Barr, founder and board chairman of the Future is Now charter school organization that took over John McDonogh at the beginning of the school year, told Future is Now Schools New Orleans executive board members, community members and students Tuesday that he spoke to the television show’s producers following an outcry from parents and community members over the depiction of the low-performing high school.
“These kids have been labeled for years,” said Future is Now board member Clarence Robinson. “It’s time to remove those labels. When we watched the show, it said Future is Now, not John Mac students. It appeared like an advertisement for [Future is Now] when it should be about the transformation of the students … not to say that this school is so bad, here comes [Future is Now] to save the day.”
Robinson also heads the John McDonogh Advisory Board, which is comprised of parents and community members. The advisory board will hold a meeting Tuesday night at 6 p.m.; The Lens will live-blog it below.
Robinson also defended an open letter the advisory board wrote recently to Winfrey, Barr, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and others, decrying the “negative, exploitative depiction” of students in the series.
“We couldn’t sugarcoat the fights if we wanted to, and we understand what the challenges are,” he said. “But we don’t want our kids stigmatized.”
Despite the show’s unwelcome reception among many students and members of the school community, people at the meeting agreed Tuesday that the national spotlight of “Blackboard Wars” has sparked outside action and ideas for school improvement.
Retired Jefferson Parish teacher Paulette Thompson said she attended Tuesday’s board meeting to offer to volunteer at John McDonogh because she was “very disturbed” by what she saw in the series.
“I’m willing to start today,” she said.
John McDonogh Principal Marvin Thompson said two students approached him last week about creating a mentoring program for their struggling peers. He recounted the students telling him that “before ‘Blackboard Wars,’ we never knew that so many kids here need help.”
“It stirred them,” Thompson said. “They’re looking to make an impact. This is what I’m talking about, being moved to action.”
In other business, the board discussed a Feb. 13 letter written by Future is Now board members Judith Dangerfield and Vaughn Fauria outlining concerns over decisions made recently on behalf of the Future is Now governing board “without the consent of the [governing] body.”
Dangerfield and Fauria said in the letter that Future is Now leaders failed to follow state open meetings law when they abruptly canceled the February board meeting. “The statement released to the press that the meeting was canceled by the members of the board is patently false, as there was no action, formal or informal, taken by the board,” they said in the letter.
According to Future Is Now Schools, the February meeting was canceled because of a lack of quorum.
Dangerfield said in the meeting that she and Fauria plan to propose the creation of compliance committees to evaluate the Future is Now charter management operator and its executive board.
“What we’re trying to do is be good board members,” Dangerfield said. “We accepted a role to be accountable to the community, and what we’re looking for at this point is our role in decisionmaking. At the end of the day the community is looking at us to hold Future is Now accountable.”
Barr told board members he agreed with the concerns echoed in the letter and said he would like to see one parent, one student and one teacher serving on the executive board.
“Trust and follow-through has been missing for so long,” Barr said. “In five years, we would love to have such a good board and such ownership that unlike other charter operators, we say this is yours now. This is a huge step towards that.”