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‘Blackboard Wars’ still divides John Mac, but leaders say they’re focused on improvement

Community outcry may have caused the “dangerous” label to be removed from John McDonogh Senior High School in the controversial documentary series “Blackboard Wars,” but locals are still lamenting about what they’re seeing in the school and the series.

Several parents, teachers and other community members spoke out about curriculum cuts, lackluster test preparation and crumbling building conditions at a combined Tuesday night meeting of the John McDonogh Advisory Committee and Future Is Now: New Orleans board of trustees.

“What I’ve seen for six episodes is very little to no education going on at this school,” said Coach Frank Buckley, a math teacher and John Mac alumni from the class of 1982, about the series.

“I’m looking at mold outside the building. It’s falling down, and there are kids in here,” he said. “It doesn’t look like the school I attended … it looks like a mental institution.”

Buckley echoed the concerns of a few other parents who spoke out during the public comment portion of the board meeting about everything from teacher qualifications to a lack of lights in the school’s auditorium.

Community members also spoke about kids at both John McDonogh and Walter L. Cohen High School having trouble receiving Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) scholarships and scoring well on  their ACTs.  Some hypothesized that it was because teachers in the students’ classrooms weren’t certified or qualified.

In response to several comments, Future Is Now Schools founder Steve Barr said that the board was working on things members could control – and that didn’t include what happened in the editing room of the Oprah Winfrey Network or how to access the nearly $34 million that was promised to go towards John Mac’s renovations as part of the New Orleans School Facilities Master Plan.

Barr and other school staff did say, however, that they were working on curriculum development and a plan to talk to the Recovery School District about John McDonogh’s building renovations, which he said have been slated for 2014-15.

The plan, Barr added, is to level John McDonogh and rebuild it. The school would be in a temporary location for at least two years during the construction.

“It’s hard to build a culture in a school that’s moving every two years,” Barr added. “I just don’t want this school to fall into a traveling sideshow.”

John McDonogh High School Principal Marvin Thompson said the school was focusing on how to improve students’ ACT scores with a new prep program to better help them succeed in applying to colleges in the future.

During the meeting, board members and school staff also discussed how to improve attendance and the school’s graduation rate.

Normal daily attendance rates ran about 80 percent at the beginning of the school year, Thompson said. Now, that has dropped to around 70 to 75 percent. Attendance rates fall especially low on school days just before or after holidays and breaks. Thompson estimated that on those days, the percent of students attending can fall into the “50-something percent” range.

A social worker is holding individual conferences with students who have 10 or more unexcused absences. Additionally, the school has implemented an automatic calling system designed to alert parents when their children are absent. It is also helping students make up the days they missed, Thompson said.

According to Thompson, the state considers 10 or more unexcused absences to be “excessive.” John McDonogh has started afterschool and Saturday sessions to give students opportunities to make up the days they’ve missed. In the past, students have had the chance to recover as many as 58 days, he said.

“We’ve put together a really comprehensive approach,” Thompson said. “We are trying to establish an expectation of attendance.”

The principal’s report also focused on graduation rates.

Out of 112 seniors, 75 are expected to graduate, according to data shared at the meeting. That would mean about 67 percent of the seniors are headed for graduation. Another 37 seniors have passed their courses and are hoping to pass the Louisiana Graduation Exit Exam.

The school also got 141 applications for next school year, with 127 students expressing intent to return, Thompson said.

Thompson said he was focused on recruiting efforts, specifically for eighth graders at McDonogh 42 Elementary Charter School about four blocks away on 1651 N. Tonti Street.

John McDonogh sends students, the athletic coach and guidance counselors to other schools to recruit new students, he said.

Other plans for next year include block scheduling and English Honors courses, Thompson said.

Thompson also announced that the school would start looking at a dual enrollment plan for students who are interested in college prep and others interested in career tech.

Thompson said that he met with officials at Dillard University, and that the university’s college-based Upward Bound program for high school students will be brought to John McDonogh this summer.

He said he’d like to give students more opportunities to take rigorous courses for college credit.

“We need to start demystifying college,” Thompson said. “Also, not every kid wants to go to college, and life experiences themselves can dictate what a child can or wants to do.”

The school is eligible to apply for several federal school improvement grants, ranging from $100,000 to millions of dollars, Thompson said. Applications are due starting in late April.

He and other board members agreed that if the school receives any grants, they would be used as “seed money” to fund processes that yield results rather than fund people or new positions.

During an update from JMAC, the advisory committee president Clarence Robinson said he wanted to see some documents from the board during June’s meeting, including a status report on handbooks, personnel information, the operating budget and special education status reports.

Robinson also recommended some rules for school security, such as restricting visitations to classrooms.

Felicia Moran, a member of the advisory committee, announced that so far about 75 dresses had been donated for senior prom as part of a drive organized with John McDonogh’s alumni association.

During his report, Barr announced that Creative Alliance of New Orleans was working with students. He said that students will have opportunities to work in creative environments, like holding a summer internship at WWOZ community radio station.

The students are also receiving more medical services through partnerships with ophthalmologists, dentists and audiologists, all of whom have volunteered to work with the students, according to a report given during the meeting.

Finally, Future Is Now: New Orleans board members Judith Dangerfield and Vaughn Fauria discussed how to make their board operations more transparent and accessible to the public.

Dangerfield said that she wants Future Is Now: New Orleans to have more decision-making and fiscal authority from the charter management organization now that they are a full executive board.

“We ask that basically Future Is Now works for us,” Dangerfield said. “We want to be responsible.”

Dangerfield also suggested that the board be more welcoming at meetings, with more chairs and a fair opportunity for the public to speak.

“Everybody should have a voice,” Dangerfield said.

Toward the end of the meeting, Barr suggested going into executive session, but when the Lens reporter and another community member asked which segment of the open meetings law was applicable, the board said it was a “personnel issue.”

When pressed further, the board didn’t have a specific answer about whether it was related to the “character, professional competence” or any of the other qualifications required, or whether the person “may require that such discussion be held at an open meeting.”

Dangerfield suggested that the board not go into executive session, and the board voted to end the meeting instead.

In addition to Barr, Robinson, Dangerfield and Fauria, board members John Hope, Kenneth Gill and Charles Fenet were all present. Principal Marvin Thompson was also present, as well as several members of school staff, some students and about two dozen community members.

New Chief Operating Officer Chris Lozier was not present.

The next board meeting is scheduled for May 7.

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  • August G. Schwartz

    Of course there are plans to tear down the school. IT IS the crumbling building, IT IS the mold. NOT. The easiest thing is to tear down the building, so lets do it. PS I attended LSU in the mid 70’s, in the School of Landscape Architecture. At the time our facilities were not the best, some described them as horrid. We the LSU Landscape Architecture program have built and maintained the third highest rated graduate program in the nation. Third behind Harvard and Cal Berkley. We enjoy the highest rank in the Undergraduate Program. IT AINT THE BUILDING, PEEPS; recognizing that might be the first step in solving your problem.