As Jeff Duncan-Andrade coached a room full of charter-school educators on how to connect with students who face violence every day, Elizabeth Ostberg was dealing with her own school tragedy miles away.
The alternative high school she runs, The NET Charter High School, lost one of its students two days before. Leonard George, 18, was killed in Gentilly on Wednesday, along with his mother and 20-year-old sister.
“Leonard is the second student we have lost this summer to violence,” the school said in the statement, issued 30 minutes after Duncan-Andrade’s talk.
“Every day, our staff, our families, and our students work incredibly hard to build a more peaceful and productive future,” it read. “And every day, our staff, our families, and our students bear witness to the deep trauma the city’s violence inflicts upon our youth.”
Duncan-Andrade, the keynote speaker at the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools’ sixth annual conference in Baton Rouge on Friday, knows what the school is going through. The charter school organization has close to 80 charter members, mostly in New Orleans.
During 21 years as a high school teacher in Oakland, Calif., he’s seen how violence affects kids. He’s attended students’ funerals. And he’s been recognized nationally for working with urban youth undergoing trauma.
He argues that educators can best reach kids by avoiding the often-touted anthem that education is the vehicle to move them out of their troubled home lives. Instead, he says kids should be instructed to use their education to help end poverty and the social ills that come with it.
In his talk Friday, he said he’s never understood the “narrative” that talented, at-risk kids are different from their peers, and that they should use education to escape their environments.
As a student, he said, “I don’t want to hear about how I can escape that. I want to hear about how you are ending that.”
He called these high-performing, impoverished kids “roses growing from concrete,” referencing the popular poem by Bay Area-rapper Tupac Shakur, who was killed 17 years ago today. Duncan-Andrade said the concrete is the violence, poverty and other social ills students face today.
He criticized educators for ignoring those problems and obsessively focusing on test scores. “And well, how’s that working out for you?” he joked, to chuckles from the audience.
The failure to address the core social problems extends beyond the classroom, he said.
“Syria is seen as a bigger national crisis in this country then my block,” he said. Kids recognize that, he said, and they come to school looking for educators to acknowledge their struggle.
He also pointed to research that shows some students are misdiagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder when they really have post-traumatic stress disorder. Students are prescribed medication that suppresses their feelings, he said, rather than allowing them to face them head-on. That can be “a death sentence.”
The audience of educators seemed to take his words to heart. He received a standing ovation from the crowd of nearly 200, and people waited in line to shake his hand and exchange business cards.
Eighty miles away, the approach that Ostberg and her staff took in responding to Leonard George’s death was in line with his message: “This trauma,” the school said in its statement, ”prevents many of them from accessing the opportunities and lives they deserve.”
Correction: The original version of this story misstated Ostberg’s name. (Sept. 27, 2013)