How about real choice for neighborhoods close to Colton campus

By Chris O’Neill, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas is undeniably a busy man. Reorganizing the New Orleans public school system after Katrina and all the years of pre-Katrina neglect is a Herculean task. There’s so much to do, it leaves little time to pause and listen to suggestions, to remember to include every stakeholder in decision making, to consider all the creative options that might make the new schools better than the old ones. Yes, it is difficult to do all this, but that’s not to say it shouldn’t be done.

The RSD’s focus on open-enrollment charter schools as key to the turnaround should result, at the very least, in a broader range of choices for parents who want to send their kids to public school. Choice has always been a pillar of the charter school movement. But, choice doesn’t seem to be winning out in the neighborhoods surrounding Colton School on St. Claude Avenue. In a draft school assignment plan now being tweaked through a series of public meetings, the RSD has recommended reopening the historic public school as a charter operated by KIPP, a national charter management team already in charge of two schools on the campus of the old Frederick Douglass School a few blocks away, not to mention the former McDonogh 15 school in the French Quarter.

KIPP’s regimentation and extended school days have proven remarkably effective with some children, but hold little appeal to many parents living near Colton, myself included. We envision a more flexible school schedule, and a classroom philosophy geared towards a diversity of learning styles and student needs.

Colton is at the nexus of three old New Orleans neighborhoods, Marigny, St. Roch and Bywater. These neighborhoods are still home to many families without the option of educating their children privately, the group New Orleans public schools have historically served, or, too often, underserved. But also within these neighborhoods are middle income families – both black and white — who are eager, to send their kids to a neighborhood public school if given a choice with which they’re comfortable. The demographic shift of middle-income families to these neighborhoods in recent years has gone unnoticed by a lot of New Orleanians in other parts of town but is readily apparent to those who live and work downtown. Anyone who frequents Markey Park in Bywater or Washington Square Park in the Marigny is aware of a middle-income micro baby boom. The presence of this critical mass of middle-income kids in the neighborhood now makes it possible for the first time in years for Colton School, when it reopens after renovation, to draw together a truly diverse student body from the surrounding neighborhoods. And this trend, which began prior to Katrina, is likely to continue.

The former Colton facility on St. Claude Avenue is at the center of a neighborhood dispute.

Attracting middle-income families will enrich the public school system and set a positive example for other neighborhoods. But, it won’t happen if unilateral, un-transparent decisions are made by the RSD for the sake of expediency. The outsourcing of the majority of downtown schools to a single charter operator that has earned a reputation educating primarily underserved, low-income populations dishonors the idea that racial, cultural and socioeconomic diversity is possible in New Orleans public schools and that kids from different backgrounds can benefit by going to school together.
The RSD has congratulated itself for holding numerous public meetings about the design and layout of schools to be rebuilt or renovated, Colton included, but where were the meetings about the more important issue: who will operate those schools? Who will actually be educating our children and how will they do it?
As difficult and demanding as his job may be, Mr. Vallas must find the time to listen to neighborhood input. Why? Because in the modern history of the system, never has elected leadership been at a greater remove from local decision making. If he doesn’t take seriously the concern of parents in the community, many of those parents will have no recourse other than abandoning the public school system.
Now is not the time to conduct perfunctory meetings just to meet a statutory requirement. Now is the time to make the input at such meetings — particularly from parents — a fundamental part of the process of selecting charter school operators. Mr. Vallas should go out of his way to listen to concerned community members who live near Colton about the kind of charter operator to be awarded that school.

Chris O’Neill is a parent and a member of the Colton Group, which is advocating for neighborhood involvement at the former school campus.

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  • SA

    Is the discourse that a charter operator that focuses on underserved students that MAY be low income can’t educate middle income students of different backgrounds? Also if this operator has “proven remarkably effective with some children” can’t be effective with all children? It just seems that although the discussion of diversity is easy to put on paper but this group seems not to want to be the change they want to see and enroll their students in a KIPP school.

    In addition, there is an overwhelming assertion that these students are low-income. Is that stated somewhere or is that an assumption that is just being made?

  • Angelique Lapeyre Vialou

    As a parent living downtown in the Faubourg Marigny, I find it unacceptable that the nearest 5 star school is miles away and on the other side of town. All I want is what ALL of our children deserve: a first rate education to prepare them to reach their highest ambitions whatever they may be. Downtown is sorely lacking in a truly transformative school that serves the needs of ALL students under one roof.

  • reese johanson

    no program, no matter how good it is, will be successful for all children. that is why we need a variety of educational models from which to choose. being that KIPP is already represented in the immediate area twice, i am for supporting kipp where they currently reside and applauding kipp’s success, but would prefer a different option to be housed in the colton building. i understand that the kipp in the douglas building want colton because their building needs renovation. why doesn’t the city renovate douglas for kipp and let colton take on a different school model? or perhaps the city gave douglas to kipp thinking that kipp would renovate it themselves with the funds from their corporate machine…? now kipp doesn’t want to pony up for their kids so they and abandoning the building the city gave them to take over another that the city is renovating???? i say kipp make due in douglas, city renovate for kipp and let colton evolve into what the neighborhood needs based on what the tax paying residents request. oh and yes, the kipp model was designed for low income families in undeserved communities. that is not to assume that all kipp students come from that socio-economic demographic, but kipp was designed to target kids from that “group”.

  • C.W.Cannon

    SA offers the tired old canard above that parents unwilling to submit their children to the shut-up-and-repeat-after-me pedagogy of KIPP are rejecting the racial or income background of other KIPP students rather than rejecting the pedagogical model. It doesn’t matter how often or how eloquently families who prefer a different school model than KIPP clarify the point, the divisive strawman of race and social segregation will always be raised. But why is it assumed that families with meager incomes are unanimous in the desire for a school that drills and requires long hours? Is the discourse that low-income children need “discipline” while the children of irresponsible bohemian parents (coded white) want “special privileges?” Is it assumed that low-income families have no valuable cultural patrimony to be taught and learned AWAY from school, at home and in the community? And what about the labor argument? If KIPP is the undisputed champion of working class African-American New Orleanians, why doesn’t it hire more working class African-American New Orleanians to teach? Like actual parents, for example? Who decided that middle-class suburban childless young people are the best role models and, despite the obvious deficit in teaching experience, the best teachers for New Orleanian kids of any social background?

  • Michael J. Deas

    As a resident of downtown New Orleans, I would like to add my voice to those of parents concerned about the future of the Colton School on St. Claude Avenue. The Colton School is a structure that is both historic and architecturally significant, centrally located, and its future will play a vital role in the potential rejuvenation of this long-dormant part of the city.

    As such, I am strongly opposed to a takeover of the school by the KIPP organization. KIPP already runs two public schools in the immediate vicinity, and to hand over leadership of yet a third school will give KIPP a literal monopoly on the education of young children in downtown New Orleans. While the KIPP program has proved a successful model for both McDonogh 15 and the Frederick Douglass School, also on St. Claude Avenue, it does not entitle them to a stranglehold on all schools in the area. Their teaching method (which employs rote-like drills, complete with sloganeering) may be appropriate for some children, it’s not necessarily appropriate for all children.

    I am therefore asking, like so many concerned parents in the neighborhood, for a choice — a choice in who will eventually operate the Colton school, and how they will run it. Shouldn’t parents who have staked their lives and their livelihoods to reside in this community be entitled to some voice in how their children are educated, instead of having that decision made for them, behind closed doors?

    One of the few positive outcomes of Hurricane Katrina has been a rebirth of the educational system in New Orleans, a system that was for many years divisive and dysfunctional. The Colton School has the potential to be pivotal
    lynchpin in the ongoing development of the City’s school system as a whole, and in the blossoming Bywater neighborhood in particular. And as such, I am simply asking for openness in the RSD’s decision-making process, and that neighborhood parents be given a voice in choosing who will operate their school — and how it’s eventually run.

    Isn’t that what democracy is all about?